I saw Prometheus yesterday, and it was great (go see it in IMAX 3D!) But a lot of people seem frustrated with the “ambiguity” of the plot, so I wrote a post to explain how I read the film, which seemed to answer every question it raised.
In greek myth, Prometheus was a titan who created man from clay, which pleased the gods, then gave man fire, which angered them, because the gods determined that man didn’t merit having fire. So Prometheus was fated to have his stomach eaten open by birds every day. (Note also that one uses fire to make things from clay.)
Now to the film:
There is an inter-galactic religion founded on the principle of sacrificing yourself in order to create the next generation of life, instead of sacrificing the potential of the next generation to selfishly prolong your own life. This religious meme carries with it technology: a “black goo” which acts as a multiplier of your nature. Which is to say, contact with it makes you stronger and more resilient, unless you willfully die by consuming it, in which case it will destroy you, and make your GENES strong and resilient, allowing them to spread and replicate, populating an entire world. It can be used, therefore, for creating or destroying — like fire.
(In the metaphor, the Black Goo is “fire” and Genes are “clay”.)
A member of the religion will go to a newly terraformed (oxygenized) world, meditate on the virtue of self-sacrifice, and consume the black goo, ritually destroying his own life in order to populate an entire planet. (This happens in the first scene, where an immortal Promethean kills himself to create life on earth.)
Then his fellows will return periodically to guide the new race, until they are ready to join the religion, and in turn sacrifice themselves to populate new worlds, expanding life, and the cycle continues from race to race, world to world.
The Promethean religion has a ‘god’ and a ‘devil’. The ‘god’ is what results from selfless interaction with the goo: a man being destroyed in order to create life. (We see this image on the “Sistine Chapel Mural” in the ship’s “chapel”.) The ‘devil’ is what results from selfish interaction with the goo: an evil Alien (ala the movie ‘Alien’) that is unkillable and selfishly destroys everything else. (We see this crucified as a sculpture in the ship “chapel”).
2000 years ago, the immortal Prometheans returned to earth to invite humanity to join their religion. But humanity wanted no part of it. Despite spending millenia worshipping these giant blue gods and the idea of honorable sacrifice, the meme of selfishness had infected humanity. They killed the Prometheans’ self-sacrifice-preaching emissary (Jesus), and their negativity and selfishness infected black goo on the ship.
The ship returned home, carrying infected black goo, which in turn infected the Prometheans on board, giving birth to some kind of Alien monster, which chased and killed all but one of them. Having tried to give ‘fire’ to the humans too early, he stayed trapped in his ‘cave’ as punishment, waiting to correct his error.
2,000 years later, humanity has returned. But within humanity there are two factions: The first selfishly try to lengthen their own life at the expense of others. (These are the proverbial ‘devil virus’). They are embodied by Wayland, who is using technology to continue his own life instead of letting the next generation take over. The second faction of humanity have embraced the concept of self-sacrifice: Dr. Elizabeth Shaw, and christians, who worship the martyred Promethean, Jesus.
Wayland’s daughter, trying to talk reason to him, says “a king has his reign, and then he dies.” Wayland reacts with digust: his true child is David, “the closest thing I have to a son”. David exists only to serve Wayland; a truly, purely selfish intellect, with none of Shaw’s “emotional” reasons for embracing or believing in the value of martyrdom.
When they enter the tomb/ship, David understands the nature of the Black Goo, and decides to create a new form of life “because he can”. A purely selfish monster, to send back to earth to destroy humanity (“kill his parents”). He can secretly do this because it doesn’t directly conflict with his programming, and, unlike humanity, he does not experience emotions (such as pain: “the trick is not caring that it hurts”.)
Meanwhile, everyone to come in contact with the black goo becomes more powerful and resilient— the worms become snake monsters, the verbally aggressive mohawk geologist dude becomes a physically aggressive superkiller— only Shaw’s lover dies from it, because he consumed it, and because he sacrifices himself to save her— being burned with fire.
When the last surviving Promethean is awakened by Wayland and his son David, he sees an old man, asking how he can prolong his life. The Promethean is disgusted and horrified: this is the exact poison, the devil they wanted to destroy by purging earth before it could spread. He realizes this when he sees David, Wayland’s invention and his ideal: a cold intellect that can live forever with no desire to sacrifice itself in order to promote life, because it lacks emotional empathy: caring about the pain of others.
So the Promethean tries to wipe this selfishness virus out of existence before it can meld with the black goo and become a devil.
Indeed, just as the Promethean treats unemotional human selfishness as a viral infection to be purged, David IS unemotional human selfishness. To him, emotional human martyrdom is the virus to be purged. (This couldn’t be spelled out more clearly than when he’s about to send monster-impregnated Shaw back to earth to infect and replace humanity and he takes Shaw’s cross away from her “because it may have contaminants”.)
David’s god is the Prometheans’ devil: the Xenomorph / Alien.
The ‘Alien / Xenomorph / devil’ born at the end of the film is a result of: The black goo, combined with human selfishness, combined with the immortal genetic superiority of the Prometheans.
To quote Ash, the robot from Alien 1979, it is: “The Perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility. I admire its purity. A survivor… unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality. “
It is David’s greatest creation.
Ok, that was my reading of Prometheus.
Note that while Ridley Scott knows how to create truly incredible cinematic experiences, he apparently doesn’t understand the basic concept of evolution (as interviews with him bear out his cynicism that it could all happen “by accident”). If you came away questioning evolution or darwinism at all, I strongly recommend you read The Greatest Show On Earth by Richard Dawkins.
**PROMETHEUS SPOILERS ABOVE**
*UPDATE: Upon second viewing, I am now confident that my initial reading of the story was incorrect. That’s the different between the plot of Prometheus and the origin of all life on earth: The origin of all life on earth has a simple, elegant explanation.