Columns > Published on June 14th, 2012

The Prometheus Effect: Examining The Film's Literary Ancestry

[Fair Warning: This whole column pretty much acts as one, long spoiler. If you're still hoping to see the film with your innocence intact, you might want to wait on reading it.]

In the week since Prometheus opened in theaters, the newest installment to the Alien universe has proven to be a lightening rod for lively discussion and bitter disagreement. Already we have been treated to the backlash, the backlash to the backlash, and what must be one of the quickest reclamation projects in cinematic history.

Director Ridley Scott has famously said that Prometheus is not merely another sequel to his 1979 film, but rather shares "strands of Alien's DNA." This certainly seems to be the case, as the iconic, Giger-designed beings take a back seat to the Engineers, a race of towering, white-skinned humanoids who seem to have created the human race.

But rather than toss my grain of sand onto the beach of discussion about where Scott's work belongs in the Alien canon, I thought it would be more interesting to take a look at the film's literary ancestry. Yes, the film makes numerous mythological and biblical references, ranging from laughably heavy-handed to remarkably subtle. (My favorite of the latter: android David [Micheal Fassbender] being used as a bludgeon against the head of his creator [Guy Pearce], in what seemed like an intentional inversion of Athena springing from Zeus' skull.) But apart from these allusions to the great books and traditions, Prometheus also overflows with nods to the titans of science fiction.

The idea that humanity is the result - whether intentional or not - of alien influence is one that has deep roots in modern science fiction. The so-called "ancient astronaut" theory has such appeal, in fact, that it has crossed over to become of staple of both pseudoscience and the increasingly misnamed History Channel. Just check out Wikipedia's list of ancient astronauts in pop culture and marvel at a range that includes everything from Tintin to Frank Zappa.

Watching Prometheus, the biggest sci-fi influence I saw was H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos, which was also well-represented in Scott's original Alien. In his 1928 short story The Call of Cthulhu, Lovecraft introduced the idea that the titular behemoth and his fellow "Great Old Ones" had come from outer space to seed the Earth. (The story is available for free online.) Indeed, check out how well the following passage - the account of, as only Lovecraft would put it, "an immensely aged mestizo named Castro" - tracks with the Engineer mythos of Prometheus:

[The Great Old Ones] all died vast epochs of time before men came, but there were arts which could revive Them when the stars had come round again to the right positions in the cycle of eternity. They had, indeed, come themselves from the stars, and brought Their images with Them.

While the aforementioned "Alien DNA" undeniably draws on Lovecraft's passion for tentacles, beaks, and slime, Prometheus ups the ante by adding a similarly familiar, explicitly religious component to its own mythology. In the opening scenes, archeologists link numerous instances of god-figures pointing to '"star maps" in ancient art to a specific system, many lights years away. And when the crew of the spaceship Prometheus arrives at the coordinates, they discover a structure on the seemingly dead planet that features a temple-cum-mausoleum dominated by a terrible, bas-relief altar and hundreds of strange urns.

This is a classically Lovecraftian setting: an unknowable, dread-filled pit of deep horror. Even the bas-relief is a direct nod to a similar, smaller piece in The Call of Cthulhu, which is decorated with an image Lovecraft describes as "...a monster, of a form which only a diseased fancy could conceive." Just in case we miss the influence, once the explorers upset the stasis of the place these vessels start overflowing with black goop that transforms into deadly, squid-like creatures. H.P. in the house!

...while watching Prometheus, I was struck by this particular mix of Lovecraft's delirious, pulpy myth-building and Clarke's logical, refined plotting.

The other major forerunner of Prometheus in literary science fiction is Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey. The film also owes a debt to the production design of Stanley Kubrick's 1968 movie version, but, seriously, what sci-fi movie doesn't? Clarke provides a different style of ancient astronauts, who inspire humans to create tools and, by extension, civilization. Meanwhile in Prometheus, the Engineers seemingly return at points throughout prehistory to seed those star maps among ancient cultures. 

Clarke's 1951 story The Sentinel, which was ultimately expanded into 2001, introduces the famous lunar "monolith" that proves to humans they are not alone in the Universe. In the novel, the story cuts from the discovery of the monolith to a ship on its way to Jupiter, to which the monolith has been transmitting a signal. This plot device is almost perfectly twinned in Prometheus, where discovery of the ancient star maps cut neatly to the ship on the way to the coordinates they depict. But in the short story, the narrator posits that the monolith also acts as an interstellar "fire alarm," alerting the Aliens of humanity's technological progress. He explains:

Perhaps you understand now why that crystal pyramid was set upon the Moon instead of on the Earth. Its builders were not concerned with races still struggling up from savagery. They would be interested in our civilization only if we proved our fitness to survive -by crossing space and so escaping from the Earth, our cradle.

This complication, also present but less explicitly stated in the novel, provides a wonderfully sinister subtext to the entire plot. Are the beings who placed the monolith going to help us once we find them, or will they want to put out the fire that tripped the alarm, so to speak. Prometheus attempts to mirror this sort of complexity by having the crew of the ship harbor a range of agendas behind their desires to meet the Engineers, but their entirely negative experience on the planet almost immediately ends any suspense about the superior race's intentions. To be fair, Clarke's ending also suffers a little once he is forced to get specific. His alien race turns the astronaut who reaches them into a "Star Baby" who can survive in orbit and destroy nuclear warheads at will. While in keeping with the global pacifism that is Clarke's calling card, this development has always felt a little dopey to me. I want more from this advanced culture than moony, '60s grooviness.

Another piece of obvious inspiration comes from 2001's HAL, a supercomputer with decidedly mixed loyalties. HAL is obviously the forerunner for android David, who was easily my favorite character in the film. Scott and his screenwriters Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof expand on the chilly, formless HAL by giving David the appearance and mannerisms of Peter O'Tool's protagonist from Lawrence of Arabia. It adds both sympathy and menace to the character, a welcome complication in a film that features some decidedly simplistic characterizations.

There are of course innumerable examples in science fiction of works that posit an interstellar origin story for humanity, including Vonnegut's The Sirens of Titan and Philip K. Dick's VALIS books, among others. But while watching Prometheus, I was struck by this particular mix of Lovecraft's delirious, pulpy myth-building and Clarke's logical, refined plotting. Where else but in the work of these - dare I say it - "Engineers" of modern science fiction could one find that heady cocktail of cosmology, theology, and freaky tentacle beasts?

Examining Lovecraft and Clarke's own takes on ancient astronauts also allows us to see where, in macro terms, Prometheus's narrative stumbles. Both the older authors succeed by limiting our contact with the superior races they describe, rendering them fittingly unknowable. In contrast, Prometheus tries have it both ways, giving the Engineers a lot of screen time while keeping their intentions frustratingly opaque. It becomes hard to parse their reasoning for initiating life on Earth, then returning often to the planet during early human development, and ultimately wanting to destroy the same beings they created. While it probably would have run counterintuitive to the studio notes, I think the film's plot would be vastly improved by an injection of the same mystery that Lovecraft and Clarke so artfully deploy. (And it would lead more organically to the sequel so artlessly implied.)

Regardless of how you feel about Prometheus - and let us know in the comments! - at least we can all agree that Ridley Scott and his team made excellent choices with regards to the stories and authors they emulated.

(P.S. For what its worth I thoroughly enjoyed much of Prometheus, which I found to be visually thrilling and cheekily fun. As one would expect, Scott really used the 3D in artful and surprising ways. That said, the plot got to be a little impenetrable by the end.)

About the author

Originally from Concord, Massachusetts, Jon Korn spent a decade in Los Angeles trying to get warm. He now lives in Oakland, where he works as a writer and film festival programmer. Over the past 10 years, Jon has watched tens of thousands of movies for the Sundance Film Festival, AFI FEST, Outfest, and CineVegas, among others. Not all of them were good, but it is still a wonderful job. Jon is the co-creator of the Echo Park Time Travel Mart and a Jeopardy! champion. His hobbies include cooking, being sad about baseball, and not answering the phone.

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