In addition to a loose prequel to Alien, Ridley Scott's 2012 film Prometheus is also an exploration of the Ancient Astronauts theory, which stipulates that primitive man was visited by alien lifeforms which advanced ancient technology and inspired a number of early religions. For all of it's plot issues, logical failings, and creepy old man makeup, Prometheus did an excellent job of using cosmic horror to examine this theory and raised a number of interesting questions about human history, our future as a species, artificial intelligence, and what it means to create life.
Despite being a quasi-origin story for Alien, Prometheus actually creates more questions about Alien's future history than it answers. True to Scott's Lovecraftian roots, the mysteries in Prometheus and the unknown add as much to the atmosphere as what we know. Why did the Engineer attack Weyland? What were David's motivations? Why in the fuck would they cast Guy Pearce to play an old man? And most prominent among these, from a narrative standpoint, is the question of why the Engineers turned against humanity. This article will attempt to answer some of these questions.
The film opens with on prehistoric Earth. An Engineer ceremonially drinks a cup of black goo, then his body breaks down into more black goo that mixes into a waterfall. Later in the film we find out that humans and Engineers share DNA, and that the Engineer strain predates our own. Presumably the scene at the beginning of the film was therefore the Engineer seeding the planet with life. In the original Jon Spaihts script for the film, the black goo mutates into a swarm of scarab-like creatures which fly off, and later one of them is shown biting a primitive woman, whose DNA then mutates and changes.
Fast forward thousands of years (or potentially billions, depending on how you interpret the opening) from humanity's origins to our distant future, archaeologists have discovered a number of ancient artifacts which allude to the Engineers' hand in our creation, and the now infamous Weyland Corporation is sponsoring a deep space exploration mission to what is believed to be the home world of the Engineers. Upon discovery of the Engineers, however, the crew of the Prometheus are horrified to find that the moon LV-223 is actually a military installation where biological weapons were being manufactured, and that the Engineers were planning on using Xenomorphs to wipe out the human race over 2,000 years ago. Before this plan could be carried out, the Engineers manning the station were almost all killed by their own biological weapons.
The question of why the creators of the human race believed that we had to be destroyed serves as the primary philosophical mystery for the film's third act, and presumably, the groundwork for the sequel. However, I believe that we can read between the lines and find the answer to that question as it stands.
One of the hallmarks of the Ancient Astronauts theory is the idea that ancient religions were inspired by extraterrestrial visitors. Now before we all start posting Tsoukalos memes left and right, there's actually some very interesting material out there supporting this theory. I won't necessarily say that any of it convinces me, but upon close examination I also don't think the idea is as crazy as it might sound. Though never directly addressed in the version of the film that we saw, the Ancient Astronauts theory is something else that was more fully flushed out and explained in the original Spaihts script.
Ideas of religion and what it means to be a god play a number of important roles throughout the film, from the existential dread of living in a universe where human life was created and nearly destroyed on the whim of an alien species, to our parallel journey as fledgling "gods" upon the advent of artificial intelligence. We constantly see the contradiction between varying worldviews on the nature of religion and the afterlife.
Consider the scene where Weyland is killed by the Engineer: As he's dying, the elderly Weyland says "there's nothing," to which David, his creation, replies "I know, have a good journey Mr. Weyland." In one of the very next scenes, as Janek is crashing the Prometheus into the Engineer ship to stop it from destroying Earth, two of the pilots make a reference to settling their bet "on the other side."
While the connections between the Engineers and Christianity are never directly addressed in the film, there are a number of references made through Christian iconography, such as the Christmas tree Janek is setting up after the crew comes out of stasis, or the frequent references to Shaw's belief and her crucifix. When Holloway asks Shaw why she still wears the crucifix now that she knows that Engineers created humanity, she responds with the question, "but who created them?" However, when David asks her near the end of the film if she still believes after everything she's learned, she doesn't respond, and instead prompts him to help her pilot the Engineer ship to their home world (referred to as "Paradise" in a deleted scene, another divine reference). Even Holloway, the cynic, points out that "God doesn't draw in straight lines" when the Prometheus is landing on LV-223 and they discover the Engineer facility.
Why the Engineers Changed their Tune
So how do all of these references, not just to religion, but to Christianity specifically, apply to the Engineers? Well, consider the timeline of events. According to Shaw, the cache of weapons were being prepared to be delivered to Earth 2,000 years ago, shortly after the birth of Christ. All of that Christian imagery is in the film for a reason. The Christian faith began as an independent religion form Judaism following one particular event: Christ's execution. What if Jesus was really an Engineer, sent to Earth thousands of years after their previous visit to guide humanity back on track? We can speculate plenty on the negative aspects of human nature. We're violent, hateful, and destructive, pretty much embodying the opposite of what Jesus preached. If Christ were an Engineer, then perhaps his violent murder at the hands of the people that he was sent to help was the final straw. The Engineers saw that their creations were too destructive to help, and the only option was to wipe them out and start over.
Of course one my ask, even so, why it was necessary to destroy humanity. Why not just leave us be to kill each other in our isolated little corner of the universe? This, I think, is answered in the expanded scene between Weyland and the Engineer:
This scene was cut down for the theatrical version of the film, where we only see the Engineer wake up and kill Weyland and the others, seemingly for no reason. The expanded conversation, despite being only a few lines longer, adds whole new depth to the incident.
When the Engineer first wakes up, he's surprised to find himself surrounded by humans. You can tell that he's stunned that those primitive savages, last seen running around with swords and chariots, have found their way through space, and tracked the Engineers down all the way to this facility. When David speaks his language, the Engineer almost does a double take. You can see his fascination with David in particular. Despite himself, I think that the Engineer is also impressed that humans have managed to make it this far.
However, he also sees one of Weyland's goons beat Shaw when she asks why the Engineers changed their minds about humanity (the answer there being somewhat self-evident). The Engineer not only sees that human beings are just as violent as they ever were, but they have developed sophisticated technology that makes them more dangerous than their ancient ancestors could ever become. Indeed, they were well on their way to becoming like the Engineers themselves.
Consider the parallel here with the Greek Prometheus for whom the movie and the titular ship were named. Prometheus was a titan that was punished by Zeus for the crime of giving fire to mortals. Fire was a symbol of life and power and learning in the ancient world, so in doing this Prometheus essentially gave mortals the tools that they needed to become like gods.
This point was really driven home when Weyland compares himself to the Engineer. Saying that they are "both gods" and that he created David in his image the same way that the Engineers created human beings. The scene where the Engineer caresses David is very powerful because of the range of sentiments on display. On the one hand I think that there is a certain degree of pride, that the Engineers' creations had become their own sort of fledgling gods, creating a new form of life. On the other hand, human beings, destructive as we are, wielding that kind of power is likely the worst case scenario that the Engineers thought they had to prevent by unleashing the Xenomorph goo on Earth in the first place.
And let's take a look at David himself, and what his existence probably meant to the Engineer. His mind is thousands of times more powerful than the human brain, and he is capable of operating the Engineer technology. In the deleted scenes we see that David can see on the same spectrum as the Engineers and is thus aware of things happening on the ship that none of the human crew members are. He doesn't need to eat, or to sleep, or to breathe. David thus represents a far greater potential threat than Weyland and the others.
Prometheus was the Alien prequel that really had nothing to do with Alien. And it was a far cry from a perfect movie. However it does have some very deep philosophical undertones about what it means to be human. David may be an android, but in a way I think that he had the most humanity out of the entire cast. But more on that in a different post. This movie was one great big beautiful mess, and for tonight I am talked out on it.