Friday, January 18, 2013

Prometheus Rising Part IV

Welcome to the fourth and final installment in my examination of the film Prometheus, acclaimed filmmaker Sir Ridley Scott's (the director of the first Alien and Blade Runner, in addition to more 'serious' films such as Gladiator and the war porn that is Black Hawk Down) much-anticipated return to the science fiction genre. In the first installment of this series I examined a few of the background details surrounding the film itself in addition to the mythological figure of Prometheus. I also briefly examined the opening moments of the film, especially as it relates to entheogens. In the second part I considered several of the major characters, especially the archaeologist Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and the humanoid android David (Michael Fassbender); as well as the striking instances of numerology in the film's opening sequences. In the third installment I began to get into the meat of the film, leaving off at the discovery of the mound-like alien structure that the crew of the Prometheus discover upon the distant moon LV-223; and the large chamber within the structure containing the decapitated head of an Engineer, Prometheus's take on ancient astronauts.

Shaw with the decapitated Engineer head
This series is being written with the assumption that those of you reading it are already familiar with Prometheus's Byzantine plot line. If you are not it is strongly advised that you track down a plot synopsis before proceeding. Those of you who have just stumbled upon this series are strongly encouraged to read the prior installments as there is much more that will be alluded to that I did not address in the above introduction. And now, with the token introduction and disclaimers out of the way, let's jump right back in the film.

Shortly after discovering the decapitated head of the Engineer the expedition team, Shaw and David  in tow, return to the Prometheus sans two members who became lost. Upon returning to the ship Shaw removes the space helmet covering the Engineer head,  revealing a very humanoid figure within. A DNA scan is run and reveals that the Engineer's DNA does in fact match human DNA, confirming the ancient astronaut hypothesis of Shaw and her fellow archaeologist and lover Charles Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green). Shaw also learns that this being died roughly 2000 years ago, a fact that will become most striking with later revelations.

Meanwhile David is taking on further characteristics of the mythological Golems. As noted in part two, they are creatures created as an image of the passions of their creators. This tends to make them evil beings by default. At this point in the film David is most definitely being driven towards evil due to the passion of his creator, Peter Weyland. Thus David removed a vile of a mysterious liquid found in one of the stone cylinders, which happens to look curiously like the facehugger-yielding eggs of the earlier Alien films, found within the chamber containing the decapitated head. David proceeds to taint a bottle of spirits with the substance and offers it to a deflated Holloway. The archaeologist is most distraught that his ancient astronauts seemingly diedoff long ago. This leads to an interesting exchange between Holloway and David while the former consumes the poison drink:
 What we hope to achieve was to meet our makers. To get answers. Why they even made a first place.
Why do you think your people made me?
We made you because we could.
 Can you imagine how disappointing it would be to hear the same thing from your creator?
The relationship between humans and androids, as embodied by David, proves to be a rather apt foreshadowing of the nature of the Engineers. David is strikingly disappointed by and even contemptuous of his creators, often finding their motives inexplicable and unfathomable. And yet David is every bit the slave as the mythological Golems of old. He performs the often cruel biddings of his master almost gleefully even when they seemingly contradict his own instincts. David is shown developing an affection for Shaw early on, for instance, and yet his actions put her life in great jeopardy. As the film progresses the viewer is left with the impression that the Engineers ultimately created humanity because they could also, and that a similar slave-like relationship was intended. Screenwriter Damon Lindelof seemed to indicate that this is very much the case in an interview he did shortly after the film's release. He stated:
"... it advances the idea that part of our own programming as human beings, we're many ways just as governed by our programming as David is. We have to seek out the answers to these questions, even though we know we'll never get satisfying answers. We're curious about what happens as we die. We need to know where we come from. What the meaning of life is. What kind of life we're supposed to lead."
And yet David is little more than a slave, which raises another compelling question running throughout Prometheusis: How much of David's personality is actually his own and how much of it is Weyland's programming? For instance, David is depicted as being quite found of the film Lawrence of Arabia. He quotes from it throughout Prometheus and even styles his hair like one of the characters from the film. Materials relating to the film, however, indicate the Weyland himself was also quite fascinated by T. E. Lawrence (the individual upon whom the film Lawrence of Arabia is based). Thus, is David obsessed with Lawrence of Arabia by his own faculties or because Weyland programmed him to be of obsessed with it because it is also one of Weyland's obsessions? Likewise, is David's obsession with Shaw genuine or did Weyland program him to be protective and/or interested in her because Weyland has such sentiments concerning her? After all, she did present Weyland with the possibility of immortality. Conversely David poisoning her lover, and thus putting her in danger, would indicate that this is not the case and that he was working against his will in this instance.

This also raises some very curious questions about humanity within the world of Prometheus as well. Do we have actual free will or are we simply following the programming of the Engineers? Was humanity predestined to venture eventually to LV-223 at the genetic level? But I digress, but hopefully we can address few of these questions a bit later. Lets return to the film for now.
After his existential conversation with David, a drunken Holloway staggers into Shaw's quarters and the inevitable happens. The next day the expedition crew ventures again into the alien structure with David breaking away from it while they return to the massive chamber discovered during the first trip. Freed from his human counterparts, David is able to find a space ship belonging to the Engineers in addition to one of the beings still in stasis. Meanwhile, things are not going well for the rest of the expedition team. Holloway begins to sicken rapidly, spurring them to rush him back to the Prometheus. He does not make it back on board, however. Realizing the Holloway is infected Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), the token sketchy corporate executive, proceeds to incinerate him with a flamethrower.

Shaw is most distressed over this but she does not have long to grieve. Not long after reboarding the ship Shaw, who was revealed to be incapable of producing children earlier in the film, realizes that she is now pregnant and that the embryo is growing rapidly. In one of the films tensest sequences Shaw uses an automated surgical table to remove a squid-like creature from her abdomen, clearly foreshadowing the alien births of the later Alien films. The act of birth itself is also highly significant symbolically.
"Certain imprints impressed upon the nervous system in the plastic period between birth and maturity are the source of many of the most widely known images of myth.  Necessarily the same for all mankind, they have been variously organized in the different traditions, but everywhere function as potent energy releasers and directors.

"The first indelible imprints are those at the moment of birth itself. The congestion the blood and sense of suffocation experienced by the infant before its lungs commence to operate give rise to a brief seizure of terror, the physical effects of which (caught breath, circulatory congestion, dizziness, or even blackout) tends to recur, more or less strongly, whenever there is an abrupt moment of fright. so that the birth trauma, as an  archetype of transformation, floods with considerable emotional effect the brief moment of loss of security and threat of death that accompanies any crisis of radical change. In the imagery of mythology and religion this birth (more often rebirth) theme is extremely prominent; in fact every threshold passage --not only this from the darkness of the womb to the light of the sun, but also those from childhood to adult life and from the light of the world to whatever mystery of darkness may lie beyond the portal of death --is comparable to a birth and has been ritually represented, practically everywhere, through an imagery of reentry into the womb. This is one of those mythological universals that surely merit interpretation, rather from psychological than from an ethnological point of view.
(The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology, Joseph Campbell, pgs. 61-62)

A few pages later Campbell offers an even more profound insight into the mysteries of birth.
"The fear of the dark, which is so strong in children, has been said to be a function of their fear of returning to the womb: the fear that their recently achieved daylight consciousness and not yet secure individuality should be reabsorbed. In archaic art, the labyrinth --home of the child-consuming Minotaur, was represented by the figure of the spiral. The spiral also appears spontaneously in certain stages of meditation, as well to people going to sleep under ether. It is a prominent device, furthermore, at the silent entrances and within the dark passages of the ancient Irish kingly burial mound of New Grange. These facts suggest that a constellation of images denoting the plunge and dissolution of consciousness in the darkness of non-being must've been employed intentionally, from an early date, to represent the analogy of threshold rites to the mystery of the entry of the child in the womb for birth. And this suggestion is reinforced by the further fact that the paleolithic caves of southern France and northern Spain, which are now dated by most authorities circa 30,000-10,000 B.C., were certainly sanctuaries not only of hunting magic but also of the male puberty rites. A terrific sense of claustrophobia, and simultaneously of release from every context of the world above, assails the mind impounded in those more than absolutely dark abysses, where darkness no longer is an absence of light but an experienced force. And when the light is flashed to reveal the beautifully painted bulls and mammoths, flocks of reindeer, trotting ponies, woolly rhinos, and dancing shamans of those caves, the images smite the mind as indelible imprints. It is obvious that the idea of death-and-rebirth, rebirth through ritual and with a fresh organization a profoundly impressed sign stimuli, is an extremely ancient one in the history of culture, and everything was done, even in the paleolithic caves, to inspire in the youngster being symbolically killed a reactivation of the childhood fear of the dark."
(ibid, pgs.65-66)

It would appear then that physical birth in the film is closely associated spiritual rebirth. As noted in the third installment in the series labyrinth imagery appears prominently in Prometheus in the form of the alien structure. Indeed, entering and reemerging from the structure proves to be a kind of rebirth for several members of the Prometheus. Thus that physical births, even Shaw's 'miracle birth,' should produce monsters in the film is not altogether surprising. After all, the knowledge that Shaw and company received from their rebirth via the alien structure of the nature of things proves to be truly disheartening.

After Shaw removes the creature from her abdomen she finally learns that Weyland is not only still alive but has been on the ship this entire time. He has in fact just come out of stasis and is preparing for his own descent into the alien structure. It is here that the film offers us some of its richest symbolism. But before we get to that, let us consider a brief snippet of dialogue uttered by Janek (Idris Elba), the ship's captain, to Shaw before her venture into the alien structure with Weyland. The good captain states: "You know what this place is? Those Engineers, this ain't their home. It's an installment. maybe even military. They put it out here in the middle of nowhere because they're not stupid enough to make weapons of mass destruction on their own doorstep." Janek goes on to imply that the Engineers on LV-223 were wiped out buy their own viral weapons. Keep this in mind dear reader as we shall return to it in a moment.

Weyland's descent is beautifully set up with the most significant scene featuring the Vickers character in the film. It is here that Vickers refers to Weyland as father. The film leaves this point, as well as Vickers' very humanity, ambiguous. At one point Janek jokingly asks her if she is an android, a possibility hinted at throughout the film via such things as her icy personality and physical resemblance to David. Regardless, a particular exchange she has with Weyland in the scene proves to be most significant in the thematic context of the film:

 If you're really going down there, you're going to die.
 Very negative way of looking at things. Exactly why you should of stayed at home.
 did you really think I was going to sit in a boardroom for years arguing over who was in charge while you go looking for some miracle on some godforsaken rock in the middle of space? A king has his reign, and then he dies. It's inevitable. This is the natural order of things.
Vickers and Weyland

In part one I noted that Frazer's concept of the killing of the divine king runs throughout Prometheus. One of the key points of this concept is the notion that the fertility of the land is directly tied to the vitality of the king in ancient societies. As a result there was a perceived threat of the earth turning into a wasteland if the king was allowed to age and wither away. To counter this threat primitive societies only allowed their kings to rule for a specific number of years and then ritualistically sacrifice them and passed on the kingship to a young and vigorous successor. This would ensure that the Earth remained fertile.
As Prometheus winds down it is clear that Weyland's empires turning to rot. Vickers' above statement implies that all is not well within the corporate boardroom. By the beginning of the first Alien film, set some 30 years after the events of Prometheus, the Weyland Corporation has become the Weyland-Yutani Corporation, possibly indicating that some type of troubles developed between the two films allowing some kind of merger/takeover. Beyond that, the crew of the ship Prometheus is already beginning to die left and right by this point. Weyland emerges from stasis in the midst of the disaster about to spiral out of control.
Besides Weyland's associations with Frazer's divine king he is also something of an alchemist, a notion that I addressed extensively in part two. Weyland is David's creator and David the android is very much in keeping with occult notions of artificial human beings such as the golems of Kabbalahism and the homunculus of alchemy. In some accounts the creation of an artificial human being is one of the chief goals of alchemy. Weyland's pursuit of eternal life is also in keeping with the goals of fabled alchemy. And like any true alchemist or magician Weyland must make a descent into the Underworld to achieve this objective. As noted in part three, the alien structure that the crew of the Prometheus discovers upon LV-223 is very much symbolically in keeping with the that the mythological Underworld.

the Underworld
David, who has learned how to speak the language of the Engineers, leads Weyland, Shaw, and the rest of the expedition team to an alien spacecraft within the mound-like structure. It is here that the last living Engineer on LV-223 remains in stasis. Shaw, noting that the ship contains more of the stone cylinders which hold the virus that killed Holloway, asks David where the ship was destined for. David, who has viewed the ship's log, informs her that it was headed for Earth.
Now keep in mind that the Engineers of LV-223 died off some 2000 years ago, according to the carbon dating done upon the decapitated head. This would give a certain amount of Biblical significance to the Engineers' planned genocidal expedition to earth during that timeframe. In an interview conducted shortly before Prometheus's release director Ridley Scott revealed that this was very much intentional, and that he had very bold plans for this allusion indeed. A Q&A exchange  produced the following:
Q: You throw religion and spirituality into the equation for Prometheus, though, and it almost acts as a hand grenade. we had heard it was scripted that the engineers were targeting our planet for destruction because we had crucified one of their representatives, and the Jesus Christ might have been an alien. Was that ever consider?

Scott: We definitely did, and then we thought it was a little too on the nose. But if you look at it as an "our children are misbehaving down there" scenario, there are moments where it looks like we've gone out of control, running around with armor and skirts, which of course would be the Roman Empire. And they were given the long run. A thousand years before their disintegration actually started to happen. And you can say, "Lets send down one more of our emissaries to see if he can stop it." Guess what? They crucified him.

Here we encounter another instance of Prometheus attempting to reduce mythology to a purely scientific, nuts and bolts explanation. Earlier Holloway declared that creation was nothing more than a matter of genetic splicing while David, in his conversation with Holloway, reduced the act of creation to a mere whim when he applied Holloway's explanation of android creation to humanity's relationship with the Engineers: Because they can.

And yet, despite the chilly scientific air running throughout the film faith still plays a central role. It is faith, specifically Shaw and Holloway's, which leads the Prometheus to LV-223. Shaw, the film's only acknowledged practicing Christian, retains her faith in God even after she proves that humanity was created by the Engineers. Ultimately she is the only member of the crew who survives the ordeal, and in a most miraculous fashion at that. Whether these elements were added simply for the symbolic effect and to give the audience some comfort amidst the icy, Babylon 5-esque universe in which all mysteries are reduced to mere science is impossible to tell.

Weyland is quickly disappointed after David revives the last remaining Engineer from stasis. After David asked the being for more life for Weyland it responds by decapitating David and delivering a mortal blow to Weyland with his severed head. As he lays dying Weyland moans "There's nothing" to which David still living head responds smugly "I know. Have a good journey Mr. Weyland." Weyland is thus destroyed by his journey into the Underworld in his Great Work comes to an end. In Mason-speak, he is an unworthy craftsman.

As addressed briefly in part three, decapitation is highly important in the occult and ancient mythology. Curiously it is directly related to the divine king notion via some of the Grail myths, specifically those featuring the Fisher King or some variation. Some have even speculated that originally the Grail was not in fact chalice but rather a severed head upon a platter.
"The first of the Grail romances was Chretien de Troyes' unfinished Le Conte del Graal (c. 1190)...

"In Chretien's version of the story there is no mention of the Grail being a cup nor is any connection with the Last Super or with Jesus ever explicitly described. In fact, there is no obvious religious connotation at all, and it has been said that its overall ambiance is, if anything, distinctly pagan. Here, however, the Grail object was a platter or dish -which, as we shall see, is highly significant. In fact, Chretien had drawn on a much older Celtic tale that had as its hero Peredur, whose quest involved encountering a gruesome and apparently highly ritualistic procession in a remote castle. Carried in this were, among other things, a spear that dripped blood and a severed head on a platter. A common feature of the Grail stories is the critical moment when the hero fails to ask an important question, and it is this sin of omission that leads him into grave danger. As Malcom Godwin says: 'Here the question which is not asked concerns the nature of the head. If Peredur had asked whose head, and how it concerned him, he would have known how to lift the enchantments of the Wasteland.' (The land had been cursed and made infertile.)

"Even without an ending, Chretien's story was a runaway success and it gave rise to a huge number of copycat tales -most of which were explictly Christian...

"One of these Christianized versions was Perlesvaus, which was, some say, written by a monk at Glastonbury Abbey in c. 1205, while others believe it was the work on an anonymous Templar. This tale is really about two quest that are interwoven. The knight Gawain searches for the sword that beheaded John the Baptist, and which magically bleeds every day at noon. In one episode the hero encounters a cart containing 150 severed heads of knights: some were sealed in gold, some in silver and some in lead. Then there is a bizarre damsel who carries in one hand the head of a king, sealed in silver, and in the other that of a queen, sealed in lead.

"In Perlesvaus the elite attendants of the Grail wear white garments emblazoned with a red cross -just like the Templars. There is also a red cross that stands in a forest, and which falls prey to a priest who beats it 'in every part' with a rod, an episode which has a clear connection with the charge that the Templars spat and trampled on the cross. Once again, there is a curious scene involving severed heads. One of the Grail guardians tells the hero, Perceval, 'There are the heads in silver, and the heads sealed in lead, and the bodies whereunto these heads belong: I tell you that you must come thither the head both of the King and Queen.' "
(The Templar Revelation, Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince, pgs. 117-118)

The appearance of the Knights Templar in this variation upon the Grail myths is most interesting. As I'm sure many of my readers are aware, several prominent and notorious legends concerning the Templars feature them worshiping a severed head.
"As several commentators have pointed out, the charge that the knights worshipped a severed head --which was believed to be called Baphomet --has resonances with the Grail romances, in which, as we have seen, severed heads figure largely. The Templars were charged with ascribing Grail-like powers to this Baphomet: it could make the trees flower and the land fertile. In fact, not only were the Templars accused of revering this idol head, but they also owned a silver reliquary in the form of a female skull which was labelled simply caput (head) 58."
(ibid, pg. 121)
In Prometheus David's severed head continues to live and helps Shaw survive the final Engineer, who quickly dispatches the rest of the expedition team before attempting to leave LV-223 in his spaceship. The ship is brought down by the Prometheus itself, but the epic crash only manages to kill the remaining members of the crew while the Engineer survives. In the aftermath he comes looking for Shaw. It is at this point that David's severed head becomes a kind of talisman, and instrumental in Shaw's survival. Of course several major mythological traditions place the power of prophecy and incredible knowledge in the cranials of various severed heads.
"The Celts had a tradition of bewitched heads, but more pertinently, there was a severed head kept at the Osirian temple of Abydos that was believed to prophesy. In another associated myth, the head of that other dying-and-rising god, Orpheus, was washed upon Lesbos, where it began to predict the future."
(ibid, pg. 358)
the head of Orpheus
As the film winds down it makes good use of the image of Shaw with David's severed head. This is an iconic image, the most famous of which being Salome with the head of John the Baptist. As noted above, the Templars were accused of worshiping a severed head. In some accounts it was said to be the head of John the Baptist, which they found in the Holy Lands. Thus, we find another link to the Grail myth in Prometheus.

The head of Orpheus, who had a mystery cult dedicated to him in Antiquity, is also commonly depicted as being possessed by women. In myth Orpheus was torn to pieces by the Maenads, the ravenous female followers Dionysus, and his severed head was cast into the river Hebrus. Eventually he was found by the Muses at the Lesbos shore and a shrine was built containing his head at Antissa. As noted above, the head became an oracle and delivered prophecies of the future.

David's head does not deliver prophecies of the future but it does become a means by which Shaw can understand and locate the Engineers. Or in other words it becomes a tool of communion with humanity's creators. Both the human head and the Grail are symbols of knowledge and enlightenment, roles of which David's severed head has taken on at this point. Shaw wondering off into the stars on board another Engineer spaceship with David's severed head guiding her to their home planet is blatantly symbolic of the new Grail quest, a new alchemical search for illumination. Presumably Shaw will prove to be far more worthy than Weyland.

And it is here that I shall finally wrap things up. As this series has illustrated, the symbolism and twilight language of Prometheus is very rich and highly complex. While the film is placed in the Alien franchise it is very much spiritual and thematic companion to Kubrick's 2001, especially in one noteworthy instance.

Much has been written over the years about Kubrick's sci-fi opus in conspiracy culture, much of it of little value. One of the most unique takes on 2001 was presented by the Honourable DJ Hives. For those of you unfamiliar with Hives, he can either be described as Cooper-ism taken to its logical extreme and/or brilliant satire of Cooper's followers. Hives describes his work  as the only pro-Illuminati take on the Internet.

In a series of videos that he initially posted on YouTube, which an be found here and here, examining the meaning of 2001 Hives compellingly argues that the extraterrestrials presented in 2001 were not alien beings, but in fact other human beings from another planet. He notes that, among other things, the alien spaceship in 2001 and other artifacts associated with them are all designed for humanoid like beings. Thus, earth and its inhabitants were created by another, interstellar branch of humanity.

This is a notion that Prometheus takes up in a more blatant fashion. Superficially the Engineers are an idolized vision of what humanity may ultimately evolve into. It's interesting to note how nihilistic this vision has become between the time of Kubrick's trailblazing film and Scott's latest take. Both films effectively presented a universe in which all magic is gone. The Kubrick's version is at least semi-optimistic about man's potential future. Scott depicts a supremely evolved version of humanity that is every bit as homicidal and genocidal as us earthlings.

It's also interesting to note the cultural shift between these two films. In 2012, when Prometheus was released, religion was very much in decline in the Western world, especially in the wake of the Bush II years. This was a process that was well when Kubrick released 2001 in 1968. It's tempting to speculate that on some level both films are an attempt, either intentionally or subconsciously, to fill the void. Both films offer us mysticism, but mysticism grounded in the scientific worldview of the modern world. This is of course highly acceptable to our modern sensibilities.

Some among the conspiratorial right will no doubt view Prometheus as another thread in the web of a new religion based around the concepts of ancient astronauts that is being unveiled to the public. This is a most intriguing prospect, especially in the wake of the ancient astronaut blitz leading up to 2012.Films like Prometheus and 2001 have cleverly hedge their bets, adopting strands of scientific humanism as well. As noted above, there is an indication in both films that not only does humanity control its own evolution but that humanity even created itself. 2001 wisely used ambiguity to mask this notion. In Prometheus it is direct and this may be one of the reasons why audiences have not found it in their hearts to proclaim the film a modern classic.

And ultimately this is most understandable, for the universe of Prometheus is truly a disheartening one.


  1. Awesome post. I love all the stuff you write.

  2. the movie was good, your post was better than the movie. In view of all the anticipation, it was really restrained in most senses. I liked it more than most people that I heard talk about it, them not being as into sci-fi and other stuff as I am, but still felt it lacking by the end. I think the 2nd movie will or should be as good as I thought the first one would be.

  3. Jared-

    Thank you for responding and sorry for taking so long to get back to you.

    I think Damon Lindefolf's involvement probably hindered things as well. He's a great concept guy but he has problems making his ideas work over the course of a series/film. "Lost" ended up being equally restrained.

    I also think he puit himself in a corner by insisting on a scientific explaination behind the events in the film. This probably added to the restraint.