Prometheus: exploring some of the movie's symbolic keys

By Aaron Franz

first posted Wednesday, 13 June 2012


Prometheus, the much anticipated prequel to Ridley Scott's 1979 classic film Alien has been anxiously anticipated for some time. Because the movie is a prequel the audience came to the theater expecting to find answers to the many questions evoked by the entire Alien franchise. Questions like: what are those horrific bug-like creatures? Why do they reproduce in such a grotesque way? How did they get on that strange planet with the shipwrecked spacecraft? Who or what is the space jockey?



Instead of plainly answering these questions, Prometheus goes about adding even more queries to an already long list. One thing that has bothered many moviegoers and fans of the original Alien is that Prometheus doesn't reveal enough. Its mystery extends so far as to make a full explanation of the actual story line impossible. It lends itself to infinite interpretations, but here I will present my personal take on the film. Although enigmatic, Prometheus does present some definite messages.

Main themes and concepts within Prometheus

  • genetic engineering
  • both questioning and reinterpreting concepts of god/creation
  • the "ancient astronauts" theory of human genesis
  • the mystery and power of the primordial creative force itself (symbolized by the black liquid)
  • creation out of destruction



The very title of this film is taken directly from Greek mythology. Prometheus being the Titan who brought fire to Man. The very idea of the Titans, the gods that held power over the world in an ancient time, is one that must be noted in order to understand what is going on in this film. The Titans were a set of gods that existed before the later Olympians who overthrew them. Their story denotes a distant golden age, the memory of which has been lost as the sands of Time have eventually worn it away leaving behind only the myth itself. This film depicts such concepts directly as it follows the trail of the lost gods all the way from Earth, out into distant space.


In this movie Prometheus is the name of the spacecraft that journeys out in search of the creator gods themselves. These gods are explained by Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) to be an ancient race of space travelers. Shaw and her partner Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) are archaeologists who travel the world comparing the art of ancient peoples. Their discovery of the repeated motif of human figures pointing up to a set of six stars leads them to the conclusion that humans were created by beings from another world. This mirrors the "ancient astronauts" theory of Erich Von Däniken, which subsequently became famous due to its repeated presentation on cable television programs and in the pages of grocery store magazines. It is the idea that humanity's existence is the result of a genetic engineering experiment conducted by a race of technologically advanced aliens.

So the gods in this film are actually humanoid beings, a race of giants with impressive physiques and highly advanced technology. Shaw and Holloway refer to these beings as the "engineers." Their very human traits and characteristics mirror those of Greek gods. Both the Titans and Olympians had incredibly volatile temperaments. They were cruel, vindictive, and ruthless. Many people have wondered what this means, and what the myths may be hinting at. Are they saying that the Gods themselves are more a part of Man than most would assume? In the film this is certainly the case.

As Prometheus was severely punished by the gods so too are the crew of the spaceship Prometheus punished by the sole surviving engineer. They wake him from his cryostasis in the hope of asking him questions only to have him kill them all on sight immediately after regaining his consciousness. Again, this sort of violent behavior echoes that of the Greek gods. The concept that the engineers are imperfect and violent themselves is important. What kind of creation is made by an imperfect god?

The opening sequence of the film is highly symbolic. It consists of a series of sweeping aerial shots of a harsh tundra-like landscape devoid of any visible life. Harsh though it may be, it is also beautiful and rich in flowing water. This is a key point to note, as it is water which holds within itself the capacity to generate and sustain life. A shadow on the ground tells us that someone has come down from above to interact with the landscape. We then see an engineer dressed in a druidic robe walking up to the edge of a waterfall. He disrobes and pulls out a small bowl filled with a strange black liquid. It is clear that he is performing some sort of ritual, but things go terribly wrong for him after he drinks the black liquid. He appears to be caught by surprise as his body begins to contort and fall apart. We are shown a visual of his very DNA floating in the middle of this chaos. As the engineer's body falls to pieces it also falls down the waterfall and his DNA, tainted with the black liquid, is mixed into the flowing river. So what does this mean?

The meaning of the opening scene

  • The landscape, in particular the flowing water represents the female creative aspect in its pure receptive state. This equates to the Abyss of various creation myths
  • The engineer represents the male creative aspect. The seed which impregnates matter.
  • This landscape is actually Earth (this is assumed, but it makes sense within the context of the entire film). The engineer has come to create life where none is yet present. This is the cause for his ritual. 
  • The engineer's death is actually the event which leads to the appearance of life on Earth, culminating in the eventual arrival of the human being. The engineer's destruction leads to the the creation of an entire world. 
  • Life on Earth is thus an accident on the part of the engineers. Somehow the power of the black liquid is beyond their control.


So the beginning of the film clearly depicts creation out of destruction. It frames the genesis of man as the literal fall of his god into matter (water). In the Mystery Tradition there is a concept that life in the physical world equates to spiritual death. This concept is being referenced in Prometheus as the god of humanity literally dies to sow the seed of the human race. The engineer symbolizes the spiritual male principle. We see here the fall of spirit into matter, matter being the female principle. It is a death and rebirth ritual, and also a reference to another ancient creation myth. This particular myth holds that the gods experimented with metals and created a race that once existed in a pure and impeccable state. Their further experimentation resulted in a degradation of this race in a reverse alchemical fashion. The very first was a pure golden race, and the last (and current race) was one of iron. The god's experiments with metals caused only destruction and pain in this myth, and it is the very same with the engineers attempts to genetically engineer life.


Immediately upon their arrival the crew of the Prometheus venture out to explore the world of the engineers. The crew enters a large domed structure. Within its hallways are found many corpses of engineers, dead for thousands of years. Upon entering a special room, the crew discovers something very important. At the center of this room is a large sculpture in the likeness of a human head and all around it are many vases containing the black liquid. The room has a tall ceiling with paintings and relief sculptures on its walls. It is clearly a temple of some sort.

What is the significance of the room containing the giant head and many vases?

  • It is a temple created by the engineers to celebrate their own creative power. The black liquid was produced by them in a scientific fashion, but it also held very serious spiritual significance. It has the power to create/alter life. An altar, is a place where transmutation occurs.
  • The giant head symbolizes the source from which the black liquid was produced. The head holds the brain, and this is why the head is a temple unto itself. With advanced brain power the engineers created the black liquid. 
  • The temple was created to celebrate the intelligence and creative power of the engineers themselves. This act of hubris led to their own demise. 
  • The black liquid represents the primordial creative essence itself. Beyond male and female this imperishable thing is harnessed by the engineers and placed within an actual physical substance.



We can see that Prometheus is primarily about genetic engineering. This topic invariably brings with it an exploration of the mystery underlying creation itself. What is the primordial creative force? What is that black liquid? The engineers hoped to contain the very essence of creation in order to use it to their own ends. Within the film it is never revealed whether the engineers intended to use the liquid to create or to destroy, but we witness it doing both on multiple occasions.

Prometheus desanctifies the concept of a loving creator god. It is saying, hey look, we know that genetic engineering is possible, so what if life as we know it was originally the product of a science experiment gone wrong? In the movie, all life on Earth is apparently the result of a terrible mistake. This is certainly a dark concept, and one that seems to echo some of the popular sentiments of our day. Many big names are presenting the concept that humanity is in no way special, and in fact a parasitic presence upon the Earth. If there is any sort of god at all, it likely hates us. Were these ideas being put forth in Prometheus as part of an ideological agenda? Could there be purpose in presenting such concepts to a global audience? Was the film exploring such dark ideas in some sort of attempt to actually work them out? Is the ancient astronauts theory given increased or decreased credibility by this work of fiction? Why do we still know next to nothing about the original xenomorph alien?

It is clear that Prometheus has set itself up for a sequel, Epimetheus perhaps? What is not so clear is the overall intent of the film. Hopefully this exploration of its themes will help you form your own ideas about it. One thing to remember is that this was a massive Hollywood production, and that it will be viewed worldwide. Any ideas that the film contains will have a lasting effect on the audience.