Ridley Scott’s Prometheus as Metaphor: The Search, Seizure, and Salvation of Humanity

(Spoiler alert, elements of the plot will be revealed.)

The movie “Prometheus” accomplishes more than serving as a prequel to the “Alien” series.  Ridley Scott did an incredible piece of work in assembling complex storylines and impressive settings to create an odyssey of intellectual, moral, and spiritual wanderings.  What unfolds before us, and within us, is an exploration what it means to be human: its best, brilliant, base and brutal aspects.  In this movie review/literary analysis, I discuss how these aspects of humanity are explored and excavated throughout the movie.  As a spoiler alert, some characters and parts of the movie are revealed . . .

The Search

“Prometheus” keenly conjures our need as humans to know and understand where we come from.  Are we created by our own decision? Are we created by higher powers? For what purpose?  These questions are what instigate archaeologists (husband and wife team) Shaw and Holloway to search the world for evidence of higher powers and origins greater than themselves, and business tycoon Weyland to coordinate their efforts along with his to find the source of humanity.  Yet while the search could be universally regarded as in the pursuit of greater good, not everyone’s goals for this search are universal and uniform.  Depending on the character, some like Shaw naively believe the mission is for promoting the greater good of all humankind, while others host singular selfish motivations exclusively for their personal gain.  Scott does complex surgical work in craftily interweaving characters’ agendas and ascents into a compelling mosaic of the symbiotic and parasitic relationships people form with one another toward the goal of knowing the origin of humans.

The Seizure

Not every character invests in a rightful and principled approach to acquiring an end goal.  While some offer and rely upon unconditional trust, others employ manipulation and deceit.  While some are selflessly motivated, others are myopically focused in achieving goals of personal gain, even at the harm and grave expense of others.  Enter the Weyland family: Peter Weyland, businessman and financier of the Prometheus expedition, Meredith Vickers who is both his daughter and the manager of the mission, and David, who while is an android, serves as a synthetic son and servant to both Weyland and Vickers.  Weyland personifies a king blind to whatever else exists strictly to pursue his ambition and emotional avarice.  He must meet his progenitor.  Even if it means exploiting his subordinate creation David, even if it means demoting his daughter to simply an unloved tool for his success, if there are costs and consequences to others, so be it.  Almost paralleling Shakespeare’s King Lear, Weyland’s offspring tell him the things he wants to hear, and comply with what he wants them to do, in an exploitation of that paternal relationship for self-seeking gain.  Yet Weyland is not a naïve king manipulated by his offspring. He too puts forth an agenda that exploits his offsprings’ talents toward his own self-serving end; David’s knowledge of the humanities and diverse languages, and higher order intelligence; Vickers singular allegiance to the completion of the mission and exacting leadership skills.

There is a predatory allegiance shared between Weyland, Vickers, and David.  Weyland’s offspring (Vickers literally, David metaphorically) each use their relationship with their paternal progenitor, their “father” for their personal gain. David cloaks the fulfilling of his own selfish ambitions under the fulfillment of his ailing and elderly progenitor’s dying wish to meet his own progenitor (whom Shaw has dubbed “The Engineers”).  For example, David seeks to be more human, using his benefactor’s access to resources to learn more about humans, spanning the benign such as researching their movies, languages, and grooming techniques.  He constantly works to reconcile wanting to be human yet being a creation of human hands. He is of them yet not of them, which is constantly made painfully clear in how others subordinate and disrespect him.

Consequently, David becomes progressively sinister in exploiting his benefactor, his resources and the crew he hired.  It is through his unique investigatory research that he tests his hypothesis of what exactly makes one human (and the extent he surpasses them). He commits inhumane experiments such as infiltrating sleeping crew members’ dreams, he detours from the expedition crew for his own explorations (and extractions of alien genetic material), and conducts genetic experiments upon unsuspecting crew members (introducing alien material unknowingly to their bodies).  David, though exploited, exploits his position as a subordinated son, gifted with intelligence and knowledge, to maneuver himself so that he researches humans, interacts with them, and uses them as leverage to explore and learn about both them and the Engineers.   Almost in the fashion of Shakespeare’s Richard III, as the younger brother Richard manipulates everyone to steal the throne from his older brother Edward, David manipulates any and everyone to ascend into a place knowing more about humankind than even humans know about themselves. Yet David and Vickers are not objectified offspring whose acquiesce goes gently into that good night of their father’s dream (and as it will turn out, their nightmares).  Both David and Vickers know their father’s disregard and relegation of them to servants to his dream, but still continue to vie for their progenitor’s affirmation.

Vickers, in Shakespearean fashion, shares a conflicting love of her father.  Weyland’s exclusive devotion to meeting his progenitor has alienated Vickers from him and caused the death of a father/daughter relationship, one that in some small part Vickers desperately wants as she demonstrates in one scene kneeling before him and kissing his hand (only to receive back his clinching knuckles).  It is a relationship of dedication yet saturated with venom and vengeance.  Like Hamlet who pursues the business of avenging his father’s death, and yet feels both love and scornful detest because of his mother’s actions (marrying his father’s murderer), Vickers’ actions too harbor both love and scorn of her father.  She asserts herself to the crew as the person who makes sure that everyone does their job to fulfill the mission (the double entendre being to get her father to meet his maker).  And, although Vickers secretly salivates to ascend the throne upon her father’s eminent death, she just as importantly seeks his love and affirmation.

Godlike and Messianic Complexes 

In many instances throughout the movie there is a seizure of others’ humanity for exploitation.  Weyland believes that he can buy himself into meeting his progenitors, financing a mission and manipulating the talents, convictions, and intentions of others to that end.   David believes himself deserving of respect and regard by his human counterparts, thinking himself at least equal and in many respects superior considering his learnedness of their knowledge, ideas, and habits.  However he is still relegated to not being human, treated as a subordinate, and most of all, remains out of place. As a result, David exploits the relationships they share with one another for his personal gain, even going so far as to compromise select crew members’ health in a test of the limits of their humanity. He also takes it upon himself to conduct covert explorations of the Engineer’s technology separate from the expedition and without full disclosure.


The Salvation of Humanity

Needless to say, the crew find themselves in harrying situations, both by their own design and outside forces.  It is through these times that Scott’s “Prometheus” illustrates the resolve that humans call upon to save fellow humans from harm or destruction.  Shaw calls upon her faith to inform her decisions about how to advance the good of humankind.  She demonstrates this throughout her work as a team member of the expedition.  Some realize in moments of peril the ultimate in sacrifices need to be made to serve and protect a greater good, a good that only they can provide.  Janek, the captain of the ship, answers such a crucial call, sacrifices himself and his crew so that others might be saved.  Holloway and Shaw each sacrifice their bodies so that harm does not come to the crew or beyond.  For others like David, upon realizing their past selfish actions have made for dire consequences, they avail their talents and resources wholeheartedly.

In all, “Prometheus” is a movie that compels one to not only reflect on the state of humanity on the outside (as we have much to contemplate given what is occurring worldwide), but also on the inside.  What makes us human? How do we know? What will we do when it is tested? Like any great movie, this one still leaves me with questions.  In the movie, why did the Engineers create humans, and then make the decision to destroy them? Exactly HOW does the myth of Prometheus connect with the topics and themes of the movie?


And finally, a question that I ponder outside the movie is this . . . can the search for the origin of humankind occur without first an examination of one’s own self?


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