Ridley Scott likes to think big thoughts, and he likes to put them into big movies. It seems as though he’s decided to put all his biggest thoughts into his latest big movie. The result is Prometheus, which is the name of the film, the spaceship in which much of the story transpires, and of an ancient Greek proto-god who gave knowledge to mankind.
As you can see, Scott also likes to name things in significant ways, especially spaceships. The original Alien movie is set mainly on a spaceship named Nostromo, which is taken from a Joseph Conrad novel of the same name. Nostromo is an Italian imperial adventurer who is sent out by wealthy sponsors to capture and exploit a South American silver mine.
This literary reference is consistent with the rest of Scott’s directorial corpus and that of the Alien franchise in general, in which anti-imperial themes play a major role. Scott’s Nostromo is a privately owned mining vessel, ostensibly sent on a mission to transport minerals, but surreptitiously sent to retrieve a new alien species, the ideal biological weapon, because of the ‘perfection’ of its ‘malice.’ That description comes from the ship’s android, Ash, another carefully named entity. He is death; he comes to retrieve death, using death, which will be used in war to create total death of the enemy. He ‘dies’ in the movie, immolated as his name implies…ashes to ashes. Android names are as important in this series as spaceship names are.
The ship is named Nostromo, but its soul, the computer system which runs it, is named Mother. This is one among many hints that the first Alien movie is also about human reproduction. The alien ship from which the alien comes looks like two legs spread apart, the boarding party enters through the middle. Inside the ship which looks very much like the body cavity of a living being, they find a chamber in which are stored hundreds of eggs. A man touches one of the eggs, activating it, bringing it to life. The creature forcibly, through an act of penetration impregnates the host with an offspring which gestates in the body until it bursts violently out.
In the final sequence of the film Ripley asserts her sovereignty over her own body, abandons Mother, going into a smaller ship named Narcissus, and forcibly uses metal hooks to eject the alien from her ship. But the alien attempts to remain connected to the ship through a cord which runs from the center of the alien body to the center of Ripley’s body. Ultimately the alien is burned away. The designer of the alien is the Dutch artist H.R. Geiger, who is known for producing very strange art dealing in torturous ways with themes of fertility, contraception and abortion.
Ripley, the modern woman, rebels against the joint program of imperialism, capitalism, war and reproduction, all in one act of forcible expulsion from the narcissistic self. In the words of Camille Paglia, abortion is an act of revolt against the “fascism of nature.”
The next film in the franchise, Aliens, emphasizes the anti-imperial theme and is a not remotely subtle futuristic rendition of imperial overreach along the lines of the Vietnam War. Made at the height of anti-yuppie artistic sentiment, the film’s most vicious character is a management type played by Paul Reiser, who, unlike the aliens, betrays his own species for personal gain.
Ripley ‘adopts’ an orphan, choosing motherhood on her own terms. Her life and the life of the child are saved by a good android named Bishop, who, like his name, is an overseer, who oversees not only the new family, but the ship on which they all came. This marine transport is aptly named Sulaco which is taken from the same Conrad novel from the mining town, but now Sulaco has abandoned its imperial mission. Scott did not direct the sequel, nor any of the following sequels until he returned to the franchise to direct the current prequel.
This latest film continues and even intensifies the reproductive themes of the first film (spoilers ahead.) The protagonist of the film is again its heroine. Unlike Ripley, who appears to have forgone motherhood for her career, the heroine of Prometheus is barren. But the day after an act of intercourse with her lover, who unbeknownst to them has been infected with alien DNA, she is told that she is ‘pregnant’, ‘about three months’, although it ‘is not a traditional fetus.’ It is an alien and she knows it. Attempting to get it removed she instructs the computerized automated on-board surgical system to perform a caesarian section, but the computer is not programmed for that, so she orders it instead to execute the program for removal of ‘alien object.’
The heroine is named Elizabeth, whom (if you paid attention in Sunday school) you will recognize as the mother of John the Baptist, the forerunner of Jesus Christ. And this is appropriate as Prometheus is on something more like a religious quest than an imperial one. Elizabeth is on a mission to find ‘the engineers;’ that is, the beings who made us.
The corporate financier of the mission, on the other hand, is on a quest for eternal life. Near the end of a long life, he believes that the engineers have the means to rejuvenate him, which is why he spends a trillion dollars of retained earnings to find them. His daughter wisely counsels him that a king builds an empire and it rises and then he dies: that is the natural order of things. But he believes he can buy his way out of the fascism of nature, and he is willing to do it at the expense of the lives of others, using them as experimental incubators for the black substance out of which the aliens come. So, we’ve tilted a bit from the Alien focus on abortion to a more contemporary focus on stem cells and human immortality, or at least wealthy human immortality.
But the aliens do not bring life, they bring death. Elizabeth is called upon to be an anti-Elizabeth, the bearer of a creature who will prepare the way for an army of death, not life: the forerunner of a devil, not a god. Her captor, the one who tells her she is ‘pregnant’ and attempts to force her to gestate the monsters is an android named David, who we are told toward the beginning of the film has no soul. So as she has been force-fed the role of anti-Elizabeth, he his force-fed the role of anti-David, who in contrast to the poet warrior of the Book of Psalms, is without a soul. Psalm-like, he asks Elizabeth whether she feels like God has abandoned her. Un-Psalm-like, he snatches away the cross which she wears on a chain around her neck, trying to deprive her of her faith in the midst of feeling abandoned.
In many ways Prometheus is more like Blade Runner than it is like Alien. Religious imagery abounds in both films: Roy, the renegade replicant of Blade Runner (whose name is French for ‘King’), during his ‘passion’ pierces his palm with a rusty nail using the pain to stay alive for just a bit longer. In the end he saves Decker, and then at the moment of his death, he releases a dove. Not too subtle as far as Christ symbols go. But what is subtle is that he really is not a Christ symbol, he is an anti-Christ symbol. Or at the very least he is the child of a lesser god. Man makes the replicants, but he makes them mortal. The replicant savior, more likely a reader of Nietzche than of St. Luke, rises up and blinds and kills his maker in an act of vengeance for the imperfections of his life.
The film doesn’t just use names to signal spiritual themes, it uses dates too. The Prometheus lands on the alien planet on Christmas Day, which the captain played by Idris Elba (Stringer Bell to fans of The Wire) celebrates alone with a small tree. The research team finds the crew of the Engineeer’s vessel long dead. Through carbon dating they estimate the disaster which destroyed the Engineers to have occurred roughly 2000 years earlier. The reference to the time of Christ is not coincidental: Scott has revealed in an interview that he had considered revealing in the story that Jesus had been sent as an emissary of the Engineers, and that the human race was slated for extinction because they crucified him, choosing the path of war-like Rome
(Remember Ridley Scott also directed Gladiator) over the peaceful message of Jesus. But 2000 years after the first Christmas we don’t get another Christmas, we get an anti-Christmas. Angels don’t bring the gift of eternal life from the heavens; a financial titan tries to storm the heavens to take the gift of eternal life for himself.
The politics of Prometheus are very fourth century. A mixture of Plato’s Timeaus and it’s blundering quasi-divine ‘builder’, and imperial exhaustion couched in language borrowed from the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. It is a late Roman gnostic quest epic dressed in late 21st century technological garb.
Prometheus rehashes the Von Däniken thesis that humans come from ancient aliens. That idea was once startling, but now it is so tired it wheezes every time a director takes it out for another walk. But what is more startling is the idea that they are malevolent, that maybe the Greek Titan who gave us knowledge was wrong, maybe technical knowledge without love is more harmful than ignorance. Prometheus, the titan, brought fire, and by the end of the movie just about everyone who can on Prometheus, the spaceship, has been burned to ashes. Perhaps Prometheus, the favorite god of political and scientific revolutionaries, who brings power, but not love, is a devil not a savior.
Mr. Bowyer is the author of "The Free Market Capitalists Survival Guide," published by HarperCollins, and a columnist for Forbes.com.