Prometheus opens with the discovery of an intelligent designer: two scientists have found evidence of ancient contact between human beings and aliens, and they become part of a mission to reach what they believe to be these aliens’ home planet to meet our makers. When the mission, funded by the unimaginably wealthy, Methuselan industrialist Peter Weyland, finally reaches the Earthlike moon LV-223,* they explore a massive artifact created by these “Engineers." This massive dome is filled with evidence of their genetic experiments, much of it housed in a room dominated by a giant statue of one of the beings' heads: a temple, perhaps, to their own creative genius. The dome is dead—one character even describes it as a tomb—but the presence of these travelers awakens a startling variety of life inside, including one of the Engineers themselves. And the explorers—particularly archeologist Elizabeth Shaw—discover that intelligent designers need not be benevolent ones.
The Engineers, much like Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker, are experimenting artists, playing with DNA to create a plethora of new and terrifying forms. And, like a more plainly amoral version of the Star Maker, this experimentalism is sinister, not only because the beings they are creating are violent, but because they display no regard for the feelings of their (accidentally?) sentient creations. The dome, we learn, houses a spaceship whose aborted, millennia-old mission was to return to Earth to wipe out all life there.** There’s a hint that human beings are not a deliberate creation of the Engineers, but an accidental one: the enigmatic opening scene shows one of the alien beings dissolving himself at the molecular level on an unknown world, the strands of his DNA splitting apart as he collapses into some ancient river. Perhaps this dissolution was incomplete, and we are the result of some surviving genetic detritus. If this is the case, perhaps the reason that the Engineers wish to destroy us is that we can’t be used as weapons, as their more deliberate creations can: we lack sufficient use-value.
Clearly, Prometheus is a story about the quest for origins, but it is also about faith and the loss thereof. Shaw—who none-too-subtly wears her father’s crucifix around her neck for much of the film, and is seen in flashbacks discussing the afterlife with him—is brought on the mission because Weyland considers her a “true believer.” She has faith that the Engineers exist, that they created us, that they will be willing to answer our questions, and that some ineffable benefit can result from contact with him. On the former two points she turns out to be correct, but she is categorically wrong on the other two. In order for her to save the world—stopping the surviving Engineer from returning to Earth to destroy humankind—she must quickly and decisively lose her faith. It’s not clear what we’re supposed to make of this, thematically: is the entire project of seeking after answers to our questions of purpose what’s to blame for this mission’s tragic end? Are the Engineers, these not-gods, simply the instruments of some offscreen gods in the punishment of that most ancient of sins—hubris?
Prometheus doesn’t entirely know what myth it wants to be in. The title suggests it’s the story of the Titan who stole fire from the gods and bequeathed it to humankind: the originator of all technology and, by extension, the creator of human sentience. This seems to be the myth that Peter Weyland thinks he’s in, as he gave the starship its name. But his actual quest is for personal immortality, which puts him more in the territory of Tithonus. (And in the end it’s the Engineer who has his entrails devoured by a rather familiar vulture). The scientists, who travel across the galaxy to question their makers, are in another tradition entirely: an upside-down version of Job where questioning leads to the suffering instead of the other way around. The android David is in Pinocchio, and the android-like Meredith Vickers in King Lear. By the final act, it all begins to feel a bit like Jack and the Beanstalk, with the surviving Engineer as the giant: a big, scary monster to run away from. (In this it’s unfortunately more akin to the Predator than the lithe and devious xenomorphs. In either case, this is too great a diminution in importance: Perhaps we’re not supposed to think of the Engineers as gods, but they should be something more than horror-movie beasties.)
Prometheus succeeds as one of the few films to tackle the ground of SF stories about the exploration of a single alien world or artifact that may simply be outside the realm of human comprehension—stories like Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous With Rama or Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris. For all their physical similarity to us, the Engineers seem truly alien, at least until the last act. And though viewers and characters alike may speculate as to their reasons for creating the places and beings that we see, there ultimately may be no answers that could make sense to a human mind.
* A side note to anyone who was confused about the similarities (and notable differences) between the configuration of ships and deceased life forms at the end of Prometheus and the beginning of Alien: this is a different planet. Alien and Aliens occur on a planetoid called LV-426.
** This begs the rather large question of why they would have left instructions to our ancestors about how to find the planet from which this mission of annihilation was intended to launch. Chalk it up to rival factions among the Engineers, perhaps?