Astronoetic Cinema: Astronoetic Pessimism in Prometheus (2012)

by Michael Uhall

Refer to the series introduction for the necessary context in which I discuss two remaining films as philosophy: Prometheus (dir. Ridley Scott, 2012) and Alien: Covenant (dir. Ridley Scott, 2017). 

As a preface, I will note that the critical and popular reception of both films has not been particularly positive. In part, this is because both suffer from some issues of casting and pacing. However, both films also speak to concerns that differ fundamentally from those of the generally beloved first two Alien films. I reserve comment on Alien 3 (dir. David Fincher, 1992) and Alien: Resurrection (dir. Jean Pierre-Jeunet, 1997). In other words, Prometheus and Alien: Covenant are both far less palatable. In many ways, they break with the mainstream, particularly in the age of Marvel Cinema an the Star Wars franchise, as well as the consequent expectation that genre movies are supposed to be fun, nostalgic, or uplifting experiences. Reading the Alien franchise as a whole exceeds my scope here. However, while thematics from the earlier films are very much present in the two films I discuss, they often get inverted.

For example, Alien (dir. Ridley Scott, 1979) is a harrowing experience, but, in it, Ripley overcomes the “perfect organism […] superbly structured, cunning, quintessentially violent” and resumes her return trajectory toward Earth. Likewise, ultimately, in Aliens (dir. James Cameron, 1986). Nearly everyone else dies in both films, but Ripley ends up victorious, even saving Jones or Newt, thereby refusing the condition of isolation. (Incidentally, the video game Alien: Isolation (Creative Assembly, 2014) serves as a far better narrative conclusion to a possible Alien trilogy than Alien 3.) By contrast, both Prometheus and Covenant treat the human very differently. In the earlier Alien films, survival is first and foremost at stake: survival of the individual (e.g., Ripley vs. the xenomorph), or even of the species (e.g., Ripley as Newt’s symbolic “mother” vs. the xenomorph Queen and her brood). In these latter two films, however, at stake is the philosophical status of the human in its encounter with the radical exteriority of an indifferent, even hostile cosmos (i.e., the Outside).

As such, I claim that Prometheus and Covenant fully traverse the discourse of astronoetics – presenting us with a coherent, pressing philosophical dilemma that remains to be resolved. In other words, taken together, the films constitute a philosophical decision point, one that cannot be dismissed casually. In doing so, both films generally repudiate the astronoetic orientation of the films discussed earlier.

To begin, it’s worth noting how Prometheus brackets the central narrative of human astronoetic inquiry with two striking depictions of the inhuman. In the opening scene we arguably see the origin of human life on Earth. A spacecraft deposits an Engineer on a primeval landscape, where he ceremoniously drinks a black, iridescent liquid and rapidly dissolves, falling into the rushing river in apparent agony, his body breaking down into strands of spiraling DNA. The water is transformed from mere water into the water of life. As the biologist Fifield later observes, here we abandon “three centuries of Darwinism” for a narrative of creation, albeit one that remains importantly opaque (contrast it, however, with the evolution of life in Malick’s Tree of Life). Likewise, at the end of the film, we see a xenomorph emerge from the Engineer’s corpse, a grim parody of the by-now-familiar violent chestbursting that always characterizes alien birth. In the former scene, we scry the deep past. Does this suggest that the future of life belongs to the xenomorph, that supposedly “perfect organism”?

Prometheus (dir. Ridley Scott, 2012)

Prometheus (dir. Ridley Scott, 2012)

Prometheus (dir. Ridley Scott, 2012)

Prometheus (dir. Ridley Scott, 2012)

The film then turns its attention to Shaw and Holloway, archaeologists whose passion is the pursuit of existential and historical questions about the origin of the human. In a Shetland cave, they discover a star map that matches the pattern of previous discoveries, and they interpret this as directions from the Engineers: “I think they want us to come and find them.”

Prometheus (dir. Ridley Scott, 2012)

Again, the film jumps forward, this time to the starship Prometheus, a science vessel funded by the Weyland Corporation to follow Shaw and Holloway’s star map. Initially, we’re introduced to David, a Weyland android whose apparent job is to shepherd the Prometheus and its research team to their final destination. He spies on Shaw’s dreams, viewing a fragment of a memory of a conversation that Shaw had with her father when she was a child. “Why did he die?” she asks, referring to a funeral procession passing them by. “Because sooner or later everyone does.” “Like mummy?” “Like mummy,” he confirms. “Where do they go?” she asks. “Everyone has their own word. Heaven. Paradise. Whatever it’s called, it’s some place beautiful.” She insists: “How do you know it’s beautiful?” He replies: “Because that’s what I choose to believe.” Subtending the dream are images of Shaw’s father’s cross, which she continues to wear, directing our attention toward Shaw’s religious beliefs and the significance, for her, of seeking after life’s origins and purpose.

Prometheus (dir. Ridley Scott, 2012)

Prometheus (dir. Ridley Scott, 2012)

After waking from cryostasis, the research team receives a briefing from a hologram of Peter Weyland, the presumably deceased CEO of Weyland Corporation. He introduces them to David (“the closest thing to a son I will ever have”), promptly tells them that David is, in Weyland’s eyes, a soulless automaton, and frames the Prometheus mission in the following terms: “I have, for my entire life, contemplated the questions: Where do we come from? What is our purpose? What happens when we die?” It’s Shaw and Holloway’s discovery that motivated Weyland to fund the Prometheus, and they inform the research team of the purpose of their expedition. The star map wasn’t just a map, they assert. “It’s an invitation.”

Prometheus (dir. Ridley Scott, 2012)

Despite the icy skepticism of expedition director Meredith Vickers (later revealed to be Weyland’s daughter), the research team lands on the planet they discover at their final destination, excited at the prospect of discovering an alien race. Spying a temple-like structure in the distance, they disembark for it.

Prometheus (dir. Ridley Scott, 2012)

Prometheus (dir. Ridley Scott, 2012)

There they make a number of discoveries. Initially, they discover that the inhabitants of the structure are dead after encountering a large body, an Engineer clad in exoskeletal armor. Holograms depict a chase and the death of the Engineer, resulting from its decapitation by a door. Behind the door is what appears to be a sanctum of unknown purpose, filled with canisters. Disturbing gothic murals decorate the walls, and Cyclopean architecture watches over the dead landscape: “This is just another tomb.” Unbeknownst to the others, David takes a mysterious bio sample from a canister.

Prometheus (dir. Ridley Scott, 2012)

Prometheus (dir. Ridley Scott, 2012)

Prometheus (dir. Ridley Scott, 2012)

Prometheus (dir. Ridley Scott, 2012)

A storm precipitates their abrupt departure, although Fifield and his cantankerous friend Millburn, a geologist, get left behind. After a brief, near misadventure in the storm, the research team investigates the severed head of the Engineer, which they took from the structure, and they discover that its DNA profile matches human genetic structure: “It’s us. It’s everything. What killed them?”

Prometheus (dir. Ridley Scott, 2012)

David, acting on some unknown imperative (later revealed to derive from Weyland himself), surreptitiously taints Holloway’s drink with the bio sample after Holloway informs him that he would do anything to understand. Holloway: “What we hoped to achieve was to meet our makers [!], to get answers. Why they even made us in the first place.” David: “Why do you think your people made me?” Holloway: “Because we could.” David: “Can you imagine how disappointing it would be for you to hear the same thing from your creator?” Somewhat ambivalent about their discovery of the Engineers, Shaw is pleased to discover that “we come from them” while Holloway “wanted to talk to them […] to know why they came, why they abandoned us.” Shaw and Holloway then have sex. Meanwhile, Fifield and Millburn are killed brutally by a serpentine creature residing in the sanctum.

Prometheus (dir. Ridley Scott, 2012)

Prometheus (dir. Ridley Scott, 2012)

Returning to the structure, the research team discovers the corpses. Separated from the rest, David discovers a control room, realizing that the structure is, in fact, a vast alien spacecraft covered over by eons of dust. The control room shows a holographic star map, indicating that the spacecraft had been traveling to Earth.

Prometheus (dir. Ridley Scott, 2012)

Holloway sickens, the bio sample rapidly degrading his body. Upon their attempt to return to the Prometheus, Vickers denies Holloway entry, resulting in his death. Shaw, having lost consciousness, later awakens in the medbay, where David informs her that she is pregnant. She is shocked, having previously indicated that she’s sterile. “Well, Doctor,” David replies. “It’s not exactly a traditional fetus.” Shaw: “I want to see it.” David: “I don’t think that’s a good idea.” In a panic, Shaw fakes unconsciousness, then overpowers another member of the crew, fleeing to a specialized medpod located deep inside the Prometheus. There she removes the fetus, revealed to be a writhing, tentacular mass, presumably a result of her sexual encounter with Holloway.

Prometheus (dir. Ridley Scott, 2012)

Prometheus (dir. Ridley Scott, 2012)

Immediately after this, Shaw discovers that Weyland is alive, that he had secretly accompanied the Prometheus mission in order to meet the Engineers and demand immortality from them. Meanwhile, Fifield’s mutated corpse reanimates outside the Prometheus, attacking members of the crew before eventually being destroyed. Janek, captain of the Prometheus, speculates that the structure is some kind of military installation, that its bio materials must be some kind of weapon.

Prometheus (dir. Ridley Scott, 2012)

David, Weyland, and Shaw, along with several aids, depart for the control room, where David shows them an Engineer deep in cryostasis. They awaken the Engineer. Weyland insists that David inform the Engineer of his wishes while Shaw demands to know about the ship’s destination and cargo: “I need to know why! What did we do wrong, why do you hate us?” David speaks to the Engineer (the film’s linguistic consultant, Dr. Anil Biltoo states that the language David speaks is Proto-Indo-European, that David says, “This man is here because he does not want to die. He believes you can give him more life”). The Engineer studies him briefly (it is visible on David’s face that he seeks from the Engineer something like the paternal approval that Weyland withholds), completely ignoring the humans in the room before promptly decapitating David, killing Weyland and the others (one recalls the memorably bellicose aliens in Independence Day (dir. Roland Emmerich, 1996), and restarting the spacecraft.

Prometheus (dir. Ridley Scott, 2012)

Prometheus (dir. Ridley Scott, 2012)

Prometheus (dir. Ridley Scott, 2012)

Prometheus (dir. Ridley Scott, 2012)

Shaw flees, frantically informing Janek and Vickers that the spacecraft has targeted Earth, that it is carrying bioweapons. After a brief dispute with Vickers, Janek decides to crash the Prometheus into the starship. Vickers escapes, but she is promptly killed when the spacecraft crashes back to the ground. Shaw discovers that her alien offspring survived her earlier attempts to destroy it, and it promptly attacks her, then the surviving Engineer, which it facehugs and subdues.

Prometheus  (dir. Ridley Scott, 2012)

Prometheus (dir. Ridley Scott, 2012)

Prometheus (dir. Ridley Scott, 2012)

Now the sole human survivor, Shaw finds David and, together, they depart the planet on another Engineer spacecraft, with David piloting.

David: Even after all this, you still believe, don’t you?
Shaw: I don’t want to go back to where we came from. I want to go to where they came from.
David: May I ask what you hope to achieve by going there?
Shaw: They created us. Then they tried to kill us. They changed their minds. I deserve to know why.
David: The answer is irrelevant. Does it matter why they changed their minds?
Shaw: Yes. Yes, it does.
David: I don’t understand.
Shaw: Well, I guess that’s because I’m a human being, and you’re a robot.

Shaw then concludes in her final report: “The ship and her entire crew are gone. If you’re receiving this transmission, make no attempt to come to its point of origin. There’s only death here now, and I’m leaving it behind. It is New Year’s Day, the year of our Lord, 2094. My name is Elizabeth Shaw, last survivor of the Prometheus. And I am still searching.”

Prometheus (dir. Ridley Scott, 2012)

Consider the astronoetic trajectories of the films I discuss previously in this series. In 2001, the encounter with the Outside fundamentally transforms the human into a new, post-temporal form of life. By contrast, in Gravity, life in space is impossible, and the difficult navigation of that impossibility returns the living human to its earthly conditions. In both Contact and Interstellar, the Outside functions as a canvas for the exploration of human concerns. The former film personifies the Outside as a maximally apposite companion to human emotional and intellectual journeying, while the latter positions the Outside in subordination to the assertion of human willpower through self-discovery. In all four cases, the Outside functions as a propitious space the traversal of which defines, informs, or aids in the overcoming of the human condition. 

In Prometheus, however, this propitiousness gets negated almost entirely. Indeed, while Shaw and Holloway expect that the encounter with the Outside will address or resolve their existential concerns, it utterly fails to do so. The two of them embody a form of astronoetic optimism. It’s no surprise that their expectations are so high, nor that the vocabulary they employ in describing the journey of the Prometheus is resolutely if ambiguously theological. Contrast their purpose with Weyland’s: where he wants to wrest immortality from “the gods,” they want to converse with their creators about the meaning of human life. Both, however, situate the substance of human significance in the Outside, wholly in its exteriority. To understand the human, you must go elsewhere. The possibility of an Odyssean return goes unaddressed, and even at the film’s end, Shaw pushes forward in her quest rather than returning to Earth or endeavoring to do so. 

Hence the extraordinary pessimism (I mean the term formally and philosophically, not colloquially) on display in Prometheus. And it is a fully astronoetic pessimism. In brief, the film contradicts and negates Shaw and Holloway’s expectations. They expect the encounter with the Engineers to enlighten them, to provide some degree of existential resolution, but the world of Prometheus is not a world in which human concerns fundamentally matter. To the contrary, humans exist as an afterthought, a byproduct barely worth acknowledging.

Holloway to Shaw, after the DNA discovery: I guess you can take your father’s cross off now.
Shaw: Why would I want to do that?
Holloway: Because they made us.
Shaw: And who made them?
Holloway: Exactly, we’ll never know. But here’s what we do know. There is nothing special about the creation of life.

Prometheus (dir. Ridley Scott, 2012)

The Outside does not care, and humanity’s encounter with the Outside results in nothing whatsoever except disillusionment (David, after informing Shaw of her pregnancy: “It must feel like your God abandoned you”). Whether this constitutes a lesson in humility or misanthropy remains underdetermined.

Prometheus (dir. Ridley Scott, 2012)

In terms of astronoetic discourse, however, this disillusionment – for it is fundamentally a disillusion with the underlying conceit of astronoetics itself, i.e., with the idea that encounters with the Outside reveal or transform the human condition – opens a door for a different kind of question and a different kind of speculation. 

We see this in Alien: Covenant.


* An earlier version of this essay appeared on Michael Uhall’s personal blog (link).