Thursday, May 23, 2013

Prometheus (2012) redux

When I first reviewed Prometheus, it struck me that the film wasn’t saying anything. The film made a big deal of religion versus atheism, but it never went beyond some ham-fisted “is true” “is not” dialog that didn’t seem to add up to much. Recently, I’ve given this film a lot of thought however, and I’ve concluded that Prometheus is actually an attack on militant atheism.

Interpreting a film is always difficult because you end up reading a lot of tea leaves the writer may not have intended. In fact, the writer here may have intended nothing more than to throw in some pro/con-religion dialog just to make you think the film is deep. But I have noticed several things that create a consistent pattern, and patterns usually mean intent. What I found is the consistent message that militant atheism is rotten. Observe:

Who Survives: Sometimes the most obvious example of what the writer favors comes from which characters survive the movie. In fact, this touches on a well-known theory that characters who behave morally survive slasher flicks and those who don’t die. Here, two characters ultimately survive. One is Shaw, the only openly religious character. The other is David, the android, who is religious as well (discussed below).

Further, the first to die, and die most horribly, are the two scientists (Millburn and Fifield) who openly mock Shaw for going against Darwinism. The next to die horribly is Shaw’s boyfriend Holloway, who also mocks Shaw’s faith and tries repeatedly to get her to abandon it. The last two to die in highly visible and ignoble ways are Vickers, who shows utter disdain for “true believers” and can’t even tolerate the Captain putting up a Christmas tree, and the Engineer, who is the most militant of the atheists (discussed below). The Captain, who honors the symbols of Christianity (like putting up a Christmas tree) but only expresses limited faith, dies nobly to save humanity. The rest die off screen.

That means all the aggressive atheists die horribly, whereas those who express some faith die nobly or survive. That suggest meaning. Specifically, in film speak, it suggests that the aggressive atheists are bad and the believers are good.

Who is right?: Another way to tell what a film is pushing is asking which characters are right. Shaw represents religion and the other scientists represent militant (mocking) atheism. They claim that she’s a fool to believe that humans were “created.” She’s proven right, however.

What does the neutral observer say?: When a film involves competing sides, there is often an unaligned observer who suggests which side is supposed to be right. In this case, we have David the android. We are told that David cannot appreciate the concept of God because he’s not human and cannot take things on faith. Yet, we get two interesting moments on this issue from David.

First, before David poisons Holloway, he and Holloway have a quick discussion about what Holloway hopes to discover from meeting his creator. Holloway says he wants to know why they made us. David then asks Holloway why humans made David and Holloway says, “Because we could.” Interestingly, David, who is supposed to have no ability to appreciate the idea of God, notes that this answer would be really disappointing to hear. Translation: David is disappointed because he sees something sacred about life, even his own.

Secondly, when the Engineer kills Weyland, his dying words are, “There is nothing,” meaning there is no God. David responds with “I know. . . have a pleasant journey, sir.” This is fascinatingly contradictory. On the one hand, David is agreeing that Weyland is right that there is no God. But then he wishes him a pleasant journey in the afterlife, which wouldn’t exist without a God. To understand what this means, you need to realize that David humors the humans throughout. Whenever they give him an order he doesn’t agree with, he says “yes” and then does his own thing no matter what they told him to do. I think this is the same here. Weyland is telling David, “There is no God,” so David responds like a good android and confirms what he has been told to believe. But once David has humored him, he acts according to his own belief and he wishes Weyland a pleasant journey on his way to meet his maker in the afterlife. That makes David religious, and that means the neutral observer says the religious side is right. It also means David is treating Weyland, who is now an atheist, like a fool.

Hypocrisy: Beyond how they die, Prometheus also shows the atheists as hypocrites. Take the case of Holloway. He keeps telling Shaw that she needs to abandon her faith because there is no God. Yet, Holloway also argues, “God does not build in straight lines.” So he’s a hypocrite because while he wants everyone to be an atheist, he still accepts the idea of God.

Millburn and Fifield are another example of hypocrisy. They claim to be rational thinkers who accept Darwinism because of the evidence. Yet, when they are proven wrong about Darwinism when they find the body of the Engineer, they don’t act like rational thinkers. To the contrary, despite being confronted with clear evidence that would wipe out Darwinism and necessarily lead to a re-alignment of science, these two scientists refuse to examine the evidence and don’t even talk about its implications. . . instead, they talk about tobacco. They are hypocrites in their claim to be rational thinkers.

There’s another aspect to Holloway as well. At one point, Holloway tells Shaw that the fact that the Engineers made humans means there is no God. This is logically false and Shaw calls him on this by saying God made the Engineers. Holloway doesn’t respond by telling her there no God, which would be the true atheist position. Instead, he agrees with her (“Exactly”), but then wrongly says that because of this, we can never know anything about the nature of God. He then uses that assertion to tell her that she should stop worshiping God because we can’t know anything about God. His position is logically wrong, but more interestingly, think about what his position says logically: there is a God, but let’s ignore him. This fits Holloway’s attitude throughout the film. What bothers him isn’t that others believe in God, it’s that they worship God. In effect, he’s not anti-God, he’s anti-worship. . . the same characteristic of militant atheists who’s real beef isn’t that people believe in God, but that they act on that belief.

Who is the bad guy?: Finally, we need to ask who is the bad guy. In this case, the bad guy is the Engineer. . . and he is the most militant atheist. It’s true.

When the film begins and the Engineers create humans, the whole thing appears religious in nature. They are wearing robes and the whole event has a ceremonial feel to it. This is how movies convey religion. So the Engineers, when they are good guys, were religious.

By the time we find the dead Engineer, things have changed. At first, I was confused by the giant statue of a head they seem to be worshiping in the pyramid. This struck me as evidence they were still religious. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that worshiping a statue of your own head is not a symbol of religion, but is a symbol of atheism. It is basically a declaration that man has thrown away God and now worships himself. And now that they are atheists they have decided to kill off the human race. That makes them bad guys. Translation: atheists are bad, genocidal people.

But there’s more.

For one thing, we need to ask why they wanted to kill off the humans. The film doesn’t seem to answer this, but there is a huge clue I missed the first couple times. When they carbon date the dead Engineer, they place it “around 2,000 years ago.” Think about what 2,000 years ago means in popular culture... Christianity. And don’t forget, they find the Engineer on Christmas Day, according to the Captain. In movie-speak where everything in a film is relevant, this tells us the Engineers were happy with us for tens of thousands of years when we worshiped them until Christianity came along. Once we found God, the Engineers because so angry with us they decided to kill us all. Basically, they are so militantly atheistic that they decided to wipe out humanity just because they didn’t want us believing in God.

Even the scene with the living Engineer suggests this. He doesn’t freak out and attack the humans when he first sees them or even when Weyland’s guard roughs up Shaw (the religious believer). He’s fine with those things. He only freaks out after David tells him that they have come looking for their creator. Now, we don’t know what David told him exactly, but he does use the word “Creator.” Translation: once David tells him they have come seeking God, the Engineer attacks them and decides to carry out his mission to wipe out humanity. I think it’s very reasonable to believe from this that the Engineer wants to eradicate the humans because they are religious, i.e. he’s a highly militant atheist. What’s more, in the final scene of the movie, the now-dead Engineer spawns the evil alien creature, which looks suspiciously like Satan.

All in all, I think this adds up to the film’s message being an attack on militant atheism. I don’t see an attack on atheism per se, but definitely the militant variety.



AndrewPrice said...

For those who are wondering why we didn't do James Bond today, it's because we're taking Memorial Day off, so there won't be a film review tomorrow, so I wanted to get this in.

shawn said...

Very interesting- I may have to rewatch this mess.

Have you seen this review that came at almost immediately after the movie opened. It's has a much different take on it and is worth a read.

tryanmax said...

This is the only theory I've encountered that makes sense of the irrational behavior. From a religious, esp. Christian perspective, irrationality is a mark of sinfulness. (The Bible speaks extensively about the foolishness of sinners.) This gives me cause not to only revisit Prometheus but to also revisit virtually every movie where major characters behave irrationally.

AndrewPrice said...

Shawn, That's possible but I don't buy it. It seems far to disproportionate for the Engineers to wipe out all of humanity just because the Romans killed Jesus, even if he was an Engineer.

Moreover, that leaves unexplained (1) why the Engineers seem to be worshiping a statute of an Engineer and (2) why a race that loves self-sacrifice so much would be building genocidal weapons in the first place and could then turn genocidal just because of one killing.

Not to mention, this ignores the fact that humans had been killing massive numbers of everything... men, women, children, animals, whatever... long before the Romans. The only possible difference is that this time they killed an Engineer. But a race that has been guiding humanity in "self-sacrifice," something early humans did NOT exhibit, shouldn't freak out and become genocidal just because of one killing.

K said...

I liked your analysis, Andrew and I think it holds together. Fortunately for Ridley Scott, the movie is sufficiently obscure not to get him in trouble for being one of those religious nuts that believe in G*d and stuff.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, Glad you like it!

I had the same reaction when this clicked. This was the only theory that made sense of the irrational behavior of several characters and it was the only theory that made sense of the dialog.

Take the Engineer. He doesn't really make sense any other way. Even the idea that he freaks out when he sees David doesn't fit with his initial mission to kill all the humans. Basically, that theory says, "he was genocidal... but then he saw us and he liked us so he stopped being genocidal... but then he saw we had made a machine in our own image and he freaked out again." Except, that doesn't make sense to me because it gives him two separate motivations for becoming genocidal (man I hate humans... aw, humans are cute... hey, they built a robot!). I don't think it makes sense to have two separate motivations for something that extreme. Nor does it make sense that his first motive would suddenly go away just because we show up in his ship. He should have freaked out right there and tried to kill everyone.

Similarly, Holloway's character makes no sense unless you realize that he's a militant atheist. Otherwise, he's a walking contradiction who believes when it suits him and tries to get others to renounce their faith whenever it strikes him but doesn't even present valid atheist arguments.

Indeed, Holloway and the other atheist keep saying things that are childish in nature. Thoughtful atheist make much better arguments than "how dare you put up a Christmas tree" and "you better believe Darwinism you lunatic" and "you're an idiot." There's a real childishness and an anger to the atheists through the film. That makes me think they don't represent atheism, but militant atheism -- especially as they seem intent on stopping the others from being religious... "take off the cross", "take down the tree", "gonna wipe you all out."

Finally, I think we need to account for the change in the Engineers. The initial ones were clearly religious. They had beautiful clean bodies and moved with grace. The ones in the ship look different. They're more military. Even their skin seems to be more carved up. Again, in movie speak, that means "transition" of some sort... something has changed and they are no longer the same people they were.

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks K. You know, that's the other thing I've been thinking.... why hasn't Scott come out and told anyone what the film is about?

This would explain it. Scott would know that if he said, "I made a movie attacking militant atheism," that he would get crushed by Hollywood leftists. So he leaves the film to speak for itself.

And don't forget, Scott has made a lot of films with tradition/religious ideas hidden inside them. Blade Runner, for example, is about finding the meaning of God and life. So he has a track record of pushing ideas the Hollywood left would hate and doing so in subtle ways that resonate with the public but don't get the ideas noticed by leftists.

AndrewPrice said...

Thinking about it, you could actually go further too.

1. At no point do the Christian characters ever tell the others what they must believe. To the contrary, they all say, "This is what I believe" and they don't try to change any minds. By comparison, each of the recognized atheists runs around constantly telling the others what they MUST believe. In effect, the film defines the characters as "introvert Christians" versus "militant atheists" or bit player.

2. Notice that Vickers is upset when Shaw is proven right. The Captain even scoffs at her, "You wanted her to be wrong?" Translation: the atheists are not rational accepters of truth as they claim, but are instead biased advocates who want a particular outcome. This then fits with Fifield and Millburn who refuse to examine the evidence before them because it goes against their beliefs.

3. Notice that Fifield says he's not here to make friends, yet he does make one friend -- the other Darwinist. Nothing else seems to draw them together except their joint put down of Shaw's faith. Compare that with Shaw and the Captain who make friends with everyone (or try).

rlaWTX said...

that fits what I remember of the movie, but dang that's deep thinking about a movie!
Carry on!

AndrewPrice said...

rlaWTX, Sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do. :)

tryanmax said...

I think the cavalorn article variously hits and misses. It makes good sense of the symbols, but constructs a convoluted and implausible narrative. (How does an act on Earth mess up the black goo on LV-223?)

There's another possible twist on the interpretation that I haven't seen anywhere. To set it up, Ridley Scott in interviews has said that the planet in the opening scene could be any planet, not necessarily Earth. That opens a sideways possibility that the Engineers did not create humans.

In that scenario, humans are a separate but later creation from the Engineers. Yes, info in the movie implies that the Engineers created humans, but all that information comes from the Engineers. (See where I'm going?)

Could it be that the Engineers introduced themselves to humans as false gods? If so, it would be a real upset to the status quo if the true God revealed Himself to humanity. As far as I can tell, this possibility still aligns with everything Andrew puts forth.

But what about the Engineers' genetic experiments? Surely that lends credence to the idea that they created humans. Or does it? Everything that we know was created by the Engineers is just, well, awful. What if they wanted to be gods and create life, but the best they could manage were monsters? One response to this problem would be to try taking credit for someone else's work.

tryanmax said...

I suddenly like Prometheus a whole lot more.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, Me too. It feels like there may be something worthwhile here. :)

AndrewPrice said...

On your theory... you are going a bit far afield in terms of introducing outside evidence... BUT I like that idea a lot.

What if the Engineers are simply a jerk species who want to be seen as Gods. So they come to earth and primitive man worships them. (Although, keep in mind that the DNA scans reveal they are the same as us -- so I would say they did create us or at least shape us.)

When humans turn away from them and turn to a higher god than them, i.e. God, they get really ticked off. They decide to wipe us out and go start all over again to get humans who worship them instead.

That would explain the Engineer motivation pretty well.

tryanmax said...

Andrew, consider this from the Wikipedia entry on Prometheus (the god).

In the dialogue Protagoras, Protagoras asserts that the gods created humans and all the other animals, but it was left to Prometheus and his brother Epimetheus to give defining attributes to each. As no physical traits were left when the pair came to humans, Prometheus decided to give them fire and other civilizing arts.

AndrewPrice said...

So Prometheus didn't create humans, but he did define them. That would actually make sense with calling these creatures "Engineers" rather than "Creators/Inventors" because their role wasn't to create life, but to refine it.

Tennessee Jed said...

I have not seen this film. I looked up the two co-writers, and there is nothing about either of them or their work that would lead me to believe that if the film is an attack on atheism, it was intended to be by those writers. That is a pretty weak observation, but hard to give you more since I haven't seen it.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, There are big tea leaves being read here. It's just as possible that the writers just didn't know what they were doing and they tossed in some religious stuff and hoped everyone mistook their confusion for "depth."

That said, Scott has a history of doing conservative films -- Blade Runner (value of human life, nature of God, law and order), Gladiator (limited government), Black Hawk Down (politicization of the military). Of course, he also did the obnoxiously feminist Thelma and Louise.

ScottDS said...

Andrew -

Ridley might just be one of those directors who goes where the story is, regardless of the politics. (I imagine most directors are like that.) Sometimes, contrary to what some people think, filmmakers can be difficult to pin down politically.


The cynic in me thinks you're reading way too much into this poorly-written movie...

...but the movie geek in me will cheer you on. It's always nice when a movie - even a flawed one - sparks discussion!

And the borderline agnostic in me says, "Stop picking on my atheist friends!" Of course, militant anything is annoying. :-)

And naturally, Schlichter completely missed all this in his (yawn) BH review.

AndrewPrice said...

Oh, Scott where to begin...

First, I freely admit that I may be reading too much into a poorly written movie. In fact, I believe I say that in the article itself. But I do see the pattern and patterns often indicate intent. So I think this is a likely explanation both for what was meant and why the film is confusing everyone -- they're using the wrong interpretation.

Secondly, when have I ever attacked atheists? I don't care what anyone's religion or non-religion is so long as they don't try to force other people to conform to their views.

And notice that I point out above that the film attacks MILITANT atheists. These aren't just atheists in the film, they are militant, angry and hypocritical. They are constantly trying to stop others from believing. They are not just atheists.

Third, Schlichter is an idiot. Honestly, the guy understands film about as well as most people understand particle physics: (1) he is 100% literal - if a character says it, the film advocates it in the form it was said, (2) he has no ability to grasp nuance or resolve contradiction, and (3) his memory (or note taking or whatever he does) is crap.

ScottDS said...

Andrew -

I was being a bit tongue-in-cheek. (It's just been a long day - worked all three jobs today.)

Of course you haven't attacked atheists and I didn't mean to imply that this was a habit of yours! (And note my comment about being militant in general.)

Agreed on your third point. :-)

Currently, a friend of mine is borrowing my Blu-Ray copy of this movie (yeah, I bought it anyway) and as soon as he returns it, I'll watch it again, keeping your article in mind.

On an unrelated note, I read an EPIC take-down of the new Trek movie today. The reactions to this one have been polarizing to say the least.

AndrewPrice said...


Three jobs?! Well, I guess somebody has to pay the taxes that will support Obamacare. ;P

Glad you agree on the third point... it was clearly my best! :D

On re-watching it, I've found that this doesn't actually improve the movie, but it does help it all make sense. Ultimately, the real problem is that this just isn't that enjoyable a movie.

I haven't seen Trek yet, but I could probably take it down already and be about 90% right... sadly.

ScottDS said...

Andrew -

Yeah, I thought I mentioned it. I'm still working at the small Internet marketing company, I got a summer job at my university's library (they have a vintage music archive), and I was hired by the new Container Store in the mall.

All this so I don't have to take out student loans. :-)

tryanmax said...

All I can say about Star Trek II: Again is, if there are any whales in the next one, God help us.

OK, that's a partial lie. There's a lot more I can say, but I'll wait for the official review.

AndrewPrice said...

It sounds like you guys just didn't read the warning label on the tickets you bought to see "Star Trek IIA: the Ripoff of Khan"...

"Made with 100% recycled content."

tryanmax said...

I could write a list of disparaging alternate titles for Into Darkness, and I ain't kidding. Such as:

Star Trek II: Noonien Boogaloo

Star Fleet Academy 2: Their First Assignment

Star Trek: Zachary Quinto Saves the Day

Star Trek: Where's Scotty?

Star Trek: Adventures in Russian Engineering

Star Trek: Pointless Demotion

Star Trek: Hey! That's Kirk's Line!

Star Trek: Hey! That's Spock's Line!

Star Trek: Not Enough Karl Urban (seriously, he's the only one we like!)

Star Trek: The only thing Nimoy has going anymore

AndrewPrice said...

Maybe the Plot-o-matic 3000 got confused?

shawn said...

I have no idea if the Cavelorn theory is correct or not, I did like that he quoted an interview with Ridley Scott implying that Jesus was an Engineer.

Let me start by saying I feel the filmed script is a hot mess. It hints that it is supposed to be about deep subjects such as the origin of life and possibly the nature of God, but then only glosses over it in opening credits and the brief discussions amongst the crew.

I don't know if I agree that the Engineers are militant atheists. The opening sequence of the film implies that they created life on Earth, but has been said, maybe the planet in the opening credits isn't Earth. It tend to believe it is Earth as we later find out, we share a 100% DNA match with the Engineers. So assuming it is, then the Engineer should know that they created humans. Why should he be upset that the creatures his species created came looking for their creator? He could simply tell David, "Sorry ol' chap, there is no God, we created you." Instead he rips David's head off and pummels Weyland with it after Weyland asks to have his life extended. (And Obama said there would be no Death Panels).

We don't know that the stone head is a symbol of atheism as if we assume that at some time the Engineers were religious, then possibly like us, they would say that God made Engineer in his own image. I think it is something the film-makers put in because it looked cool and mysterious, in order to give the film more weight than it actually developed.

You've given me something to think about, but for the time being, I'm going to stick with: it was a hot mess.

AndrewPrice said...

Shawn, Death panels... LOL!

A hot mess is probably the best theory. There seem to be a lot of things in this film that imply they are deeper than they really are and it feels like the writer somehow either wasn't sure what he was saying or just didn't know how to get it across.

Not to mention, even if you accept my theory, that's still not a very deep message nor is it well developed if I need to make this many assumptions to find it.

On the head being atheistic, I say that based on film cliche and on socialism actually. Usually when someone is shown with statutes or paintings of things that look like themselves, we are intended to see them as completely narcissistic with a God-complex. Add in that in socialist countries, they kill God and replace him with images of the Dear leader because they build around the cult of personality idea.

Also, while Christianity does say that God made man in his own image, it also does not present or sanction such an image of God. So when you see someone worshiping a statue, it's usually a good guess that they are worshiping something other than "God".

In terms of why the Engineer freaks out, we don't know because we don't know what David says except the word "creator," so we have a problem right there. But I think it makes sense that the Engineer freaks out when David says something which implies that the humans believe in a soul.

I supposed the exact opposite could be true, but then it doesn't explain why they would want to destroy us 2,000 years ago when a belief in a soul was catching on. Keep in mind, we need to explain why he wanted to kill us 2,000 years ago, but then didn't want to anymore when he woke up, but then did again when David said something about a creator. To me, the only thing that really makes sense is that David confirmed whatever spurred them on 2,000 years ago, which is that the humans are religious.

Indeed, since we know that David didn't say anything atheistic, and since the Engineer didn't freak out when they smacked Shaw (so it's not a question of us having a violent nature), I think it has to be the idea that the humans are looking for their creators.

And the fact he reacts so violently completes the pattern. (1) Holloway tries to cajole and trick Shaw into giving up her belief. (2) Vickers, Fifield and Millburn mock her and attack her verbally and professionally. (3) The Engineer is then the extreme end of that chain and is physically violent.

AndrewPrice said...

Shawn, Also, keep in mind that if the Engineers were still the religious, ceremonial types from the opening shot, they would not be making "weapons of mass destruction." OR... if they were, film construction logic tells me there would be more talk about purity and crusades and how religion can make people murderous.

Also, think about the fact that all the religious people (Shaw, the Captain and the first Engineer) are not only passive, but they each self-sacrifice. It's only the atheists who are violent and who never do anything to help anyone but themselves. That puts the second Engineer into the atheist category by character-trait construction.

SciFiTerry said...

Andrew, Great theory! I watched this again from your perspective and I think I found something. Think about this symbolism to consider regarding Fifield and Millburn.

1. They are the only ones to be "lost" in the ship (a ship with only one hallway mind you).

2. They die under the statue of the head, i.e. in the presence of the false God.

3. They are attacked by the alien when it looks like a snake, i.e. the snake in the garden. Remember, the creature looks like a snake now but transforms into Satan before this is over.

4. Fifield and Holloway are essentially possessed by the creature that becomes Satan.

5. Shaw is "possessed" as well, but is exorcised by the machine, which pulls it out of her.

AndrewPrice said...

Terry, Excellent list. Let me think about those.... it's been a long day!

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