The 15 Big Ideas In Prometheus

Prometheus is going to be a controversial film. As a prequel to Alien, and a "summer" movie, it has a certain suspense / horror / sci-fi pedigree that generally belies serious conversation. There's no particular reason Prometheus should have "big" themes running through it, any more than Battleship or MIB 3 would, except for the salient fact that we believe director Ridley Scott has embedded some interesting nuggets throughout, much as he did with Blade Runner.

So what are these "big" ideas? What are the questions and themes Prometheus tackles throughout its two-hour running time? We'll start with the easy ones, and then progress toward the more philosophical questions.

Note: Massive thematic SPOILERS follow, naturally.

#1 Always Wear a Helmet and Proceed with Caution

Michael Fassbender and Noomi Rapace in Prometheus

After watching Prometheus you'll quickly come to the conclusion that many of the calamities that befell the intrepid explorers could have been avoided, merely with stronger safety protocols. Who takes their helmet off approximately 45 seconds after arriving on an alien planet? And why did the humans continually think, "Hmmm, I should probably touch this crazy looking snake animal"? Let's just reflect on the replete failure of the Prometheus crew to maintain even a modicum of discipline while studying a COMPLETELY NEW world. I mean, c'mon people, let's all act like we've been there before, even if we haven't.

#2 The Visual Eye of Masters

Ridley Scott isn't afraid of depth of field, which is something many younger filmmakers seem to be missing. (Well, with the exception of Tarsem.) Even a cursory look at the more interesting films of 2011, Drive, We Need to Talk About Kevin, Bellflower, Shame, Attack the Block, and The Descendants reveals that they were all filmed really intimately, and up close. Much of this is good old-fashioned budgetary constraint. It's become (relatively) easy to pull together enough financing to make a legit drama, but getting risky with really wide shots still scares off the new guard. Not so for Ridley, as Prometheus continually takes a good long meandering look at its surroundings. If he did make the film for the reported $130m production budget then 20th Century Fox got a nice product for far less than Battleship cost. Win.

Regardless of budget, Mr. Scott wants you to have a God's eye view, and he's willing to give it to you on the regular. It's a wonderful technique, full of artful force, a quality I hope inspires bigger thinking from our current crop of directors. There's also a possibility that this "God's eye view" was more than a filming technique, as the majority of the film deals with Gods and monsters. If Prometheus is a treatise on the nature of divinity, then it makes total sense to make it as big and grand as possible. Big things may indeed have "small beginnings," but films about the quixotic nature of humanity should have big surroundings, right?

While we're on the subject of big thinking ...

#3 The Mapping Tech

Michael Fassbender and Mapping Technology in Prometheus

Thankfully, we're getting as much sci-fi into cinemas as we ever have, but we're sadly seeing less and less innovation. Films like In Time show off a future that looks very much like ours, only with more roadblocks. Tron Legacy looks like a video game, but it held very little in the way of imagination where future tech was concerned (though I'll admit the outfits were quite snazzy). Movies such as Minority Report and the original Total Recall remain interesting even today because they took innovative risks with tech trends.

Prometheus is (mostly) set 80 years forward from now, but Ridley Scott has done a serviceable job at predicting how things might work. The mapping robots make sense given current nano-abilities, plus they show a bit of art and imagination. While watching the mapping scene it was easy to think "Why don't other directors try to make a guess as to where everything is headed?" Even James Cameron's Aliens figured cameras would still be huge in size and scanning technologies would still be clunky. The lesson: It's better to take a chance on futurism and be way off as opposed to simply making things a little shinier than they are today.

That said, it should be noted that Prometheus completely swings and misses on the idea of DVRs, as Fifield and Millburn are flat-out murdered while Captain Janek (Idris Elba) takes a sex break. He gets back to the control room and is all "Hmmm, wonder where those dudes are at." He should be saying, "Run that tape back. Whoa! Them fellas got totes eaten!!" Ah well. At least the mapping droids were cool. A point for Ridley there.

While we're on the subject of tech, let's get into the most prominent tech (and character arc) of Prometheus ...

#4 "No Man Needs Nothing"

David (Michael Fassbender) is a fan of Lawrence of Arabia, and he quotes this profound line from the film. The "need" for something propels discovery, invention, and conquest. But do you want to take a guess as to a creation that does in fact "need nothing"? David. He needs nada. Not air, not food, not love. And it's this "need for nothing" that makes him so diabolically dangerous. Humans have motivations. The intelligence humans are actively working to cultivate has no motivation, no need. This is the central concept of many a sci-fi book, and for good reason, as humanity has yet to come to terms with it. What do you do with a tool that cares not for your pesky humanity?

But does David really "need nothing"? After all, though his actions are initially tough to read, we can eventually put together a framework of what he was doing as constructed through Weyland's orders. Then his motivations become "clear," so long as your definition of clarity involves precisely executing the visions of a mad man. You could also make some pretty serious parallels between The Engineers and David. Both do things that we're unable to comprehend. With David, we eventually suss out some logic. With The Engineers? Not so much, though you'd have to cede there could be some overarching logic that we're not privy to. The folks who don't love the movie are saying this avoidance of answers is what makes the film weak. But I'm not sure why they were expecting the mysteries of the universe to be cleared up for them within the structure of a movie.

Still, let's go one step deeper into the world of Prometheus. What does the "creator" (The Big Humans, or what the film calls "Engineers") make of a creation (Little Humans) that doesn't even know its maker? The answer, the film seems to indicate, is "not much". Which brings us to ...

#5 Humanity is Becoming so Saccharine that it's Not Humanity Anymore.

This is the central construct of Michael Fassbender's character, David. But first, let's break down that doozy of a name. From Wikipedia:

David is very important to Jewish, Christian and Islamic doctrine and culture. In Judaism, David, or David HaMelekh, is the King of Israel, and the Jewish people. Jewish tradition maintains that a direct descendant of David will be the Messiah. In Islam, he is known as Dawud, considered to be a prophet and the king of a nation.

So yeah, David is about the most meaningful name you could give a robot that appears at first to be hell-bent on sabotaging humanity, before the Weyland reveal. However, in this case it's crucial to note that Ridley Scott has replaced our Judeo-Christian sense of "God" with a "creator" construct, an ancient (and larger) proto-human. Okay, so follow this math: The Engineers created the "Earth" humans, who then created "robot David". We've now set up Michael Fassbender's David as the "prophet" of the story, though without any empathy or "soul". He's the "evolution" of humanity, but because of this evolution, humanity is positioned on the edge of a cliff. Things get easier, cleaner, and take less effort, but they also become something other than human in the process, as "the human condition" is the struggle. If humanity has constantly been asking the eternal question of "Why are we here? Who created us? What is our purpose?" (and really, you've got to give me that premise) then David gives us the answer. But it's not an answer anyone is at all prepared for or going to like very much. Which brings up ...

#6 Robots Might End Up Being Jerks

Michael Fassbender in Prometheus

This has been done before (Hi original Alien!) but it bears repeating and reflection. The fact that so many directors tackle at least one "We need to proceed with caution on technology" film is worth noting. From The Matrix to Alien to Battlestar Galactica, the idea that we're actively developing a tech that may end up our better is a profound notion.

David plays a critical, and somewhat inscrutable role in Prometheus. Why does he purposely infect Charlie (Logan Marshall-Green)? Why does he "save" Elizabeth (Noomi Rapace)? David's motivations are constantly shifting, and he's probably going to be the biggest problem for most audiences, because you just can't get a read on the guy. Which is the exact point. You won't be able to get a read on sentient computers.

In Prometheus, David is on a bigger mission than any of the crew realizes, a mission which supersedes their own, making David a potential saboteur. So what DOES happen if the person who creates (or manages) excellent tech pits it against fellow humans for personal gain? It's going to be an issue, right? And this is why David is the key to the whole shooting match. If you find yourself intrigued by David, and the implications of David, then you're going to dig the hell out of Prometheus. If not, well, you're likely in the "egh, decent action, but that's it" camp. Speaking of David's mission ...

#7 Loss and Death Make Us Human.

Death is seen as a connotative negative by the world at large. We cry at funerals, we miss our pets, and we all worry about what's next. This is the fuel for a thousand religions. However, death is actually a natural positive, part of the overall "plan". Without it, resources wouldn't be at all sustainable. Simply put, without death there's no cooperation or adaptation.

And so, when Guy Pearce (as Peter Weyland) goes off searching for "new life" (read: immortality) he's very much upsetting the natural order of things. Without death, or the opportunity for death, morals get very cloudy, very quickly, in a zero-sum game toward sustaining individual life indefinitely. Death is often a teaching moment, and large-scale death is especially worrisome to humans, which tends to facilitate change. We look at Germany in the '30s and '40s and think, "we're never letting that happen again". But, if you take the moral hazard away from people, if they can act in any manner they please without fear of an "ultimate" price, then you've completely pulled out the rug on the process of emotional evolution.

Consider the following hypothetical: What if 100 people, worldwide, were impervious to death? They had a system wherein, upon their passing, their memories and knowledge were simply passed on to a new receptacle and they rebooted, good as new. This has been the fodder of sci-fi for generations, and it was recently broken down in "You Are Not a Gadget" by Jaron Lanier. It's a massive question, perhaps the biggest question around as we coast into the future, because how do you suppose those 100 people would act? Would they be nicer, knowing they had forever? Or would they become more ruthless, safe in the knowledge that everyone else, as a mortal, was completely irrelevant? You might see both methods employed, but it's severely scary regardless. And keep in mind that Ridley Scott is broaching this topic as a man in his seventies. He won't be around in 50 years to deal with this, but he's clearly approaching the topic with dread. Instead of being afraid of his own mortality, he's holding Peter Weyland's quest for "God-dom" in a stark contempt. Why does the film have this take on the situation? That part is simple, actually, and it points out that Ridley Scott's desire for morality is stronger than his desire for immortality.

Our culture has been built upon the premise of "be good now for a reward later". If you lose that, again, we're no longer human. We're something else entirely, and the game is forever changed. Prometheus hints at this change, and it's truly the scariest idea embedded within, regardless of giant human meanies or squid monsters that are placed front and center.

Consider the character of Meredith Vickers. Her sole purpose in the movie seems to be to beat this drum. Her quote, "The king has his reign ... and then dies." There's another line later in the film that goes something like "Doesn't everyone want their parents to die?" That's putting too fine a point on it, as it's clearly not that simple, and many of us love our parents dearly, but the natural order of the world is momentously shaken once father and daughter are forced to scramble for the same resources, as this particular shipboard family seems to be doing.

#8 What People Choose to Believe is Far More Important than Facts.

Faith. It's a constant theme in the film, as even David seems to place "faith" in his creator, and Shaw references her faith to justify her blind optimism in seeking out an alien race. This, ultimately, comes back to haunt her, as it has for many a society. Still, what's the alternative? Without faith in something, some belief system, you've got no culture at all. It's not comforting to think about, but the very thing that makes humans strong (willingness to sacrifice, shared goals, blind optimism) is also an Achilles heal (suicide bombers, ideas that spread like a virus, always wanting more). Faith allows us to accomplish almost anything (St. Peters, the justice system). It also puts us in dire jeopardy of accomplishing something that is our eventual undoing (Nuclear warheads, seeking out an alien culture that wants to murder us). Shaw's dilemma is our dilemma, but how do you reconcile such a thing? Would the world have been better off without Christopher Columbus? It's flat out impossible to say, and it probably isn't the most germane question anyway, especially given there will always be people pushing the envelope to better their personal situations.

The world is in a constant battle for balance, and when things head too far one way or the other you'll often see a brutal course correction. But we can't hope to dissuade faith, nor should we attempt to. As humans, we're forever adrift on a boat, always looking over that next horizon for storm or shelter. Basically, in summation:

#9 Humans Can't Leave Well Enough Alone

The human search for significance and meaning is the human condition. It's the basis of art, discovery, and most of the good and bad things that have happened in history. In the case of Prometheus the laudable thirst for knowledge leads Shaw and her team into peril. As she herself says, "This place isn't what we thought it was." Yep, Ms. Shaw, there's only one thing worse than not getting what you want. And that's getting what you want. But humanity keeps puttering along, doesn't it?

And the thing that occasionally dooms us, that insatiable appetite for more, also makes us great. And while we're on the subject of great things ...

#10 Great Things Are Often Accomplished by Driven, "Bad" People. Or Not.

Motivations are ever changing in Prometheus. Charlize Theron (as Meredith Vickers) is always looking out for herself, but in that capacity she's also (kinda, sorta) looking out for the ship too. She wants to take over her father's company, but only because she's driven, not because she wants to destroy it. Captain Janek enjoys life, music, and women. But he's willing to lay it on the line to save the whole of humanity. Peter Weyland has invested a trillion dollars in a ship capable of reaching an alien planet. This, on the face of it, is a huge boon to science and knowledge; only he did it for completely selfish reasons.

Crucially, though we want our heroes to be pure of heart, and our villains to do bad things for bad reasons, the inverse is often true. So what's the secret to getting ahead? What quality have both papa and daughter cultivated to come out on top? Ruthlessness, and going after what they want. Perhaps the most telling moment of Theron's character is her dalliance with The Captain. This is a moment of pure whimsy, perhaps the only scene that truly humanizes her, though all the "action" takes place away from our view. Still, Vickers takes what she wants, just like her father. She (mostly) seems disciplined, and each of her moments on-screen feel calculated to give us the impression that she's every bit of her father's daughter.

The special thing both Vickers and Weyland realize is that ...

#11 "The Trick is Not Minding That it Hurts"

Another Lawrence of Arabia line, though this one David is watching instead of espousing. Here's the entire exchange from the film:

Potter: [trying to copy Lawrence's snuffing a match with his fingers] Oh, it damn well hurts.

Lawrence: Certainly it hurts.

Potter: Well, what's the trick, then?

Lawrence: The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts.

This trick is actually the "trick" of humanity. Want to play in the NBA? Get in the gym for about 20,000 hours. Want to figure out what's on the other side of the ocean? Build a boat and suffer for a few months. All human achievement is built upon struggling, and none of our hard-earned luxuries came easy to past generations. This is the foundation of most "Greed is good" arguments, that Weyland's struggle for eternal life somehow justifies him a shot at it. I would tend to disagree with this assessment, but depending on your politics you might very well argue "survival of the fittest" could be amended to "eternal survival of the fittest." Slippery slope, meet current day technology. Prometheus points out, once again, the greatness and potential danger of "not minding" paired with hubris.

#12 "God Does Not Build in Straight Lines"

When the ship descends to the alien surface, they spot structure, which is a clear giveaway of habitation. Charlie (Logan Marshall-Green) says this, but unpacking the statement after the fact makes my head hurt. Still, we're a million words in; let's just go for it. To wit:

Charlie and Elizabeth are on the search for an alien civilization based on multiple cave drawings. They find it. Unfortunately, they also find out that they were "created" by this alien race. As such, if the belief is that God created humanity, then these creatures are, by definition, God. And they did build in a straight line. Soooooo ... Charlie's perception of God is that it "doesn't build in a straight line," only he's later proven wrong once the DNA matches up. Charlie's creator built in a straight line. But it brings up the entire question of God. Did God create the previous human species, which then created us? Or is God simply the all powerful thing that created The Engineers, which created us? Clearly, these are big ol' questions, but Charlie's statement is eventually proven to be quite ironic while also pulling at the strings of faith and God. Yeeps. That's a lotta mileage for one throwaway line of dialogue. How about another one ...

#13 "Here's Mud in Your Eye"

Charlie says this to David as he toasts him, right after the bit of dialogue above, and I'd say it needs further exploration. It's an archaic phrase, even now in 2012, much less in 2093. To have Charlie throw this out, as he's about to be infected, is a complete anachronism, so what gives?

This one is tougher, as the etymology of the idiom is massively unclear. It seems to have two possible meanings.

1) From a Biblical passage, John 9: 6-7 wherein Jesus cures a blind man by putting mud in his eye.

2) Horse racing, you would get "mud in your eye" when you were behind in a race.

The Biblical version pleases me the most, as it would make sense if Charlie were wishing David good sight, pointing out David's clear lack of humanity. But ... as the phrase doesn't seem to exist in literature prior to 1927 it seems unlikely that it would have a Biblical origin. Which leads us to horse racing, which could be accurate, as Charlie clearly felt superior to David, with the infection serving as his comeuppance. Either way, it's hard to tell where Ridley Scott and the writing team are just messing with us, and where the actual meaning of Prometheus is hidden. Could it be ...

#14 "To Create one Must First Destroy"

As humans, we are emboldened by both our creations and destruction. Prometheus is keen to point out that we a) could have been created by aliens and b) other beings might share our appetite for destruction.

The Engineers built us, and we built David. Then David destroyed us, and everyone was against the aliens. Earth was created, but the civilization that created it seems to be made up of destroyers. It's a completely circular logic, but it maintains that energy is finite, and nothing can be created from nothing.

Of course, then you do a little research, and realize David's quote comes from Stalin, and you're shipped right back to go, fumbling about for answers.

Okay, let's wrap this us with ...

#15 The Quest for Revenge (Super Cooperators)?

Noomi Rapace in Prometheus

At the end of the film, Shaw decides she's had just about enough of being attacked. She wants answers. ("You want answers? I want the truth!!") So she's headed back to the home planet of the Engineers, and David is going to take her there. For science? Maybe? But more likely it's for some element of revenge. A peace-loving Shaw tries to go home, doesn't she? A Shaw looking for scientific discovery realizes that it's not important that only she attains knowledge. This feels more like a suicide mission than anything else. Which brings us to the topic of revenge. I believe Shaw is headed back to teach The Engineers we're not to be trifled with.

Revenge is another word with a negative connotation, but it actually has a positive effect on the world at large, at least where balance is concerned. The notion of revenge is a factor in how people deal with each other, and it's a crucial component to how we structure our lives and whom we surround ourselves with. The Prisoner's Dilemma is mentioned in about a hundred recent sociology books, and the lesson is always the same: revenge works to keep mean people in line. Any just society must have consequences for those who step out of line.

Consider the book "Super-Cooperators" which posits that neither cooperation nor self-serving individuals have the exact right tactic. In computer simulations too many cooperators (let's call these "harmony folk") leave themselves open to shifty operators. Too many people willing to take advantage leaves no one left to take advantage of. And so culture progresses like a wave, ebbing and flowing as we alternatively take advantage and then sacrifice to lift others up. There is no right answer, harmony is impossible, but "bad" people never fully win the day.

So then, if Ridley Scott's Prometheus is poking at the edges of creation AND our central motivations, what's left? If God is not to be found in our current definition, and if our constant thirst for knowledge might kill us all, where does that leave our culture? Finally, does the world rapidly progressing toward a sort of tech immortality pave the way for a humanity that is virtually unrecognizable?

This is why Prometheus is an important film, far more clever than the average summer movie, and worthy of introspection. I don't know if all the answers are all in there, but I had a hell of a time considering the questions.

Here's hoping you do too.