I think something that most people are missing with Prometheus is that it tries to be a deeply symbolic film. Just consider the title: Prometheus. That isn’t just the name of a ship, it means something. Prometheus was the Titan who stole fire from the gods to give to man – and he was punished for that act. So the mythology behind this film is an ancient human concept about creation. The gods created us, but it is Prometheus – a Titan who is therefore from a race older than the gods – who he decides to give us – the children of the gods – the gift of fire. The gods wanted to oppress humans but a primal power steals from them a gift to help us survive.
This is a story of children taking from their parents that which they need to survive – aided by a power even older than those who created us. A power that understands the nature of life: a King has his reign and then he dies…it’s inevitable… But sometimes the father doesn’t want to die – or he doesn’t want his children to survive. And this is where Prometheus steps in: a creature from a race who created the gods and who were superseded by them. For now, let’s take a closer look at Elizabeth Shaw and the themes of creation.
All the major characters in this film have a symbolic aspect that feeds into the subtext of creation…
Dr Elizabeth Shaw, archaeologist and central protagonist. We see through Elizabeth’s dreams (as watched by David) that her father was an explorer (possibly anthropologist?) who was tragically killed by the Ebola virus. Dr Shaw has a strong religious faith which she inherited from her father and she always wears his crucifix. She believes that the pictograms she and Dr Holloway discovered are images of the alien race which created us and also an invitation to us to go and find them. She believes that this race can provide us with the answers of creation – she has no proof of this, but it is what she chooses to believe. She calls this alien race the Engineers. Shaw is the advocate and embodiment of faith – but combined with the driving force of curiosity. She risks her own life to return the alien head to the Prometheus, demonstrating her passion and determination.
When they discover that all the Engineers appear to be dead Shaw focusses upon gathering information from the surviving body and discovers that their DNA matches our own. We are indeed descended from, or even created by, these creatures. Shaw is in a relationship with Dr Holloway and through this we learn that she cannot have children. When Holloway is infected by the black liquid from the urn and then killed, Shaw very quickly turns against the Engineers, insisting that the urns contain a biological weapon and that their intention was to destroy the human race they had created.
Shaw’s characterisation is limited. She is a scientist and a believer: this seemingly contradictory – and certainly intriguing – position is never explored in the film. The assumptions she makes about the Engineers are childish and underdeveloped. Her back story and motivations are never properly explored and she ultimately seems like an idealistic dreamer rather than a scientist. On the plus side she is characterised well as a dedicated individual and a caring, compassionate human-being but let down by the wild claims and assumptions she makes. But she stands by her convictions: demanding to know ‘what did we do wrong’ when they meet the last Engineer and confessing ‘I was so wrong’ when she confronts Weyland.
All the major characters in this film have a symbolic aspect that feeds into the subtext of creation: creator and child, mother/father and child, progenitor and race, creator and destroyer. For Shaw this aspect is emphasised in two ways: firstly because she cannot have children and therefore cannot ‘create life’ but secondly through the importance of her father. The fact that he died of the Ebola virus – a lethal disease that liquefies the body’s organs – must be a clumsy reference to the Engineers’ method of kick-starting life on planets: they break themselves down at a cellular level. Shaw is seeking the father: seeking the progenitor of the human race and she is doing this at both a theological and scientific level. She wants to reconstruct what has been deconstructed – and it seems that her inability to bear children and the loss of her father spurs her obsession with finding the answers to our creation. Yet it is she who is impregnated with a destructive monster by Dr Holloway: further emphasising the struggle between parent and child; the need for the child to destroy its parent in order to survive, or for the parent to obliterate the child if threatened.
Shaw continues to be driven by questions, albeit new ones – and she instructs David to pilot an Engineer ship in an attempt to locate their planet and her answers. Most prevalent among those questions is why they wanted to destroy us: what did we do wrong. I suspect the answer is already contained within this film. And I would be willing to bet the next film is called: Pandora.