My dad and I went to see the new Ridley Scott film, Prometheus, last night in Aggieland. The film purports to be a “prequel” to Scott’s 1990s Alien series–but the only sign of this is the last thirty seconds, wherein is spawned a recognizably Alien-like alien from another (more human or Titan-like) alien.
Apart from this brief reference, the film stands alone as an allegorical sci-fi drama.
The first thing to note is that Mr. Scott has disdained to evolve with the industry, preferring melodramatics and an orchestral soundtrack befitting 2001 or Jurassic Park to more interesting sci-fi filmmaking like that recently undertaken by younger writer and director Brit Marling. (See Marling’s Another Earth if you have not already. I am still waiting for her new flick, The Sound of My Voice, to be released in Portland.)
Leaving those superficial elements, note must certainly be made of the plot’s obvious allegorical implications. The main character, Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace), is a scientist determined to meet her makers (which, going off of various cave paintings, she believes to be the aliens) yet also persisting in the Christian faith of her father. The lion’s share of the allegorical import lies in the (rather ill-performed) anguish over the dual facts of humans’ having been made by the Titan-aliens and the Titan-aliens’ intent to destroy Earth.
(SPOILER ALERT: The film’s main twist comes when the Titan-aliens are revealed to be mortal, thereby raising the question of their having been made by another, more titanic, Maker. Thus, Shaw’s faith in a divine creator over and above the Titan-aliens is not so much vindicated as left untouched. Such a “back to square one”denouement imitates many other sci-fi films–perhaps most famously the Planet of the Apes movies.)
In addition to being shallowly allegorical, the plot leaves the viewer guessing as to why the Titan-aliens might wish to destroy humankind. To Mr. Scott’s discredit, the possibility of humanity’s corruption (what theological parlance might call “sinfulness” or “depravity”) as a sufficient cause for annihilation never emerges–despite the obvious references to interpersonal (and intrapersonal) brokenness such as infertility and filial strife.
(Another aside is required here: I have been using the term Titan-alien to refer to the large white human-like aliens the film features, but the film itself leaves them unnamed. They seem to represent the mythical Titans in the sense that they “stole the fire” of creating from the gods (or God). But the humans in the story also seem to stand-in for the Titans, insofar as they hope to plunder the divine treasury to discover the truth about human existence–a hope the name of their ship, “Prometheus,” serves to confirm. Perhaps these coincidences are hints of deeper complexity than I have heretofore recognized…)
All the above brings us to an important observation about the cultural significance of Prometheus. If the humans are to represent the mythical hero Prometheus unironically, and if Dr. Shaw’s faith is not stripped from her but in some small, indirect way affirmed, then Ridley Scott can be said to be Hollywood’s idealistic pundit. Not idealistic in the common sense, mind you, but in the philosophical sense. Specifically, Scott seems to wish to continue the projects of the great German idealists of the 19th century.
Here’s Jürgen Moltmann on the nature of this project:
For Goethe, Schiller, Ranke, Karl Marx and many others, Prometheus became the great saint of the modern age. Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods, stood in contrast to the figure of the obedient servant of God. It was possible to transform even Christ into a Promethean figure. Along with that there frequently went a philosophical, revolutionary millenarianism which set itself to build at last that realm of freedom and human dignity which had been hoped for in vain from the God of the divine servant.
(Theology of Hope, p. 24)
In contrast to both this idealistic presumption and the postmodern despair (epitomized in Camus’ “thinking clearly and hoping no more”), Moltmann proposes a thoroughly Christian attitude of hope. Only hope, he maintains, is life-giving. Further, hope–and neither presumption nor despair–is really realistic.
As our generation enters an era disillusioned by scientific knowledge (even as scientific discourse marches onward as the only permissible discourse in public reasoning; Ridley Scott obviously got only one of these memos and not the other!), we would do well to remember that the Gospel alone provides the hope necessary for authentic existence.