Prometheus and the Complexities of Interpretivism

prometheus film poster <em>Prometheus</em> and the Complexities of InterpretivismThe critical reception for Prometheus has stimulated an interesting and extended discussions regarding the film’s synthesis of religion, science, and society. These discussions, however, have been markedly characterized by confusion and puzzlement. In their rush to understand the film’s narrative, some scientists have expressed their bafflement while theologians and creationists have asserted their interpretive theories. To keep people from losing their way, pop-culture, traditional and legacy media types have tried to process the film’s larger meanings by plodding into convention and easy distinctions. But the more useful discussions regarding the film’s use of proto-linguistics as well as the narrative’s synthesis of intelligent design and naturalism can be found in more discreet places. In this respect, the critical reaction to Prometheus has created a clustered set of discourse communities dedicated to clarifying the film’s nebulousness. 

No one, however, took a longer leap of interpretive faith than Christopher S. Morrissey. Morrissey, a professor of philosophy, makes many speculative claims in his essay for the Catholic World Report. Interestingly, he begins his effort with this cause-effect statement, trying to explain the audience’s confusion regarding the story: “the fact that people are genuinely puzzled by [the film] reflects the genuine integrity with which the film has been constructed.” Though one should quarrel with the assumptions behind this statement, we’ll permit Morrissey some creative latitude in framing his analysis, for Morrissey argues that Prometheus contains “profound literary and mythological themes” in which “these very religious Engineers, who are highly sympathetic to Jesus and his message, are completely appalled at the human race’s treatment of him.” 

Morrissey’s interpretations may be rhetorically bold, but they are not discardable.

According to Morrissey, the crucifixion of Christ created discord among the Engineers, dividing them between “the Gnostics” (or Heretics), who want to wipe out life on Earth, and the “Universal Engineers,” who see this kind of capital punishment as contrary to their beliefs and practices. Morrissey extends further, arguing that the film resonates with audiences because it treats the mutuality of faith and reason as a serious subject.

Our goal is not to critique Morrissey’s interpretive thesis or to offer a rigid analysis of his evaluative claims. We understand that deciphering the authorial intent of writers John Spaihts and Damon Lindelof (as well as director Ridley Scott) is often related to comprehending the response of viewers, and Morrissey understands that creating textual meaning is a cooperative act between viewer and artist, so he intertextualizes and referentializes his review with quotations from the filmmakers to strike a clearer understanding of the film’s intentions.

In this respect, we encourage people to read Morrissey’s arguments and determine for themselves the validity of his rhetorical acts. With this context in mind, we offer and restate some questions and partially developed ideas (that support and have no bearing on his observations) in the spirit of broadening the discourse related to Prometheus. Here we go:

1. Opening scenes: the First Engineer ingests a liquid matter that violently breaks him apart. This action eventually results in our creation. However, this cause and effect relationship is developed ambiguously. Prometheus suggests (but never makes clear) that there is more than one kind of liquid matter. For instance, when Android Dave (Michael Fassbender) surreptitiously gives Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) a drop from one of the cannisters, Holloway undergoes rapid change, but he is killed before we can fully understand what’s happening to him. Further, when the geologist Fifeld (Sean Harris) is compromised, he becomes viciously violent and is soon torched by Vickers (Charlize Theron). However, the liquid matter’s effects on another life form yields different results. When a seemingly simpler life form contacts this matter, it grows, but it does not appear to turn on its own species. This duality raises questions: are these varied effects caused by different kinds of liquids? One for the Engineers, and a weaponized one for non-engineers? Probably. Is the liquid a natural substance or an artificial brew? Both? Though we may never know the answers to these questions, the duality of these effects is quite evident: when the Engineers ingest their liquid, their painful, isolated deaths lead to the birthing of life; for non-Engineers, they turn into violent antagonists who are compelled to harm, overtake, or destroy others.

2. Duality, Antithetically: the First Engineer’s self-sacrifice can be interpreted a few ways. His action may fulfill a small role in an larger kind of interstellar manifest destiny (or divine destiny), but his self-sacrifice could also be interpreted as part of an imperialistic, hegemonic form of expansionism (more exogenesis than panspermia) independent of religious doctrine. Though the First Engineer’s garb suggests a medieval (even religious) signifier, only when his behavior is recontextualized with the overt religious displays of the humans do his actions take on a potentially religious connotation (yes, juxtaposition), as Morrissey suggests. Most critics have acknowledged the thematic importance of Dr. Elizabeth Shaw’s (Noomi Rapace) Christian beliefs as well as her preoccupation with her cross, and the film develops this theme in various ways. For example: the captain’s (Idris Elba) staging of the Yule tree is a simple signifier; but when he willfully crashes the Prometheus into the alien ship, he stands in the center of the bridge, flanked on both sides by his two remaining crewmen. They all raise and spread their arms before the ships collide. This scene suggests the importance of the trinity and could serve as a reference to Golgotha. This religious theme, however, is developed antithetically. Android Dave’s reference to how children would like to off their parents (re: Vickers and Weyland) might reflect Nietzsche’s “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers?” from Thus, Spoke Zarathustra. This thematic contrast is reinforced early on when Shaw is mocked caustically by her colleagues because of her faith.

3. Dating the Engineers: the carbon dating of the headless engineer’s body (2000 years ago) puts their presence on LV 223 at the time of Christ, as Morrissey indicates. It is also the period in which the Engineers apparently weaponize the liquid matter. The holographic images showing the Engineers running for their lives could be interpreted a few ways: (1) these creations were unleashed upon them by the Last Engineer, as Morrissey indicates, or (2) these Engineers simply lost control of the experiment. But the Last Engineer’s actions do raise a number of questions. Did he chamber himself to hide from the creatures, hoping that others of his kind would rescue him? A long time has past since, so why did no others come? Or did they? Perhaps the corpses belong to those who investigated and were killed by the surviving Engineer, a circumstance that reinforces Morrissey’s Universals vs. Gnostics argument. However, if they had all been on the planetary moon at the same time, the odds are likely that they were all complicit in this program, as the Prometheus captain guesses, so maybe there was no Universal-Gnostic conflict. If the Engineers were killed by their experiment, it is odd that they had no apparent method for better controlling this experiment (ala the Blade Runner replicants). Were such a superspecies of creators really that strategically naive? More adept at creating than killing? Perhaps inexperienced at biogenic warfare? If their control method was to isolate this experiment to this particular planetary moon, why have and keep space-worthy ships and allow other interstellar travelers to land?

4. The Last Engineer: Shaw asks Android Dave to ask the Last Engineer why the Engineers changed their minds about humanity. There are a few interesting points about this scene. First, Shaw is not wearing her cross. Earlier, Android Dave removes her cross and places it in her pack after her self-directed surgery. If the hidden premise of the film is that some faction of the Engineers were deeply angered over Christ’s crucifixion, then the Last Engineer would have had to react in some way to her cross, thus giving away the unstated plot elements. Second, if the Engineers truly are targeting Earth for crucifying Christ, this stratagem suggests that they do not understand Christ’s significance in the Judeo-Christian narrative. If, indeed, the Engineers see Jesus as a messianic figure (or as a kindred spirit), why attack earth when a substantial part of humanity believes in his resurrection and revelatory return? Given that Jesus’s death and resurrection were the most important factors in the birth of Christianity, the Engineers should understand the transcendental nature of these events, right? Or, do they understand only the event and not the corresponding narrative? But if they do understand this narrative, are their own acts meant to usher in the violence related to Revelation? Or did Jesus’s life end on the cross without a resurrection—an execution incurring the wrath of the Engineers? Again, more interpretive pluralism here.

5. Spatial Mistake (maybe) and Spacial (Mis)direction (maybe): the film’s motifs of dislocation and belonging are intentionally and unintentionally reinforced when, after the alien ship crashes spectacularly and rolls improbably on the surface, Weyland and the others are displaced by this crash and roll, so their bodies are nowhere to be seen, but, curiously, Android Dave’s head and body seem to be in the same spot before the ship’s crash! This apparent flub does ironically work to support the film’s broader ideas about the mental and physical traumas related to dislocation and displacement (a problem that seems to maladjust Vickers). Additionally, audiences probably believed initially that this Last Engineer is the same Space Jockey that the crew of the Nostromo discovers in Alien.  However, the Nostromo lands on LV 426 while the crew of the Prometheus lands on LV 223. Clearly, this Engineer isn’t the same pilot—which means this ship isn’t the same one from Alien, and this planet isn’t the same one on which the Nostromo lands. Is this circumstance akin to the Isla Nublar and Isla Sorna distinction in the Jurassic Park films?

6. Are there no liquid canisters on the ship that David and Shaw use to escape?

7. Interpretation and Interpretivism: Morrissey’s theories reinforce the film’s arguments related to the broad dimensions of human interpretation. The film argues that interpretive acts are primarily moral in nature, and discovering and understanding metaphysical truths take a certain amount of risk and a leap of faith. Certainly, Morrissey’s interpretive act mirrors the film’s primary theme, for Prometheus makes clear that humans have been enriched and conflicted by their varied belief systems (evolution, religion)—and such epistemic systems allow some the power of sight while blinding others. The arguments here are about the actions related to interpretivism. As the film reveals early on, human belief systems are discussed and debated—often integrated—because humans have learned to engage and learn from one another (for the most part) without inciting violence (Vickers, ever the outsider, has a different kind of response to conflict). For the film, belief systems are primarily interpretive systems where humans use an interactive frame of reference to create and recreate knowledge. If Morrissey is correct about the Engineers, then their human children seem to have evolved behaviorally (and cognitively?) beyond their barbarous parents. How? Why?

8. Ambiguously Mediating Conflicting Values: Although there is only indirect textual evidence suggesting that the Engineers attend to spiritual matters, there doesn’t appear to be any overt evidence that the Engineers possess any knowledge of Jesus. The film seems more focused on illustrating the problems associated with human interpretation than explaining the Engineer’s values and actions. We assume Android Dave is the best candidate to stand in for the mythic, titular figure, for the film is more about the Android than either Weyland or the ship. Why? Because Android Dave is the implied narrator, and Prometheus compels us to comprehend the Engineers by how Sha—but mostly David—“see” them and interpret their actions. As viewers, we understand that we have to take dubious Dave’s claims seriously yet cautiously, for he is more willing to overreach and sacrifice others than any other character than, perhaps, Weyland. In scene after scene, the android transgresses barriers, forsaking the safety of his human peers, taking risks not only out of curiosity but because he is implementing Weyland’s plans. The film crystallizes this point when he (it?) uses PIE to mediate between the Last Engineer and his human interlocutors, a meeting that leads to the Last Engineer’s attack. Based on this scene and others, the film argues that mediated acts of interpretation (and diplomatic frames) become deeply problematic due to irreconcilable, conflicting moral values. In this sense, we believe there should be more critical discussion related to how Prometheus explores the need and dangers of interpretivism—of interpretation, interaction, mediation, and diplomacy—regarding judgment and truth. We believe that the popular discourse about the film should be broadened and focused to include a quadralogue of concepts—to study how the film uses interpretive narratives to contextualize discussions about religion, science, and society. Truth is, the film never makes clear the strategic purpose of the weaponized liquid and the creatures it creates, and we are uncertain about the intentions of the Engineers. The film does suggest that the creature at the end will eventually spawn H. R. Giger’s xenomorphs, for there are a few visual references to (what appear to be) the “alien,” if not the alien queen (if she hasn’t yet been created, how do the Engineers know what she looks like? Or was the unseen queen herself responsible for chasing the Engineers?). Although we’re uncertain about the Last Engineer’s earthly plans, he does try to destroy Android Dave by beheading him (a curious move), and he assaults his human visitors (killing Old man Weyland), but the rest of the crew (we presume) perishes as a result of the crash—not because of the direct actions of the Engineer. Later, when Shaw attempts her escape, David warns her that the Engineer is “coming after her.” We assume that the Engineer is going to kill her, but is he? The Engineer does aggressively move to assault her, so she understandably springs the polypus in the life shuttle on her pursuer. The long point is that Shaw’s understanding of the Engineer’s actions is heavily influenced by Android Dave’s politely dubious, manipulative framing. We are not saying that the Last Engineer is not hostile. Clearly, he is. But we are uncertain if his intentions include killing her.

9. Attacking Westernism? Morrissey argues that the Engineers are fighting among themselves about the “meaning of the crucifixion.” The Engineers are split between those who understand the significance of the cross and the more extremist militants (or sectarians) who see this kind of belief as contrary to their foundational tenets. Thus, the Gnostics have liquidated the Universals (who embrace the cross events) as a prelude to their war on humans. If Prometheus represents a confluence of tension and, ultimately, an internal struggle among the faithful, then the Universalists, as Morrissey figures, bend toward holiness while the Gnostics pull toward totalitarianism. However, one could read things differently. Because Shaw is the protagonist, one senses great sympathy on the film’s part with her philosophical natality and scientific creativity as she searches for hard answers for her existential questions. In this sense, Shaw has been inscribed by an intellectual and religious tradition (Athens-Jerusalem) in which the past is freely contextualized with the future—where a belief in transcendence holds together the possibility of framing traditional ideas, beliefs, and practices with new (even radical) scientific discoveries. This kind of Westernism (one should factor Weyland’s kind of corporate capitalism, too) could have provoked a Clash of Civilizations reaction from the Engineers. If the Engineers do possess a faith, this faith may have compelled them to assert their identity by shaping the universe in their androcentered (which may explain the large male-like, humanoid bust in the ship), less egalitarian, “anti-Western” ways because the Engineers (or at least the more terroristic ones) refuse to embrace democracy and pluralism.

10. Athens-Jerusalem, Nature and Providence, Reason and Faith: clearly, there is a conflictive crisis between the Engineers and humans, but this crisis could have started for another reason, one related to but different than Morrissey’s hypothesis and unrelated to the Clash of Civilizations model noted above. The film could be illustrating the conflictive and pluralistic synthesis of the Graeco-Roman and Judeo-Christian master narratives. When religious perspectives grew significantly, humans turned away from the old secularism and moved toward a new epistemology based on theocentric values, and when man’s belief in the significance of the crucifixion and resurrection grew, the Protagorean maxim of “man is the measure of all things” became subsumed by a developing set of transcendental beliefs. The very idea of a human-centered universe embracing a theocentricity could also explain why the Engineers chose to punish humans, for they may interpret any kind of religious conversion as a betrayal worth damnation. Here, if the filmmakers assent to this kind of historicism, then the film’s narrative would make better sense if the Engineers come from a kind of humanism that breeds a nihilistic, techno-secularism that judges religious faith as deeply and dangerously offensive. This antithesis of nature and providence, reason and faith—as a thematic, organizational, and narrative principle—is reinforced in the film’s many motifs and larger themes. Although we’re uncertain if the Engineers wish to extinguish humans, they do seem willing to populate earth with vicious and base creatures that are neither capable of comprehending nor expressing a faith.

Of course, there is more about the effects of modernity, but the film’s most vibrant theme explores how interpretive acts are really moral acts of reasoned faith. The film argues that exploration and interpretivism are really about the search for the Self. As different audiences with varied values watch and re-watch Prometheus, they will exert more discussions about the film’s constellation of thematic concepts, for Prometheus spans the spectrum from natality to finality by exploring the epistemological and ontological significance of how transcendental beliefs (myths, religion) might better contextualize scientific knowledge. Because the film argues that a belief in transcendence can compel people to find larger biological and scientific truths, the film ends with a quest. As Shaw and Android Dave leave LV 223, they possess the answers to humanity’s origins, so they seek uncertain existential and teleological paths to understand if humanity has an intrinsic legitimacy (and finality) beyond the Self and beyond the determinism of the Engineers.

by David Ryan and Michael Ryan

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  • Peter Vallance

    Amazing analysis of an amazing film. Thanks for that!

  • Peter Vallance

    Amazing analysis of an amazing film. Thanks for that!