Ridley Scott’s PROMETHEUS – An Interpretive Analysis

No Spoilers first:

Now, I’m not one to spend time arguing and explaining the meaning of a film, but I’ve read too many negative reviews and misguided interpretations of this film. But before we begin:

PROMETHEUS IS AN INCREDIBLE, LANDMARK
SCIENCE FICTION FILM. GO SEE IT.

Now, my call-to-arms here are the many, many reviews that say there is, essentially ONE severe problem, and it deals with ambiguity. Audiences don’t like ambiguity. What is ambiguity? Well, it is when a storyteller deliberately obscures the meaning or explanation of an event. Not to be confused with vagueness, which is when something indeliberately uncertain, that is, poorly explained. Prometheus is ambiguous, so when you discuss meaning, you must allow for a number of “or” statements or “we just don’t know for certain” statements. I’ll admit, when these start stacking up, it gets difficult for the viewer to juggle the multiplicity of outcomes. However, all that said, Prometheus deals well with ambiguity and its own enigmatic meaning.

So if you haven’t seen it, please do so before reading my interpretation. On to the SPOILERS:

For those who have seen the movie, I will now explain what happens to the best of my ability, as a response to a number of charming if completely clueless and unfair Youtube reviews.

The "Elder Engineer", prepping himself for seeding the planet Earth with DNA

Foremost, this movie is about the creation and origins of life. Emphasis on this theme is contained in the story of David the android. He himself is a “creation” of a new kind of life by Humans. So the story of the humans seeking their creator is very much David’s own. He too is coming to terms with his creator, namely, the fallibility of his creator, who doesn’t respect nor love him. David’s story serves as a helpful map for understanding the rest of the film as a whole. Keep in mind, David harbors hostility and resentment towards his creator, and his creator has potentially and unwittingly created something dangerous to its own survival. When David asks Holloway why he was created, Holloways gives a flippant answer, “because we could.” So too did the Engineers create life on Earth “because they could?” This narrative arc is mirrored in the story of the Engineers and their black goo. Ridley Scott, the director, himself said that the story is also encapsulated in the myth of Prometheus, where a god is punished “in perpetuity in a horrible fashion” (Wall Street Journal). Prometheus the god is punished for giving a lesser creature, mankind, the gift of fire. So too, we will find, are the Engineers cursed and eternally punished by the black goo for having gone into the business of teraforming planets. All of this is good to keep in mind when analyzing the film.

In the first scene, we witness the “Elder Engineer” on some barren, rocky world. He sacrifices himself by drinking a sort of festering stew and dissolves while his transport ship overhead slowly drifts away.

Because this planet has water on it, and the moon visited later in the film, LV-223, does not, we are to presume this is a primitive, lifeless Earth. What the engineers have done, and we are later shown that this is their M.O. throughout the cosmos, is to seed Earth with a kind of DNA that is so utterly resilient towards the hostile, unfertile conditions of the universe that if it can possibly take hold, it will. Even if on a microscopic level. When the Elder Engineer combines his own DNA with the festering stew of black goo, it destroys him, yes, but it also unleashes billions and billions of strands of this new DNA.

The "Black Goo" operates on a cellular level, reconstructing DNA to suit its sole purpose--propagation

The black goo goes to work on proto-Earth, eventually succeeding, creating life, and eventually, because it also contains some of the Engineer’s genetic code, intelligent human life that looks like the Engineer. The black goo evolved over millennia to form the life we know today. It was simply “coaxed” along a path of teleology that ultimately led to intelligent life that looks similar to the Engineers. In this respect, the black goo does what it intended—create intelligent life, what it was deliberately created to do, by the Engineers. We are also told that the Engineers showed up from time to time in ancient human history and told the first humans about a little cluster of stars that would serve as a map to help them get back to the Engineers where they had a little base set up on LV-223.

For Millennia, the Engineers encouraged pre-historic man to build a spaceship and come say hi sometime

However, many millennia later, the Engineers would go on to create, by accident or on purpose, a new form of black goo that is a horrible monstrosity. This is the “Prometheus punishment” that the Engineers endure for “playing God.” Hopefully this punishment doesn’t extend beyond LV-223, but we just don’t know.

Fast forward to the arrival of the Prometheus at LV-223. Here, we discover a “military installation,” according to the pilot’s theory. Perhaps it has a military function, we don’t know for certain, though it would help explain the mythology in the Alien vs. Predator franchise. It could be the Engineer race is at war with the Predators and has developed a hostile version of black goo to help combat the Predators. They are some nasty little bastards, after all, that hunt and kill humans for sport. Of course the ambiguity extends farther. Perhaps this version of the black goo was a weapon that was inflicted against the Engineers by some other intelligent alien species. A trap that they themselves succumbed to. Another possibility is that the black goo and its Xenomorph brethren are an independent race that the Engineers stumbled upon millennia ago and adapted for their own purposes of seeding the universe with their own modified version. That is, the Xenomorph aliens are a kind of interstellar plague making its way around the universe by overwhelming hapless intelligent interstellar species. The whole purpose of the LV-223 installation could be to study and tame it. Or at least contain it. The frieze within the temple almost reveres the Xenomorphs in a manner similar to humankind’s own reverence for their gods. Do the Engineers see the Xenomorphs as a God?

The Classic Xenomorph, found on the walls of the LV-223 Installation

All we know is that LV-223 is not the home world of the Engineers and that something bad happened here. This is not to say the “xenomorph,” the familiar “alien” was new to them. The intrepid crew of the Prometheus stumble upon a giant mural depicting the classic xenomorph and its mode of impregnation. We are told, through carbon dating, that the accident occurred 2,000 years ago. Since seeding Earth nearly 4 billion years ago, the Engineer race continued experimentation with life-creation via black goo. LV-223 is either place where they conducted failed experiments, or a place where the black goo took on some insidious form capable of overwhelming the Engineers themselves.

Either way, somehow their experiment got out of control. Like the black goo that seeded Earth, this substance, this eager-to-propagate-at-all-costs DNA, is so resilient that, while it has gone dormant in the form of these egg-cylinders (canisters containing an embryo), all it takes is a tiny bit of living respiration to get it going again. This is exactly what happens when the crew decides they have found what they presume to be their benevolent god and they take off their masks. (In literature, we call this hamartia or an arrogant fatal flaw that leads to tragedy.) Once David, the android, deduces the language on this ancient tomb (what we discover is actually a donut-shaped spaceship) and allows the party to enter, the first thing they find is a 2,000 year old decapitated Engineer who is amid becoming infected with the black goo. When they reactivate his head, we see him healthy for only a split second, he says “try harder,” and then the black goo sets to work turning his head into a delivery vehicle to further propagate itself—which is the ultimate purpose and intent of the black goo, continuing its life propagation, no different than what we see in John Carpenter’s classic The Thing. The head explodes, but fortunately the black goo is unable to escape the containment, which, incidentally, is about the only thing this crew does with the least bit of caution throughout the film.

The "Hammerpede" incarnation of the Black Goo, mixed with LV-223 mealy-worms

Now that the black goo has identified a life form to integrate with, it comes out of its state of dormancy and utilizes what DNA it has laying around—the grubs of LV-223—in order to seek out and integrate the wayward geologist and biologist left behind by their party. The black goo succeeds, the “Hammerpede” (Prometheus: Art of the Film) creature made from black goo combined with the LV-223 grub impregnates the biologist. The geologist gets full, direct exposure to the black goo itself. The black goo does to the geologist what it would do with any life form, makes him a conduit for further propagation. Because the geologist-monster is black goo plus human, what we get is essentially human, plus the ability to breathe the LV-223 atmosphere outside the installation. Homage is paid to Carpenter’s The Thing when we first encounter the engineer. Before he stands us, it first looks like his head is attached to a set of insect legs, just like the monster head-spider from The Thing.

David opens the egg-canister

Meanwhile, David the android has isolated an “egg” of some creature contaminated with (or perhaps this is the Ur-species) black goo. Because it is contained in the facility in stasis and not bounding about the planet’s surface, we can assume it is not native to LV-223, perhaps this moon was chosen for its hostile conditions. We are given a clue that it is at least related to the creatures among the floor soil of the facility because when Charlie Holloway is contaminated with its DNA, he has a little worm crawling around in his eye. The DNA, well insinuated into Holloway’s own now that David has poisoned his wine, makes its way into Shaw’s womb via copulation, where it is, evidently, satisfied enough to gestate without co-opting the rest of her body. This creature is removed via robotic Caesarian (cheers to the horror, here, Scott, you’ve freaked us out for sure by now). So we find that black goo, plus LV-223 worm, plus human, equals squid creature. This creature is left isolated in the robot surgery machine.

"Hmmm...looks like I shouldn't have taken my helmet off after all. Oh well, I'm sure God will show up to fix it, let's roll."

David the android manages to “turn on” a sort of old holographic movie reel of life aboard the 2,000+ year old Engineer vessel, presumably before things went awry on LV-223. This scene shows us that the Engineers do in fact have experiments going on all around the galaxy (universe?), including Earth. Some viewers have suggested that the Engineers wish to destroy Earth, and that they might have, had something not gone awry on LV-223. Ridley Scott has also alluded to a deleted scene where it is implied that Jesus was one of the Engineers, come to check up on their project, and due to the behavior of the Romans, namely, the execution of Jesus, they decided to destroy their little project.

David activates the navigation video of the Engineer's spaceship

Now it is time to take the old man Weyland to meet his maker. Within the spaceship, we find a single Engineer in stasis. He reawakens and is understandably a little freaked out. Fortunately, David the android speaks his tongue. David says something to him that we can only infer. The Engineer recognizes David as an android, and is momentarily proud of what has transpired on Earth—the seeding was successful and the intelligent species smart enough to create artificial life and arrive here. However, the humans have also breached this containment facility and are by no means there to rescue him. He knows, tragically, that they are all doomed, if not already contaminated, and that the humans must be destroyed. He proceeds to go on a rampage, killing everything in sight. This might be a good time to bust out your Bible, check Leviticus, Chapter 22, verse 3 (LV-223), ‘If any one of all your offspring throughout your generations approaches the holy things that the people of Israel dedicate to the LORD, while he has an uncleanness, that person shall be cut off from my presence: I am the LORD.” Unclean, brazen human beings, contaminated with the black goo, have awoken their creator and are now risking destruction of even his home world. Damn right they are getting cut off from his presence.

It is also possible that, like the first decapitated head, this Engineer is already contaminated with the black goo, which is why he put himself into stasis, hoping to be rescued and cured by his own kind. Now that he is awakened, just as was the case with Holloway, there is a long incubation period before the black goo takes hold of his mind. Once it has, instead of focusing on propagation with the humans, the black goo is able to learn that his mind contains the ability to propagate via spaceship, so it compels him to take off with the ship and go, it is inferred, to Earth itself. That’s the sole impetus of the black goo—propagation at all costs. Everything it does, every xenomorphic form, is simply bent on survival and propagation, using every DNA strategy it can learn from integrating new DNA. I like this theory better than the notion that the Engineer was just so very pissed off at mankind that he is ready to fulfill a mission interrupted 2,000 years ago, and his is hastily rushing to Earth in order to stamp out all human life there before we can go meddling around the galaxy and helping the black goo further wreck havoc upon all life everywhere. If it was that easy and that urgent to destroy-all-humans, then why the 2,000 year interruption? Why not talk it over? Instead, I believe the Engineer was looking forward to a reunion with Earth, or, if anything was interrupted, it was further interaction with mankind in order to help shape and guide our development over the past two millennia.

That moment you realize your First Contact experience was an unmitigated disaster

The pilot of the Prometheus crashes into the Engineer’s donut ship and ends that plan. Shaw manages to avoid the donut ship smashing her, yet she is still not safe. The Engineer wants to kill her. She manages to sick the squid creature on him, which is, again, a combination of the native LV-223 worm and human DNA. The squid creature combines with the Engineer, producing the first known “alien” as seen in the other films in the series. This creature is referred to as the “xenomorph.” This creature is the black goo’s most effective propagation system, now given the proper DNA to integrate (LV-223 worm, human, and engineer), enough biomass, and enough time. Ironically, David the android is the “creator” of this creature, as he deliberately introduced the black goo to the human animal, via Holloway’s wine. Thus, this xenomorph creature is an accident that the remainder of the Engineer race is familiar with as the sort of “end game result” of the black goo once it has an opportunity to really get going. We know this from the giant mural featuring the xenomorph within the LV-223 installation.

The "black goo" in its "full attenuation", with Engineer and Human DNA

From this, we can infer that the story behind Alien and Aliens, which takes place on LV-426, is the tragic result of the Engineer race returning to LV-223 and finding the highly adept and totally unexpected xenomorph creature, likely in its own stasis, lurking and awaiting propagation. The Engineers are overtaken by the xenomorphs, and they crash land on LV-426, where the xenomorph further propagates, perhaps taking on yet another creature’s DNA. This also explains why the later versions of the xenomorph feature a mouth within a mouth within a mouth, the several species it has integrated.

(Images used with permission from FOX film Corp. Prometheus and its associated logos are trademarks of 20th Century Fox Film corp and their respective owners and are in no way owned by Supercenternation.com.)

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  • Jason Smith

    An incredibly novice interpretation 

    • Jason Rizos

      Thank-you Jason! Perhaps this will help the novices. Why don’t you link us to an “advanced” interpretation for further reading?

      • Jason Smith

         http://thewertzone.blogspot.ca/2012/06/filling-blanks-tying-prometheus-to.html

        This one does a far better job without making insane jumps, there is another that does a fairly good job as well but I can’t find it now.

        • gren

          I liked the “incredibly novice interpretation” but, by all means, sperg harder.

  • Justinstroud

    You write:
    “She manages to sick the squid creature on him, which is, again, a combination of the native LV-223 worm and human DNA”

    This detail is incorrect. Nowhere in the Holloway – Shaw – Squid process is the worm involved. Holloway is infected directly with the goo by David.

  • Duvessa Edana

    I liked it. I think it makes a lot of sense :) 

  • Npdavidson

     ’Engineer race returning to LV-223 and finding the highly adept and totally unexpected xenomorph creature,’ Um it’s been previously stated by Scott himself the lv426 derelict has been there for centuries minimum