You Devil, You: Prometheus in Three Assessments (Part One)
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Here, to kick things off, is the first of three essays on the Ridley Scott film Prometheus.
Assessment 1: Oedipus Rex, or The Premodern Prometheus
Nathaniel K. Miller
Ridley Scott's Prometheus is a divisive film to say the least. Lamented as muddled by many, I believe it to be not only an excellent film, but a relatively clear one as well. It's nuanced, and, like the similarly-decried ending of the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica, it makes enemies of fans by doing philosophy in a framework many moviegoers have decided is the home turf of "hard" SF. But while its messages may require work to uncover, it's the work a good audience should want to do. And its rewards, though bittersweet, are insightful.
In large part, Prometheus is a psychodrama. In some ways it is arguably a single piece of a larger, career-spanning meta-film which is predicated on the same threads of Oedipal and inverse-Oedipal neuroses (compare this to the "meta-novel" which Philip K. Dick, upon whose work Scott's Blade Runner was based, claimed to have written).
The psychological dialectic Scott employs is clear and familiar to most viewers - both from his previous work and in a general sense, as people living in a post-Freudian world (or a post-Sophoclean one, for that matter). Children resent and want to usurp (or murder) their parents; parents fear and want to suppress (or murder) their children.
But there's a deeper schism at work here. David is the well-reared child. He knows his father, understands his "generation-" humans generally - and is disappointed. He's disappointed by how little credit he gets, by how he's written off as "merely" what he is; his unique nature is seen as a novelty, an accomplishment of his creators, or a threat. David, who has an ongoing relationship with his "father" Weyland, is free to seek self-realization - and thus is resentful and bitter when he is unable to access it. Notably, he takes this out on other humans while remaining devoted to Weyland himself - this is not a plotting or character-development mistake, but rather an indication of complexity in David.
This is also a notable, even central difference between his character and that of Roy Batty, to whom he is often compared. They may be alike in construction, but in Prometheus, their roles are inverted, as are the roles of their fathers. This is because their histories are also inverted.
We humans, on the other hand, are the abandoned children. We never knew our parents, so we flail about endlessly searching them out, totally unable to assert ourselves in a mature way. This is the Scylla and Charybdis of Scott's psychology: if we know our parents, we know disappointment because their flaws are evident. If we live in their absence, we are damned to imagine their virtues and motivations, and to lose our freedom, our innocence, and our sanity in that endless, fruitless speculation.
David: The answer is irrelevant. Does it matter why they changed their minds?
Shaw: Yes; yes it does.
David: I don't understand.
Shaw: Well, I guess that's because I'm a human being, and you're a robot.
After all she's just seen, her righteous demands for answers from the gods - Shaw still doesn't understand that David is, in the deep sense which is not about genetic overlap but rather about essential realness, human. She remains totally blind to the cycle in which she is enmeshed. David understands how things work, which is why he doesn't understand her motivations. He knows it's irrelevant, and beyond that suicidal. David wants nothing more than to assert himself separately from humans. His curse, of course, is that he is a head in a bag.
The Engineer had no interest in answering Shaw's questions, because it fundamentally failed to recognize her as human - as a viable, worthwhile life form. Her differences signified a total removal, a degradation instead of an inheritance, of the essential nature of the parent. And so, despite her "faith," despite the desperation with which she commits to continuing her journey, she does not even pause to see in her own hypocritical attitude toward David the very answer she seeks.
What humans "did wrong" was what David did wrong - existed, were alien; were a pure, existential threat to a creator who saw them as an abomination, if a sometimes useful one.
The point seems to be that we are doomed by our inquisitiveness, by our need to connect with the past - we can never win so long as we remain engaged in that cycle with our progenitors or our offspring. Perhaps we can escape the cycle if we let go of it entirely, attempt instead to assert ourselves as ourselves - or perhaps our very nature precludes the possibility.
It's in that cyclical nature that Prometheus is truly an Alien film. The resonances are too many to ignore. David, Ash, Bishop; the continual attempts by Weyland to procure (capture) and in theory bend to their own purposes the Xenomorphs (in essence, our children as well as our parents). There are innumerable other echoes here which make for a story which is, in its iterations, essentially cynical. I think once more of the much-despised ending of Battlestar. The endless self-damnation of humanity we see there is not far off spiritually from the one Scott has given us.