Sunday, June 10, 2012

Prometheus: Engineering a Creator and Destroyer

Before it was the title of a summer science-fiction offering, Prometheus was known as the trickster titan who stole fire from the gods for the use of humans. The story’s ancient subtext is that man needs something extra to contend with the supernatural – that man aspires to contact with God, to understand Him, but cannot approach the throne without a short cut.
In that light, it’s interesting that the lead character in “Prometheus” is Dr. Elizabeth Shaw, an archeologist looking for the roots of humanity, who wears a cross around her neck, the reminder of her late father. From cave paintings and ancient relics, she and her colleague Charlie Holloway – the skeptic - find that several ancient representations of men and some superhuman beings show a similar star pattern in the background. After some investigation, they find a star pattern matching it a great distance from earth. And so begins our quest in the year 2093– to find the extra-terrestrial origins of our species. Shaw’s hypothesis is that beings came from the stars to earth and somehow made mankind.

But as one scientist on board the ship “Prometheus” observes, such a hypothesis flies in the face of “three centuries of Darwinism.” From this light, “Prometheus” bears a resemblance to stories like “Childhood’s End,” “Contact,” “2001: A Space Odyssey,” and even the much-maligned plot of “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.” The scientist is saying that what we call God is instead another being from another world. That is, until Dr. Shaw sets him straight – the question isn’t who created us, but who created it all. Dr. Shaw isn’t interested in some species that can tinker with DNA and produce something new, but a Presence that can create it all from nothingness. Still, she wonders not only where we came from, and why.

Along for the ride is David, a robot obsessed with the movie “Lawrence of Arabia” who is at times passive and at times sinister. David is the HAL-9000 computer from “2001,” only with arms and legs. There is much in this movie that seems similar (or ripped off) from Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick’s famous collaboration, but it is the question of faith which is new here. Clarke and Kubrick gave us a secular faith, scrubbed of God with the mystery of the universe substituted. Dr. Shaw journeys into space with a vague idea of what she seeks, but it’s interesting that in this universe, God is also part of the journey.

The character of David also allows the film to explore the meaning of existence. When he asks a crew member why he exists, the answer is for no other reason than because humans could build him. David observes that a human being would be very dissatisfied with that kind of answer for himself. A compensation would be that there is no purpose, and no meaning to existence. Yet while that offers consolation for someone who feels they need no god to justify themselves to, it still leaves a void when the end of life approaches and one craves meaning.  

In charge on the journey is Meredith Vickers, an employee of the trillionaire Peter Weyland. He was willing to fund this expedition, but Vickers expected to find nothing. Instead, when they find a seemingly deserted complex that appears to validate Shaw’s hypothesis, Vickers seems shocked. The ship’s captain, Vanek, asks her, “Did you want them to be wrong?” A fair question. Some people say there is no point in looking for God, and that conclusion keeps them happy, because finding God might require something of them. As long as my thinking stays the same, in other words, there is nothing that might require it to change.

Just as Lawrence of Arabia was told there was nothing in the desert – “and no man needs nothing” – the crew of the Prometheus seemingly find a void with their discovery. The remains of “the Engineers” are nothing they can communicate, or commune with. They find an alien species with a similar DNA profile but also with a dark side that seems too familiar. The remaining Engineer is not happy with his creation, evidently, and means to destroy it. When Weyland, who has also come on this journey, goes to the Engineer hoping to prolong his life, he discovers how dissatisfied the Engineer is.

On a very elementary level, “Prometheus” is a science fiction horror film, which is why its main message seems to be, “longing for the Creator brings on death.” The end of the movie gives no answers to Dr. Shaw as to why the Engineers made the human race, and even though she has barely survived, she wishes to continue the journey to find out. But before leaving, she retrieves the cross she has worn around her neck. “After all, you still believe,” David tells her.  It was a journey of faith that took her to the stars, and it is faith that perhaps will lead her home.
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