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.)

To leave a comment Login with Facebook or create a free account.


Will Bigelow's picture
Will Bigelow from New Jersey is reading The Sun Also Rises June 14, 2012 - 11:54am

Regardless of what others say, I think Prometheus is a sci-fi masterpiece that will be remembered 20 years from now.

Alex Kane's picture
Alex Kane from west-central Illinois is reading Dark Orbit June 14, 2012 - 12:06pm

Fantastic article, Jon! Like you, I enjoyed the film a great deal despite its many faults. The "Giger altar" was a pleasant surprise, as was the character arc they gave David, who I expected to be much more villainous, given Scott's past work. I wasn't disappointed with the direction the film took, with the alien "titans," or Engineers, taking the spotlight--the one thing that seemed to be missing from the trailer, thankfully. That opening primordial scene was marvelous, too.

My biggest complaint was the unnecessary, tacked-on epilogue. It was a treat for the longtime fans, sure, and I count myself among them, but the film didn't need it; that said, I guess it adds an interesting dimension to the xenomorphs. Whereas Scott had led us to believe for years that the Engineers were humanoid aliens with elephantine skulls who had engineered the xenomorphs for biodrone warfare, it changes everything to know that we all share a common ancestry.

And of course, there's a certain Rosemary's Baby element at work here, in which pregnancy becomes a thing to be feared the way Alien exploited the fear of phallic rape. Even as a man, I felt Rapace's horror at the revelation of her . . . offspring. Great little horror scene, and yes, very Lovecraftian. Makes you wonder what that sticky black goo is actually intended for, besides killing the enemy.

Mike Mckay's picture
Mike Mckay is reading God's Ashtray June 14, 2012 - 12:13pm

This is a great article. I thought I was the only one that saw a couple refrences here and there. Overall the movie is a masterpiece I've been waiting for this since 2010 and was more than satisfied. This will be remembered for many many years to come. Again great article, great movie.

Genesius's picture
Genesius from Washington is reading A Clockwork Orange June 14, 2012 - 2:41pm

Another subtle allusion I noticed was Pearce's character's name: Weyland, and then Weyland Corp. That name appears in "The Call of Cthulhu" as well, in the parenthetical at the beginning. Lovecraft's story begins: "(Found among the Papers of the Late Francis Wayland Thurston, of Boston)." In other words, Jon, you are absolutely correct. 

Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading Library Books June 14, 2012 - 2:52pm

The Weyland Corp. is actually all the way from the first film (Weyland-Yutani), but yeah.

Thought the movie was technically amazing, but logically baffling. I enjoyed watching it, but once the post-movie convo started...

Anyways, great article, Jon.

Jason Morningstar's picture
Jason Morningstar June 14, 2012 - 4:16pm

I have been a fan of ALIEN since it was made, I saw it early in my childhood and it has been my favorite movie since then. I lothe what they did to it. I couldn't be more horribly dissapointed. It SUCKED ASS!!!!! I did not want any of the bullshit they put in. I wanted the prequel to ALIEN as it was promised. This was a disaster. It made me sick. I can not believe Ridly Scott agreed to direct this "movie" the moron hack writer, whom I whish death upon for his abomination, interepetation of the storyline. THEY SHOULD BE SUED FOR LAMENESS AND FLUSHED DOWN BELEZEBUBS TOILET SO THEY CAN CONTEMPLATE THEIR STUPID MISTAKE FOR ALL ETERNITY. F u !!!!!

James McArthur's picture
James McArthur from Potato is reading a book June 14, 2012 - 4:26pm

I think the purpose of the epilogue was possibly to show the people who hadn't seen Alien (yes, unfortunat souls like that do exist)  what killed off the other Engineers (and gives the fans of Alien something). Also, LV-223... Leviticus 22:3 anyone? One thing I really didn't like was (aside from the scientists who were incredibly stupid, maybe Weyland didn't want to spend a lot of money on the best guys in the field) that the Engineer DNA matched the human DNA. I get that it would have matched up a little, but I think they should have made them differ a lot more, but still be very similar.

511Kinderheim's picture
511Kinderheim from Calgary, Alberta is reading American Gods by Neil Gaiman June 14, 2012 - 6:44pm

I actually just got back from seeing this at the theatre. Even in 2D the graphics and style were awesome, and despite some of the logical slips (why would you open that door, captain?!), I had a bunch of questions as I left (Why did the Engineers change their mind? What exactly was David doing?), and to me having questions is the mark of a really good film.

Now that you mention it I definitely notice all the similarities to 2001, but then again Kubrick's film has pretty much informed every science fiction film since.

Jon Korn's picture
Jon Korn from Oakland is reading The Quincunx June 14, 2012 - 8:59pm

Thanks for the great comments and kind words everyone!

And a tip 'o the textual cap to James McArthur for his catch of the LV/Leviticus match.

Check out this passage:

Say to them: 'For the generations to come, if any of your descendants is ceremonially unclean and yet comes near the sacred offerings that the Israelites consecrate to the LORD, that person must be cut off from my presence. 

Steven Shander's picture
Steven Shander from Waukesha, Wisconsin and Los Angeles, California area is reading Hell's Angels and Clown Girl and Transmetropolitan 5 June 17, 2012 - 3:00pm

I loved this film.  I watched Prometheus on IMAX and in 3D.  I believe as a filmmaker, that this movie will create an entire generation of filmmakers in the future that will say, "I became a filmmaker because of Prometheus."

crazy article man



Larry Nocella's picture
Larry Nocella from USA is reading Loser's Memorial by Larry Nocella July 5, 2012 - 12:39pm

I enjoyed Prometheus and am curious to read others' theories about what they think is going on. I have my own angle here:

A few problems I had with the movie were the fact that it ended with "to be continued." Which is a bummer. I'm also a little nervous about the Christianity tie-ins, Leviticus and the theory that the Engineers turned against humanity 2000 years ago because of that whole crucifixion thing. Please - I really hope that's not the secret behind the movie because that's been done to death and also it's weak. Why wouldn't the Engineers send other great prophets? Why is it always Jesus?! :)

Lastly, I'm a little nervous because while I absolutely love Damon Lindelof's ability to create wonder - as he did with Lost - he doesn't always close the circle so nicely. A lof ot Lost fans went insane with how much they dissected that show and the big secret at the end was... a blinding white light and a massive letdown.

So while I thought about Prometheus, I had to put a stop to obsessing about it, I don't want my heart broken like a poor Lost fan.