Please note that the following post may contain spoilers.
Ridley Scott’s Prometheus is chilling science fiction, a Lovecraftian space odyssey that poses some big questions about the origin of life and its ultimate purpose. David Denby has called it “a metaphysical ‘Boo!’ movie.” Andrew O’Hehir compared it to Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life:
Both are mightily impressive spectacles that will maybe, kinda, blow your mind, en route to a hip-deep swamp of pseudo-Christian religiosity.
I want to counter those claims by demonstrating that, though characters in the film may have faith in something beyond the material world, the film itself (mostly through the android David) depicts a world incompatible with that faith.
The film opens with a humanoid on what is presumably primordial earth. A spaceship is seen in the distance, apparently abandoning him. He drinks something from a cup and begins to disintegrate. His genetic material, we’re led to believe, helped spawn life on earth. Thus, we’re immediately given the film’s premise: an alien race “engineered” humans through this initial act of terraforming. This premise, quite naturally, invites skepticism. Even if an alien race did spark life on earth, there is no way that they could have predicted the paths that this life would take. There is no way that they would have been able to engineer the many happy accidents that allowed a branch from this seed to evolve into humans. Later, we will meet a biologist among the crew of the spaceship Prometheus. He knows how life evolved on earth and voices his skepticism at the idea that we were somehow designed. How does the script handle this contradiction? It renders the biologist irrelevant, as nothing more than a cowardly stock character. But skepticism hardly matters; we have already seen the creation of life on earth, so we must accept this premise, believable or not, as a fact in the world of the film.
This brings us to our protagonist, archaeologist Elizabeth Shaw. She (along with boyfriend Charlie Holloway) is the one who uncovered the cave paintings supporting the theory of extraterrestrial parentage. The mission of the Prometheus, we learn, is to find our alien ancestors and ask them why they created us. The assumption, of course, is that there is a meaning to human life, a reason for us being here. And this meaning, according to Shaw, is out there among the stars for us to discover. She wears her faith in this idea like a virtue; she also wears a cross.
But Shaw isn’t the only one who has a religious worldview at stake. Even Peter Weyland (the sinister corporate interest who is funding the mission) expresses faith in metaphysical gobbledygook when he says that David, his android creation, differs from humans in that he does not possess a “soul.”
We are told that David is different from humans because he has no soul — but is the trick really that David knows humans don’t either? Where humans pretend that they are different, that we have creators with answers to our questions, gods who will elevate us above the rest of the universe, David accepts the empty desert and the trick is simply: not minding that it hurts.
I agree with this analysis, and I think it is a key to understanding David’s function in the film and his obsession with Lawrence of Arabia. His fondness for the David Lean film is particularly fascinating. He even attempts to mimic Peter O’Toole through his appearance and mannerisms. In this ability to learn through experience and observation and to mimic the behavior of model figures, David is perhaps more human than the other characters can comfortably realize, despite his lack of a “soul.” As the author of the character analysis suggests, maybe David differs most from humans in that he can accept the meaninglessness of existence. For example, David knows all too well why he was created:
DAVID: Why do you think your people made me?
HOLLOWAY: We made you because we could.
DAVID: Can you imagine how disappointing it would be for you to hear the same thing from your creator?
In exchanges such as this, David perfectly undermines the metaphysical delusions of his companions.
So what of Shaw’s faith? What does it mean in this context? As I already discussed, we are shown the creation of life right at the start, so we at least know that Shaw’s theory of extraterrestrial parentage is correct (absurd as it is). We then see Shaw and Holloway uncover physical evidence to support their claim (cave paintings around the world that depict giant figures pointing to a specific star system). People are reasonably skeptical, but rather than argue with the strength of their evidence, Shaw relies on a typical religious defense: “It’s what I choose to believe.” She clearly possesses a metaphysical bent; she demands a meaning for her life outside of her own making, and as I said earlier, she wears her faith in this objective value like a virtue. But the manner in which life was created, designed, or engineered is depicted as a material process–not a spiritual one.
Thus, Shaw can accept her theory of extraterrestrial parentage without the need of a metaphysical foundation for this belief. She has data that supports it (including strong DNA evidence), even if it goes against the established body of scientific data. So her conviction and her cross are peculiar affects, much like Captain Janek’s Christmas tree (a cultural symbol that survives through habit and custom). What’s even more interesting is that Shaw does not discard her faith at the film’s end, even after she exclaims quite exuberantly: “We were so wrong.” She requests her cross back from David, who had removed it earlier. He asks: “Even after all this, you still believe, don’t you?” It’s a valid point. How can we take Shaw seriously as a scientist if she is so willing to turn a blind eye to all that she has just witnessed? We are left silently snickering at this all-too-human foible, just as David mocks it in his own special way.
So Prometheus does not support a metaphysical outlook, even if its characters adopt one. As Jim Emerson points out: “Not unlike Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, Prometheus uses god as a MacGuffin.” Furthermore, David the android serves as the perfect foil to the humans and their odd beliefs. Toward the end of the film, on the brink of death, Weyland declares: “There is nothing.” “I know,” David responds with appropriate coldness. “Have a pleasant journey, Mr. Weyland.”