Ridley Scott’s Prometheus Explained

Okay, dear readers, I’m going to do something I haven’t done here at the pond before: I am going to discuss a film. As you have probably deduced by now if you’re a regular reader I am a huge sci-fi fan. I’ve been looking forward to seeing Prometheus, Ridley Scott’s new contribution to the Alien universe, for months. Trust me when I say that I was eating up every detail I could of that movie from behind my 3D goggles and I am confident that I have a plausible explanation for the major plot points of the film that seem to be confusing viewers and causing heated Internet debates. Here is my point-by-point explanation of Prometheus with my evidence. Be warned, from this sentence on there will be massive spoilers.

The vase room

Why did the Engineers create humanity? This is the burning question of the film and I have an answer. The Engineers created humanity in order to be the perfect host for their gods, the Xenomorphs, the Aliens we all know and love.  My evidence is based on two key scenes. First, the vase room includes a gigantic ceremonial stone head of an Engineer. If you look carefully you can see that the head is inscribed with runes which make the head look as if it is transforming as a result of black goo exposure (sorry about the name, black goo is the most descriptive one I can think of) but the expression is not in distress, it is calm. Furthermore, this head is centrally placed in the room around which everything is arranged, as if transforming due to black goo is everything. Behind the head is a massive mural that fills the entire rear wall of the cavern. During the film we don’t really see the details but very clearly and centrally we are shown a large relief of what seems to be a Xenomorph alien queen looking down upon the room. The stance is not aggressive, for instance her fangs aren’t showing, but the stance is nonetheless powerful, dominating the scene of the transforming head and drawing the eye. I suspect this mural is depicting a holy figure of power and awe that the Engineers venerate.

The queen mural

The second key scene is actually the first scene of the Engineer sacrificing himself using black goo. The moment is clearly a ritual. The Engineer is wearing a hood, a white loincloth, and is standing alone on a rock by a waterfall; his face is calm. Although I didn’t know what to think when I first saw the scene, after seeing the vase room I had a moment of “Ooooooh, that’s it,” because to me everything made sense. The original Engineer sacrificed his life to the black goo so that the perfect host DNA could flourish en masse and the aliens they venerated could survive in optimal conditions. This would benefit the Engineers in two ways. Firstly, their gods could be plentiful. Secondly, they could be plentiful at the expense of lives other than their own, namely human lives.

Engineer sacrifice at Waterfall

If the Engineers worship the black goo and the Xenomorphs why would they flee in terror from it if something went wrong at that installation? Well, why wouldn’t they flee in terror? Worshipful love of something/someone greater than yourself pretty much always involves a hefty element of fear. The major religions here on Earth all involve fear of god(s). Cult figures in history who inspired worshipful legions did so partly because they terrified those people with what they were capable of (Hitler, Jim Jones, and David Koresh, anyone?). Human nature is drawn to dangerous, terrifying things. The most fundamental of spiritualties, Animism, tends to put emphasis on big scary things like giant volcanoes, oceans, tremendous waterfalls, mountains, and giant predatory creatures like komodo dragons, bears, and tigers.  Indeed the film is filled with lots of sweeping vistas and soaring mountains. I propose that the Engineers are like a cross between Davros (of Doctor Who) and Hitler. They worship what they see as deadly and powerful perfection: the Xenomorphs and their black goo. In the other Alien movies it is consistently remarked that the Xenomorph is the apex predator of the universe, the perfect killing machine equipped with redundant death dealing traits. It has multiple mouths and impossible speed; if you injure it you inevitably weaken yourself or your surroundings by getting sprayed with acid blood; its parasitic stage of development, the facehugger, can adapt to any host to survive in any form, and have enough cunning to problem-solve your demise. Much like a Dalek, the Xenomorph could be interpreted as the ultimate evolutionary achievement in simple ability to survive and destroy. Parasitism has a drawback of course. A parasitic creature requires an abundance of prey and would be dependent on the appearance of that prey in order to proliferate.  However, since the black goo seems to be some sort of DNA or RNA retrovirus that can apparently survive any length of time in stasis until a host of any sort, earthworms included, approaches it, the essence of a Xenomorph would be incredibly difficult to exterminate.

Why were the Engineers going to fly a big ship of black goo to Earth to destroy us if they want to worship Xenomorphs? Well, let’s think about the word “destroy,” and let’s think about why humanity was created. According to my interpretation, humanity was created to serve a very specific purpose, the purpose of being hosts for the black goo. By any human definition, yes, the Engineers were coming to destroy our race. From the perspective of the Engineers they were coming to finally get their use out of the crop they sowed like raising foxes for fur or cows for leather. The archaeological evidence uncovered by Shaw and Holloway supports the idea of Engineers as farmers, they came to Earth at intervals to check the progress of the crop. David is my main evidence here.  I found myself particularly drawn to the conversation he shares with Holloway prior to spiking his champagne with black goo (presumably at the behest of Weyland). David asks Holloway why humans created him, an android. Holloway is flippant, responding with “we could!” A most disappointing answer from a creator but also an inaccurate one: after all, Weyland did not build a robot he considered almost as a son just because he felt like it. Being a rich, despotic megalomaniac Weyland built David to serve a very specific and important set of purposes. David is necessary to getting Weyland and an army of human tools across the galaxy safely, finding the Engineers, communicating with the Engineers, and ultimately ensuring that Weyland got the thing he wanted more than anything else: more life. The entire mission would have been impossible without David. While David might long for a soul and the free will that comes with it he has a comfort none of the humans aboard ship have: he not only knows why he exists but he actually is capable of achieving his purposes, his meaning of life.  Of course it seems that David doesn’t really accept his meaning to existence any more than the humans aboard ship accept the terrible reality of the Engineers; this might be the most human thing about him. To me this is an obvious narrative allegory for the human crew’s struggle to understand their own existence. From a human perspective it is a disappointing purpose, this being a host for predatory gods, more disappointing than David’s certainly but if you look at it from another perspective, that of the Engineers, it makes sense. Just think about the uniforms the Engineers wear. They are wearing synthetic, not organic, body armor that looks strikingly like the Xenomorphs. Remember the medical room scene where they “trick the head into life,” the Scottish Doctor points out that the helmet isn’t an exoskeleton it is synthetic armor. At the end of the film when we finally see the Xenomorph alien we’ve been expecting to see for the last 2.5 hours it immediately struck me that the alien looked more like the Engineer’s synthetic body armor than the Engineer itself. A lot of people are probably citing this as some sort of logical narrative inconsistency. I think otherwise. After all, the Engineers have the figures in the vase room; they would know what it would look like when an Engineer got parasitized by a Xenomorph. I propose that they modeled their body armor, and probably gobs of other things, after the Xenomorph because they knew it was deadly and effective.

David with the Earth in his hands. This was my favorite scene in the film.

Another point that fans are debating is the backstory of the black goo. Is the black goo a bioengineered weapon of mass destruction as Captain Janek suggests to Dr. Shaw? Or is it one big genetic experiment gone wrong? I propose that the black goo is more like fire, something useful, something wondrous and terrible, that the Engineers discovered a long time ago and have spent untold amounts of effort proliferating in the galaxy.

Ridley Scott and his team have said in interviews that they hope Prometheus is just the first in a trilogy that follows Dr. Shaw and David as they keep exploring the answers to the Big Questions. I don’t know if the subsequent films will be made or if they will support my explanation of the events in Prometheus. I haven’t read any of Ridley Scott’s comments or anyone else’s for that matter regarding the film. No outside materials were used to come to the interpretation I have outlined in this blog; I only used my one viewing of the film to write this piece.  I certainly think it would be cool if the movies did get made and I turned out to be correct but even if they don’t it doesn’t really matter. As a standalone film I think Prometheus can be reasonably interpreted the way I have outlined based upon the evidence of the characters, story, and the details of the production design which I have cited. I hope this explanation gets you thinking about the film in a different light and that maybe you can enjoy it if not more, at least in a different way than you might have expected.

Prometheus in the clouds

All images were found using a Google image search, when I remembered to I linked to the Google Image.

If you want to see the film after reading this post, here’s a link to how to get it on amazon.com: Prometheus (Blu-ray/ DVD + Digital Copy)
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27 thoughts on “Ridley Scott’s Prometheus Explained

    • I give Scott and his team credit, they did not make it a gore fest. There is only one scene that spills a lot of blood and it is actually pretty tame by horror film standards. That said, Prometheus is pretty scary and if you don’t do scary well and you’re not a fan of the Aliens series I don’t think it’s one you need to see.

      • Thanks for joining us here at the pond, Hudson. I take it from your comments that you are a serious fan of the Alien universe. Out of curiosity, how do you define “viable input,” for discussion? Personally I encourage a diversity of perspective as a general rule. What did you think of the movie Prometheus?

  1. I’ve been plagued by nightmares of zombies since before I knew what they were. They are something embedded in my sub-conscience and they terrify me.
    I’ve seen more zombie movies than I would like to have seen. I was terrified by one of the Resident Evil video games to the point where, when a friend dragged me to see the movie with her (she was going out of the country for a long, long time, and I wanted to spend time with her) the movie didn’t scare me all that much, though I wouldn’t watch it again. Shaun of the Dead traumatized me despite my sibling’s assurances that it wouldn’t. Zombieland had a few traumatic moments but wasn’t as bad for me. That’s the grand total, and I try to keep it that way.

  2. Have you ever read a poem with language so enigmatic and references to other works so distance that it is almost impossible to understand by anyone other than the author? It has a title, it has a beginning and an end, and just enough of the familiar huiman experience to pique. I felt this way about Prometheus. I told myself I shouldn’t because it’s only a movie. But I’m a fan of Scott and a huge fan of science fiction. And I’ve spent far too much time trying to disect the movie. When I was younger I yearned for films that were “open to interpretation.” But it seems that the older i get the more I want straight-forwardrness: mean what you say and say what you mean. For this reason I too felt a certain amount of resentment toward him after I saw it. At first viewing 2001 seems to be very mysterious. But I felt at least I understood it. I didn’t need an explanation from Arthur C. Clarke. All this aside I’ll probably watch it time after time looking for its meaning. However, what I really want is Scott’s meaning, not my own. He may not think he owes his fans or anyone, for that matter, a detailed explantion. But he promised answers. Most viewers think we got more questions. In the first Alien I what he is saying is that for all our technology and confidence space is still a very scary and dangerous place. So much death came from a simple misunderstanding. Prometheus is light-years way from Alien in its simplicity.

    • Thank you so much for reading and taking the time to comment. Hopefully more answers will be forthcoming in the sequel he plans to make but I don’t think Scott’s answers are any more valid or important than anyone else’s now that the film is complete though his perspective is certainly an interesting one. Thanks again for reading!

  3. I noticed on your blog you read The communist Manifesto. The last time I picked that up was at USC in the early ’80’s. What was your interest in it?

    • I enjoy history and I enjoy literature; the Communist Manifesto combines both. I’ve long been interested in the Manifesto due to its tremendous impact on world history and more recently due to its importance in Marxist critical theory in literature. Did you finish reading it back in the early 80’s? Was it for a class or personal curiosity? Thanks for reading!

      • If I remember correctly it was required reading for Political Science 101. My undergraduate degree is in Political Science. Haven’t picked it up since. Over the years most of my reading time has been occupied by horror and science fiction. But lately I’ve been reading a book by Brian Greene called “The Elegant Universe.” It’s about modern physics. He writes about human-kind’s progressive understanding of reality, space and time. In the classical era physics dealt mainly with mass and motion and effect each had on the other- the effect of gravitational forces. In the relativistic reality we took into account the forces of electricity and magnetism. In the quanum reality we began to go beyond the atomic and subatomic realms and developed string theory – the idea that all matter is comprised of vibrating strings of energy. And the shape matter takes depends on how the strings vibrate. Since these strings of energy are so small they can’t be seen their existance can only be implied. But physicists insist there is plenty of evidence for their existance. Pretty wierd, huh? I guess the ultimate question is who or what is making the strings vibrate. I started out wondering if the author would address any questions of religion, but he made it clear that he would not. This is my third time reading it – a lot of it is hard to grasp. Its pretty late. Goodnight.

      • String theory is one of those scientific ideas that I’m pretty sure can only be truly understood by the handful of experts who came up with the theory in the first place. That’s not to say that there isn’t value in trying to understand it, the journey of understanding science is intrinsically valuable, I’m just saying don’t feel bad about it being hard to grasp even on the third read-through; you’ll probably need at least a dozen readings. Personally I only know enough physics to pursue my research as a biologist and I’m okay with that but my hat is off to anyone with the ambition and the time to study physics. Thanks for reading!

  4. I guess what really fascinated me is the idead that string theory might provide us with a “unified theory” of all that exists. The equations that uphold general relativity (the large) and quantum mechanics (the small) seemed to be forever seperate and distinct (they produced equatic gibberish when combined) until those upholding string theory were used to bridge the gap. But further still it all began to make even more sense when we ddn’t limit ourselves to certain ideads about spacetime – that is, that there may be as many as 10 (string theory) or 11 (super-string theory) different dimensions. But right now all this knowledge and $5.00 will get you a cup a coffee at Starbucks. I’m sure there are many people in every discipline that will say their studies are of paramount importance to human-kind. Probably, anything that is discovered in the future will remain meaningless to 99.9999… percent of the population. I have my own ideas about what exists (seen and unseen); which I’m sure the author would tell me belong in the 18th century. But that’s OK. In one sense we are all islands unto ourselves – we are all free to reach conclusions about what is. And I’m convinced freedom is not an illusion. Changing gears, what is on the forefront of biological studies these days?

    • There is a lot of elegance to the outline of string theory (granted I understand a thumbnail sketch) but I hold an innate distrust of any scientific theory that purports to explain everything in creation ever; while a perhaps useful goal for research it can also lead to dogmatism which is dangerous to objective inquiry. Basically I prefer to keep an open mind. Part of the beauty of science and literature is the basic pointlessness of both, that they are products of our human creativity and curiosity. Whether 99.9% of humanity nets a direct benefit from either doesn’t change the fact that I think as a whole they are the richer for the efforts of the arts and sciences. As for biology, there are many things. Of what specifically are you curious?

  5. I like your interpretation. For me, this movie left me with more questions than answers. It doesn’t even need to tie in with the ‘Alien’ universe we are all familiar with, because this story asks bigger questions, but I suppose it has to tie in with the universe of the originals just so that it can make sense of that iconic 10 minute scene in ‘Alien’.

    Also, this was probably the only movie that got me swept up in it’s entire media campaign from the start. When I first saw Weyland’s TED talk, I squeee’d like a little girl, and I wanted more and more ,just so that I could watch the movie with some preconceived ideas of my own. Happily, most of my ideas were wrong. The only thing that irked me a little was that, you have a team of “Professional” Biologists and scientists, and as soon as the first creature pops up, he wants to “love him and kiss him, and call him George”… That was a little derpy for me, but I guess that was how they had to get the ball rolling.

    I certainly hope they make sequels, but I’m willing to curb my inner geek monster, who shouts ”MOAR”, just so they can make it as good if not better. Now imagine, if you will, that James Cameron by some insane act of fate, directs the sequel? Sorry, just that geek monster again…

    Seriously,I can spend hours and hours talking about this film 🙂

    • Thank you so much for taking the time to comment! I’m glad that you like my interpretation of the film. I think it might have been better if Cameron had just made Prometheus and any sequels as an independent film series from the Aliens universe. Sure, it wouldn’t have the Aliens name pulling in people but Cameron is a draw unto himself, I’m sure it would have made money.

      he only thing that irked me a little was that, you have a team of “Professional” Biologists and scientists, and as soon as the first creature pops up, he wants to “love him and kiss him, and call him George”

      Honestly, that part had me and my fellow biologist/scientist friends hopping with rage. That is not how we roll. Also, what was up with the whining? A true scientist would have been thrilled beyond belief to have an opportunity to explore dead things on an alien world. They would not be whining about how gross a dead alien head is or fleeing from doing their job. I was not pleased. One of these days I might do a post/rant about portrayals of scientists in film and TV that fill me with rage; I’ll have to stock up on my antacids first. I didn’t talk about my quibbles with the film in my post because that wasn’t the purpose of my post but I’m glad that I am not the only one who really did not like that scene. 🙂

      I would be surprised if Cameron didn’t at least co-direct the sequels considering how invested in Prometheus he seemed to be. Time will tell.

      Thanks again for posting a comment! That makes my day. 🙂

  6. I appreciate your insight….this film takes on a little bit too much for me to process. Maybe my mind just doesn’t work as fast as some, but I’m having to juggle too much. The creation of Man, creation of Engineer, creation of Xenomorph, the ties into Alien, the TIMING of everything is also very crucial in my opinion…. frankly, it’s over whelming. But I liked the film, and enjoyed that it left me wanting more answers.

    A couple things I didn’t like. I just can’t buy that the black goo created human life on Earth, but changed it’s hosts into violent hybrids later in the movie. I also didn’t like the fact that the Mural in the “temple” room is almost indistinguishable when watching the movie….it’s so dark, and vague. Yet hugely informative. David, is also completely reckless for willingly infecting a member of the expedition. Following orders, ok, but following orders at his creators expense? It’s very HAL 9000 to me, and I can’t help but think if it’s his own doing? David has human qualities, and you almost wonder if he takes this risk, b/c he sees no downside? He stats that he will be “free” once Weyland is dead. And I think this is just another burning torch to juggle. Not only does David infect a member, but really jeopardizes the entire ship by bringing the Canister on board and storing in w/ other items. And btw, what ever happened to the canister and it’s remaining black goo?

    And how is the black goo that is oozing out of the canisters different from the black goo that David removes from the canister by opening it up, and breaking that green thing open?

    Couple minor points, I would never drink something if someone intentionally dunked their finger into it. Android or not. GTFOH with that. Matter of fact, I’ll get my own drink, thank you very much.

    and yeah, the dingbat that wants to play with the alien worm. SMH. Not good, but at least it doesn’t make your mind go into a pretzel.

    • Thank you so much for your detailed comment! I’m glad that you liked my post. I think the movie is very thought provoking, especially if you’re a fan of Scott’s other Alien-universe stories, but I think that a lot of details probably just got left in the dust of the creation process. I think that you bring up good questions but I don’t think they are things that Scott necessarily considered in detail while he was putting the film together.

      I agree though that you should never drink something that an android sticks his finger in; I would get my own drink too. 🙂

      • Wonderful ideas! I specifically enjoyed your theory on the xenomorphs being god like figures of power to the engineers! Being a huge fan of the original alien films and the many many stories and concepts involved in the alien universe that followed after I was besotted by Prometheus! I for one like to think that Ridley has done a perfect job on creating a film that fits quite comfortably in the alien universe but without giving definitive answers so many fans crave!

        I cannot help but feel that there are so many people out there who love the films, books, comics and games that it would be a shame to simply sum up the whole story and kick out the vast amount of possibilities as to how each and every plot/character is linked, it would no doubt please many fans but at the same time disappoint if not upset so many more. Keeping the universe of aliens open to ideas would be the best thing he could do but hopefully without exhausting the ideas by creating too many films.

        Personally I would adore a couple more to complete the Prometheus trilogy that leave the important questions such as the origin of the aliens and the reasons for there being etc kept hush hush but merge the timelines of the original films and Prometheus. If the final prom film ends with an engineers ship crashing with a cargo full of eggs and an engineer with his last dying breath climb into his pilots chair and activate a distress beacon that sets the scene for the arrival of the nostromo then I will be overjoyed since that scene from “alien” was one of the first to get me so hooked into the films when I was just a child ( although I must admit I always thought that was a huge weapon of some sort, it never dawned on me that was the ships control seat).

        It wouldn’t please a lot of folk no doubt but it’s just my personal love for how id like the direction of the Prometheus films to go if Ridley has to knuckle down and give some fans some closure.

      • Thank you so much for your detailed reply to my post, I really appreciate the time you took to engage with my post.

        I don’t think that Scott necessarily has to give definitive answers to his fans but I think it would be the smart move, in terms of the overall cohesion of the entire universe he made, for him to do what you suggest and have the final film end with an engineer’s ship crashing, egg cargo and all, and have the engineer in the chair activate the distress beacon that causes the Nostromo to arrive. That would be great. I don’t know if he will do that, we’ll see, but it would be great if he did.

        I also think it is important to say that if this universe of his is as deep and creative as people seem to think it is based upon Scott’s films that I doubt it would be possible for the ideas to be exhausted by creating too many films. Good ideas beget more good ideas, creativity is a positive feedback loop, especially in science fiction.

        Thanks again for commenting, Joe!

  7. I love this movie. I watched it unkowing it was connected to the alien franchise. Since my husband has talked me into watching the first movies. I have to admit I dont much care for them. But prometheus is like a drug, I hope they get on with the sequel. Though as a stand alone story it is beautiful. I agree with your theory, thanks for posting.

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