Prometheus, Ridley Scott’s prequel of sorts to the hallowed Alien franchise, opened this weekend. For the people who care—enough of them to give the film a $50 million opening weekend—this was an occasion for midnight screenings followed by furious discussions of the plot’s dense theological and psychoanalytical threads. For the people who don’t, all this deep space angst was hooey. And they, apparently, were in the majority: Most movie-going Americans this weekend rejected Scott’s cerebral and grim epic for the colorful joys of Madagascar 3.
We, then, may be through with Prometheus. But Prometheus isn’t through with us. It may have its share of creepy, oozy, alien tendrils, but what the film really grasps for is nothing less than the meaning of life and the limits of faith. Without giving too much away, it begins with two scientists in the not-so-distant future discovering what they believe to be the source of mankind’s creation. We, the two believe, owe our existence to extraterrestrials who fashioned us in their image; armed with what appears to be a map to the creators’ home planet, the scientists gather a crew of space cowboys to go and pay our gods a visit. Hey, what could ever go wrong?
There’s no way of discussing the film’s intricacies without giving away many of its pleasures; Talmudic councils of film-school nerds will, I suspect, spend many Red Bull-addled nights mirthlessly parsing its every frame. But there is a much larger lesson to be learned from Scott’s masterwork, and it has to do with the intricate links between gods and machines.
It’s not, of course, a new story. The Israelites, huddled at the foot of the mountain waiting for Moses to descend, were given their divine laws via a piece of equipment: two tablets. Later, erring in the wilderness, they were told to construct another, the Ark of the Covenant. Muslims have the Kaaba, the black-draped cube in Mecca they believe was built by Abraham and toward which they face in prayer. And Christianity has sanctified its share of relics, from the Holy Lance to the True Cross. Whenever we turn to God, it seems, we need some sort of technology to guide us along in the right direction.
Like every great science-fiction film, Prometheus understands this point well. The appeal of the genre, after all, has much to do with overcoming the strictures placed on us by virtue of being mere mortals. If we can’t warp time or control space or command our own destinies, the least we can do to make ourselves feel good is imagine some nifty gadgets that give us godlike powers. Cryogenic suspension chambers? Downloadable memories? Holographic decks? Welcome aboard Scott’s spaceship.
If you’ve seen even one science-fiction film, you know that the dream of progress always turns into some monstrous nightmare. And if you haven’t, you could imagine that by naming his spaceship (and his movie) after the Titan who molded man from clay, stole fire from the gods for humanity’s benefit, and was punished by having a peckish eagle perpetually nibble on his liver, Scott is trying to tell us that overestimating our powers and trying to understand and control what is beyond our reach is never a bright idea.
But can we ever stop? You don’t have to be a charitable, mythical giant or a hard-bodied, alien-ass-kicking, brilliant scientist to feel the temptations and the frustrations of succumbing to technology’s promises. Every time we buy some new gizmo, we expect it not only to work but to work flawlessly and, frequently, to transcend the limitations of the possible and the reasonable. How many times have we muttered that Siri, say, is dumb because she failed to understand the poorly phrased question hidden within our minutes-long drunken rant? Or insisted that there really should be a Google-like service that would enable us to point our camera phones at complete strangers and have a comprehensive report about their lives pop up on our screen? Often we aren’t satisfied with mere technological progress. What we want is magic.
It’s not our fault. From its outset, technology was created to serve as a conduit for some higher order of knowing. God, after all, is omnipresent and disembodied and as such hardly needs an ark or a spear or two stone plates to carry his essence. But he knows us, his creations, and he knows that despite realizing that we’ll never be able to grasp what he’s all about, we’ll never stop trying. What we need, then, is something concrete, a tool we imagine could show us the way to heaven and open its gates.
Herein lies the genius of Prometheus. The movie isn’t without its flaws, from a few preposterous casting choices to an overload of meaning forced onto even the most meager of plot lines. But it realizes that a spaceship is never just a spaceship, and that every bit of sophisticated technology is really just a telescope we’ve built in a futile effort to see the face of God. It won’t spoil the film’s ending to say that the crew of the Prometheus catches a glimpse of that face, and that the face isn’t exactly that of a kindly old grandfather. It’s still a Ridley Scott movie; for a refresher on the director’s view of the world, see Blade Runner. But Scott, unlike his enterprising characters but like all good theologians, understands that the destination hardly matters and that when you’re bound to spend an eternity lost in space, you might as well try and enjoy the ride and make sure your ship is as good as they get.
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Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.