An expedition goes to a remote planet where there was an outpost of beings from another world called the Engineers. The members of the expedition piece together that the Engineers had created life on earth, and that those on this outpost had created a vicious bio-weapon (the aliens of the Alien movies) for the purpose of destroying human life on earth, but their bio-weapon got out of control and killed the Engineers on the outpost. The movie ends with the emergence of the first of the aliens that we saw in the older movies, and with our sole-surviving intrepid female expeditioner taking off for the Engineers’ home plant to solve the mystery of why they created us and why they want to destroy is. Both of which we will presumably find out in the sequels to come.
What to make of all of this? And, why we will take Alien over Prometheus as the more philosophically mature movie.
The first thing we should note is that Prometheus takes itself seriously as evoking mythological depths. First, the title, from the Titan who brought to humanity not only fire, but technology and the arts. Then references to movies with mythic dimensions. 2001, with hints of assisted evolution and artificial intelligence in HAL. Blade Runner with a shared director and androids. Alien, with a shared director, and for which Prometheus is a prequel. And finally H. R. Giger, who did designs for the Alien movies and for Prometheus, and whose work evokes a futurist bio-machine eroticism.
Not afraid of pretention, Ridley Scott, Prometheus’s director says, “we are talking about gods and engineers. Engineers of space.”
So, just what is the mythic theme of Prometheus?
Joseph Campbell describes two views of creation. In the Middle East, the view is that the earth is dead and spirit comes from without. From Genesis 2:7: “And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.”
In the East, the notion is that humans are natural creatures, and spirit is in all things. Thus spirit does not come from without, but is an integral part of both humans and nature.
This second view of creation provides far less material for a dramatic filmic plot line; something like the special effects in the movie, The Tree of Life—visually spectacular, from single cell organisms to dinosaurs and all, but little dramatic tension.
The first view of creation, which sees it coming from outside is, of course, rich with dramatic possibility, the possibility of our meeting up with the outside existence that created us.
The most powerful expression of this is in 2001: A Space Odyssey. It is the intervention of an outside existence in the form of the monolith that transforms one tribe of pre-humans into symbolic creatures, capable of realizing the potential of a bone as a weapon, which, on being tossed into the air, arcs into a satellite in orbit. A brilliant image evoking a thousand page thesis on the origins of technology. And it is another encounter with that outside existence with transforms Bowman into the space child, the next stage of human existence.
So 2001 sees us as becoming human as a result of outside intervention, but remains vague about the nature of the outsiders. A good dramatic move.
Prometheus, on the other hand, is more explicit about the outsiders. The motivations of the outsiders, called the Engineers, is unknown, sure to be revealed in the sequels, but we are shown what they did.
The Engineers send a representative to a primitive earth devoid of life. His body breaks up, spilling his organic matter and his DNA into the water, thus beginning the development of life that leads to us. And, after billions of years of evolution, our DNA comes together the same as that of the Engineers.
Prometheus is in a long line of movies that see either life on earth, or human consciousness, or civilization as coming from without. Star Gate is an example, in which a proto-Egyptian alien race brought civilization to the earth. As I say above, there is a lot more dramatic potential in this scenario than in one in which we do it all on our own.
Ridley Scott is explicit about this notion of outside influence, referring to the work of Erich von Däniken who, in Chariots of the Gods? suggests that ancient astronauts directed the building of the Pyramids and other ancient monuments. Scott says, “NASA and the Vatican agree that [it is] almost mathematically impossible that we can be where we are today without there being a little help along the way… That’s what we’re looking at [in the film], at some of Erich von Däniken’s ideas of how did we humans come about.”
To avoid becoming intemperate, let me just say that I cannot overstate how, shall we say, annoying I and many others who study ancient civilizations find von Däniken. It is bigotry to say that ancient people were not capable of building pyramids, and, when we get closer to today, we have ample documents of the day-to-day work of the building of such monuments as St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome. With no mention of space aliens.
But there is something else.
As capricious as the Engineers are, it is probably comforting to some to know why we are here—something created us—and what will become of us—our creators have a plan.
The alternative to creation from the outside is… it’s just us. We are here alone. We alone have brought ourselves to where we are, we alone have to make sense of our existence in the grand sense, and of our individual lives. And we alone have to create what we are going to do and going to become next. Too scary for many. And a lot more difficult as a basis for drama.
(Added August 19, 2012)
We should make one more observation. The original Alien movie was really scary, not only as a science fiction horror movie, but also in a very philosophical way.
There is a wasp the stings and paralyzes a tarantula. It then drags the tarantula into a hole, lays it eggs in the body of the tarantula, and covers over the hole. The juvenile wasps, as they grow, feed on the living tarantula. Truly horrible. But if you think about it, this scenario is not uncommon. Life lives on life, a fact disguised but not changed when we buy meat in plastic wrap at the grocery store. Life is a horror show.
One of the great things about Alien was that it could be seen this way. The alien queen was not evil, just a “wasp” living out its normal life cycle, as we do when we grow and then eat chickens. It was this stark facing of reality that give Alien much of its power. Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley is not fighting evil, but uncaring nature which can be benign, but just as easily deadly. The alien queen is a force of nature, like a flood or a volcano.
But for many, this starkness it too much to take. They cannot accept that life is and must be this way. There must have been a mistake. The world was created good and pure. Everybody was a vegan. Then evil came into the world and screwed things up, and someday we will get rid of that evil and get back to purity. This dualistic approach originates in the Middle East. We see it in the Biblical religions, and it is highly explicit in Manichaeism, which sees a struggle between a good, spiritual world of light, and an evil, material world of darkness.
In his Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche has Zarathustra (another name for Zoroaster), who had originally taught this kind of dualism, return to say, in effect, “Look, I know I taught you that dualistic stuff, but that was when you were young and immature. Now it is time for you to grow up and see the world as it really is.” With that attitude, we will take Alien over Prometheus as the more philosophically mature movie.