One Theory That Finally Explains What's Going on in Prometheus

However you feel about Prometheus, one thing's for sure: This movie has inspired more arguments than any film in the past few years. What's it all about? Does it actually mean anything at all? David J. Williams, author of The Mirrored Heavens, The Burning Sky and the Machinery of Light, has a few theories that might just explain everything. About this movie, anyway.

"They became farmers in the seeds of stars; they sowed, and sometimes they reaped. And sometimes, dispassionately, they had to weed."

—Arthur C. Clarke, 2001

"... we were merely the lab rat they fed the super-pill to and forgot in the basement."

—Opponent1, from the Prometheus discussion board

To hear some talk about Prometheus you would think that Ridley Scott went senile and proceeded to inflict on us a movie about as comprehensible as a Dada painting viewed on LSD.

I beg to differ.

One Theory That Finally Explains What's Going on in Prometheus

Prometheus is a monumental tour de force that harkens back to the sweeping sci-fi of the 1970s, an epic that confronts Gauguin's Big Questions more squarely than anything in recent memory. Scott and writers Spaihts/Lindelof have created an elaborate gameboard, and then devised a narrative that shows us only a small portion of it. This is a movie that rewards repeat viewings. Scott could have just given us a giant bug-hunt, but that's already been done. Or he could delivered a another version of Mission to Mars in which we meet our benign makers and learn how they created us amidst the sound of much uplifting music and joyous epiphanies.

But instead he gave us something far darker. Somewhere in heaven, something went badly wrong. And our creators decided to destroy their own creation.

Why?

It's the biggest question of the movie, and it's never directly answered. But unmistakable hints are there. Many of them can be found in the figure of the android David. Neither a "bad" Ash nor a "good" Bishop, David is something much more complex, a synthetic who knows far more than what he gives voice to, and whose calm face belies everything going on behind it. (It's too bad that science-fiction actors don't receive Oscars for their work, because Fassbender certainly deserves one.)

One Theory That Finally Explains What's Going on in Prometheus

Arguably, David never disobeys a human command — he obligingly acts as Vickers' butler, and certainly follows Weyland's orders to the letter, even to the point of dosing Holloway, though he seems to at least want Holloway's implicit permission to do so. "What would you do to learn what you came here for?", he asks, to which Holloway says "Anything and everything." (Note to self: never say that to a robot.) So David spikes his drink with the mysterious black goo, which clearly operates as some kind of DNA accelerant. Did Holloway's relentless baiting of David make that task more pleasurable? We can only presume so, just as we can presume that the actual result is a big surprise to everyone involved.

One Theory That Finally Explains What's Going on in Prometheus

But this conversation is also the point where David restates the film's fundamental question: "Why did you create me?" Only this time humans are the ones being asked, rather than the ones asking. One possible answer suggested by Holloway's failure to take the question seriously: because we could. Another: to serve us. Either rejoinder goes a long way toward suggesting why the Engineers decided to pull the plug on us: either because they could/they changed their minds — a brutal take on divine whimsy — or because they decided humanity wouldn't align with whatever agenda they had in mind. We can't say for sure.

Though we sure can speculate. For all the criticism that the movie is too opaque, it's almost clumsily in-your-face with David's musing about how every child's ultimate aspiration is to kill his/her parents. And, we might add, every parent's secret fear is that their child will grow to destroy them. (Note that this conversation occurs only after Vickers has threatened to cut out his core, which might have triggered a slipping of David's leash a la Hal in 2001's reaction to Bowman and Poole plotting to lobomotize him — more on this below. )

Alongside this we have Vicker's subsequent speech to her father: "A king has his reign. He dies. It's the natural order of things." Certainly this backs up the above. But it teases at something more. Are the Engineers themselves even functional as a race anymore? Did their supremacy end amidst internecine quarrels? Perhaps it was only after a War in Heaven that a wayward faction of Engineers embarked on the project of destroying their own creation. Was the creation itself the transgression? Or was it all was just business as usual, until an accident destroyed the installation at LV-223?

One Theory That Finally Explains What's Going on in Prometheus

I'm inclined to say no to that last question, because surely otherwise the installation would have been cleansed and rebuilt. Its desolation suggests that a greater cataclysm befell the Engineers at some point. But whatever their original agenda was, it was nothing if not epic. The digital orrery that David activates indicates that Earth is just one planet that the Engineers were working with. (It would have been surprising had it been anything else.) What was taking place here was nothing less than a monumental program of experiments involving DNA accelerants, making it tempting to ascribe to that black goo a primordial/mythic status. Scott has said that 1981 caveman drama Quest for Fire was a big influence for this film, and one wonders how far to take that comparison. If that black goo really is the fire a la Quest (and the Prometheus legend itself), then the Engineers never created the accelerant, but rather stumbled across it.

One Theory That Finally Explains What's Going on in Prometheus

Or else were given it by their creators. This notion of the Engineers falling short of the status of unmoved mover — that they're not at the apex of the cosmic hierarchy—is given further weight by another tantalizing statement by Scott, namely, that he drew heavily on Sumerian myths in creating the universe of Prometheus. When we consider the extent to which those myths feature gods with divine helpers, it leaves one wondering whether the Engineers were merely the servants of something greater. After all, the Engineers seem pretty damn engineered themselves. They all look the same, and their art seems no less religious than do the cave-drawings back on Earth (a la that wall-image of the xenomorph, to say nothing of the gigantic head). We're thus led down a disquieting chain of logic: just as robots can turn the tables on humans... just as the xenomorphs turned the tables on the Engineers, and just as the Engineers feared humans would do the same — perhaps the Engineers themselves were rebelling against a greater master, left off-screen (and possibly long dead.)

Only one way to find out. The film concludes with the unlikely partnership of what's left of David and Shaw heading to the Engineers' home planet to get some answers...or does it? True, David says he can take Shaw back to the home planet — and that he will...but as I said above, this is after he might have slipped his leash (either because Vickers threatened him with destruction, or because Weyland himself is dead). At any rate — as an observant friend pointed out to me — this is the first time in the movie that David articulates an agenda of his own. "I want you to do something for me," he tells Shaw — i.e., save him from being a disembodied head staring at the ceiling for all eternity. But even if he intends to live up to his side of the bargain, he might just be playing out with Shaw the same game he played with Weyland: acquiescing to a request that he has every reason to believe will end in tears. In this movie, knowledge comes with a heavy price.

David J. Williams is the author of the Autumn Rain trilogy, and (as David Constantine) of The Pillars of Hercules.