Ridley Scott’s Prometheus (2012) was an epic, existential prologue to Alien (1979) over twenty years in the making. The movie expands upon the universe first constructed in partnership between Scott and H.R. Geiger, this time focusing on an anthropological, existential exploration to “meet our makers.” The story centers around the discovery of a cluster of orbs or stars depicted in cave paintings and ancient art by archaeologists Charlie Holloway and Elizabeth Shaw. The same pattern emerges in cultures separated by continents and centuries, and so the two assume that the only possible connection could be extraterrestrial intervention. The archaeologists decide that the cluster of stars is an “invitation” from beings they call the “Engineers”—the extraterrestrial progenitors of human life. They ultimately convince Peter Weyland, megalomaniac billionaire, of their alien origin story, and Weyland provides the funds and equipment to travel to moon IV-223, located in a solar system that matches the pattern found on the petroglyphs. The movie revolves around ideas of paternal power and a version of anthropocentrism—the Prometheus expedition presumes that the Engineers are—or were—a more intelligent, technologically advanced species that passed the flame of life onto the humans of Earth. The crew of Prometheus seeks the sagacious wisdom of extraterrestrials they believe to be far superior to the human race and more knowledgeable about the meaning of the universe.
Peter Weyland believes that the Engineers can answer the philosophical questions that plague mankind: “Where do we come from? What is our purpose? What happens when we die?” (Scott 2012). While the assumption that the Engineers are inherently superior to humans is less problematic than discourses about savagery and primitivism typically employed during first contact scenarios, the attitude still harkens back to the paternalism of colonialism (Fanon 1961; Asad 1973; Said 1978; Dirks 1992b; Schwartz 1994). The imperial project, as it was carried out throughout the world, often positioned the colonizers as father figures, with indigenous peoples framed as children that needed to be properly taught and disciplined the ways of civilization and modernity. The colonists became the prevailing sovereigns of indigenous land, governance and native traditions (Barker 2005). In many colonial states, such as South Africa, the United States and Australia, indigenous children were actually taken from their homes to undergo re-education, ostensibly imprisoned as wards of the state.
As paternal figures, the colonists framed their imperial mission around the moral discourse of “father knows best”, claiming that their actions were done for the good of the indigenous communities. Under the colonial project, many indigenous families were also reorganized into “nuclear and patriarchal rather than extended and egalitarian, as were families in most Native cultures, and that women’s roles be submissive rather than complementary to those of men” (Perdue 2001:6). The relationship between colonized and colonizer was laden with presupposed hierarchies, essentially disavowing the knowledge and traditional lifeways of indigenous groups and communities, thereby dictating an alternative epistemology about the world. As Peter Pels notes, “For the colonized, education and conversion became technologies of self-control that enabled subordination” (1997: 172), while elevating the culture of the imperialists, subsequently reproducing unequal structures of power and prestige. The same patterns are replicated throughout Prometheus. When the exploratory crew first encounters the abandoned alien spacecraft on IV-223, they discover an anthropomorphic figure—a more elegant and muscular human being. A giant human-like head overlooks a cavern full of decanters of eggs, like a god surveying his creation, while the explorers must literally look up to the Engineers. The scene spatially demonstrates the paternal, reverential framework laid out throughout the film.
This idea of parenthood is also played out between the crew of Prometheus and the robot David. In a conversation between David and Charlie Shaw, the hierarchy and irony of creation is further entrenched.
Charlie: What we hoped to achieve was to meet our makers. To get answers. Why they even made us in the first place.
David: Why do you think your people made me?
Charlie: 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? (Scott 2012)
David’s response highlights the pervasive cruelty and egotism that motivates acts of creation in Prometheus. As an automaton, David was created not to experience robotic self-consciousness or explore the furthest reaches of space, but rather as a celebration of selfish human ingenuity and a disposable helper for Peter Weyland. Though Weyland refers to David as the son he never had, David’s entire life is subsumed by Weyland’s needs and desires—he possesses no autonomy or sense of self that is not derivative or automated. Similarly, colonization was not ultimately undertaken to “save” indigenous peoples, but rather for economic, territorial, political gain. The salvation of the natives was used to justify the acquisition of foreign lands by force. More often than not, the peoples that were colonized were then enslaved or annihilated, treated like disposable objects.
When Shaw and Weyland finally make contact with an Engineer who has been held in suspended animation, Weyland crawls like a child to him, expecting welcome and enlightenment. Instead, the Engineer kills Weyland and decapitates David, attempting to complete the mission to destroy the human population it began centuries before. The “superior species,” the God-like alien race was aghast at its creation, the creatures it ostensibly made in its own image, and instead intends to destroy them, just as Dr. Frankenstein hunts his monster across the icy reaches of the world. After Shaw and David escape, Shaw returns to her feelings of injustice and self-importance as a creation:
Elizabeth: They created us. Then they tried to kill us. They changed their minds. I deserve to know why.
David: The answer is irrelevant. It doesn’t matter why they changed their minds.
Elizabeth: Yes—yes it does.
David: I don’t understand.
Elizabeth: Well…I guess that’s because I’m a human being, and you’re a robot. (Scott 2012)
Yet again, although humans are perceived as less than the Engineers, they are still important enough to deserve something from their creators. There is a hierarchy of humanity that is continuously established and instantiated, just as there was a belief in the evolution of cultures from primitive to civilized in the 19th and early 20th centuries. So-called savage peoples were considered to be no better than animals, sub-human, just as David is devalued for his lack of humanity. And yet David also exploits the deceit and condescension of his human counterparts, managing to manipulate the expedition. Weyland has grandiose notions of divinity, claiming that humans have achieved God-like status for the creation of cybernetic intelligence, yet perceives the Engineers as doting progenitors, simultaneously superior and generous to their progeny.
The metaphors and message of Prometheus get a little jumbled throughout the movie, but the concept of superior alien intelligences have also been explored in works like H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds (1898) and Peter Watts’ Blindsight (2006), among other works of science fiction. Regardless of the narrative continuity, Prometheus presents a first-contact scenario that once against replicates unequal power relations between different races and cultures premised on a celestial hierarchy that places certain peoples, or beings, above others. The relationship between humans and robots further demonstrates notions of moral and cognitive supremacy that have historically informed colonization and other first-contact scenarios between imperialists and indigenous peoples. To meet your maker, you must first worship the progenitor as a god, or assume the role yourself.
Asad, Talal ed. (1973). Anthropology and the Colonial Encounter. London: Ithaca Press.
Barker, Joanne (2005). “For Whom Sovereignty Matters. Sovereignty Matters: Locations of Contestation and Possibility in Indigenous Struggles for Self-Determination. Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press. pp. 1-31.
Dirks, NB ed. (1992b). Colonialism and Culture. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Fanon, Frantz (1961). The Wretched of the Earth. Grove Press.
Pels, Peter (1997). “The Anthropology of Colonialism: Culture, History and the Emergence of Western Governmentality.” Ann. Rev. Anthropology. Vo. 26. pp. 163-183.
Perdue, Theda ed. (2001). Sifters: Native American Women’s Lives. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
Said, Edward (1978). Orientalism. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
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Scott, Ridley (2012). Prometheus. 20th Century Fox.
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