Is Ridley Scott’s ‘Prometheus’ A Lovecraftian ‘2001’?

It’s been a long time since I’ve so eagerly anticipated an upcoming film. Prometheus, which is slated for a June 8 release, feels to me like a cultural, psychological, and philosophical landmark even before I’ve seen it. And its profound resonance with two other cultural, psychological, and philosophical landmarks in the history of science fiction is become more clearly evident with each passing day and each newly released marketing item.

Prometheus: The Plot

First, here are two different trailers for the film, which I can’t urge you strongly enough to watch. Although SF Signal readers may well have seen one or both of these already, I encourage you to rewatch them now (or watch them for the first time) and pay attention to the truly apocalyptic feeling they convey.

In case you didn’t gather the actual plotline, here are some relevant excerpts from the information at one of the quasi-official Prometheus websites that have sprung up:

[T]he film is set in space for the most part, similar to Alien, the jumping off point to this project. The film’s name “Prometheus” is that of the space vessel used by a crew of select individuals who set off to explore and investigate fragments of “alien DNA”. The film itself revolves around the Space Jockey creature, as seen in the original film Alien (1979). When the team of scientists embark on this journey, they get stranded on an alien world which tests their limits, both mental and physical.

Prometheus is also largely based on the creation of mankind, life and the Earth. From the recent synopsis publicly released by 20th Century Fox, we can determine roughly that Prometheus involves a team of scientists, “The Company” representatives, and robots/synthetics that investigate and search for keys to unlock man’s ultimate mystery. But in the process, they threaten the future existence of mankind and are faced with unimaginable horrors… Prometheus will be much more than just an alien sci-fi horror film. Ridley Scott is digging deeper for this project, and Prometheus will unlock many questions and touch on many aspects of life and existence.

The 2001 connection

A journey into deep space that results in the discovery of humankind’s origins, with profound implications for the future of the race? Does anyone even need to mention 2001: A Space Odyssey for the echoes to become clear? Especially if you haven’t seen the film in awhile — and doubly especially if, God help you, it’s entirely foreign to your experience (a crisis you should remedy right away) — please watch this trailer for 2001 and note both the film’s awesome parallels with Prometheus, as well as its utter and enduring damned brilliance, which comes through even in this form:

(Note that for a really excellent and engrossing explanation of what 2001 is all about — and it’s a film that drives some people crazy with its seemingly impenetrable meanings — you should watch the 20-minute Flash animation “Kubrick2001: The Space Odyssey Explained,” which I just watched and marveled at for the first time today when a colleague alerted me to it. But beware that it basically spoils the whole movie.)

Now, bearing in mind the legacy of 2001‘s legendary HAL computer, which decides to eliminate the ship’s crew when it determines that humans are a hindrance to the film’s deep-space mission (thus reversing the age-old relationship between humans and our tools), consider this viral clip from Prometheus:

A writer for Forbes offers an astute observation regarding the relationship between this clip and the memory of 2001:

The clip is reminiscent of Kubrick’s 2001 for it’s iciness. There is the threat of violence under the surface. The sense that David, although sympathetic to human emotions — and a mimic of them — has the capacity to do things that normal humans might find “unpleasant or unethical.” The contrast between HAL and David couldn’t be starker and tells us a lot about where we are as a technological culture. The horror of HAL is his disembodiedness. Kubrick represented artificial intelligence by a single camera iris and a wall of supercomputers. The horror of Scott’s David is his complete embodiedness. He looks completely human unless you notice the logo inscribed in his fingertip.

The Lovecraft Connection

In addition to recalling 2001, the Prometheus storyline and overall vibe also strike a distinctly Lovecraftian chord, although not in the sense of implying the presence of tentacular cosmic monsters, which has become the sole connotation of the word “Lovecraftian” for many people. The film enters Lovecraft territory with its invocation of the venerable theme of ancient extraterrestrials who visited earth millions of years ago, created the human race, and left monuments and/or traces of themselves (a theme that is also, of course, central to 2001, but with a dramatically different overall point).

In popular memory the ancient astronaut or ancient alien meme is most closely associated with the writer Erich von Däniken, who has been generally regarded as its father/founder ever since the publication of his book Chariots of the Gods in 1968 (even though other science fiction forays like Star Trek and 2001 – the latter of which likewise appeared in 1968 — were talking about the same idea at the same time). Significantly, Scott has openly talked to the press about von Däniken’s influence on Prometheus:

The British director said the film’s storyline, and script by David Lindelof, was partially inspired by the writings of legendary Swiss sci-fi writer Eric van [sic] Daniken. Van Daniken, author of 1968 bestseller Chariot [sic] of the Gods, is best known as the first proponent of the so-called ancient astronaut theory, which holds that aliens kick-started civilization on earth. “NASA and the Vatican agree that is almost mathematically impossible that we can be where we are today without there being a little help along the way,” Scott said. “That’s what we’re looking at (in the film), at some of Eric van Daniken’s ideas of how did we humans come about.”

– Scott Roxborough, “Ridley Scott, Michael Fassbender, Noomi Rapace Tease ‘Prometheus’ at CineEurope,” The Hollywood Reporter, June 28, 2011

More recently, Scott has even revealed that he personally believes, at least in a certain sense, in the basic ancient astronaut hypothesis:

“In the ’60s there was a guy called Erich Von Daniken who did a very popular book called Chariots of the Gods, and he proposed previsitation, which we all pooh-poohed. But the more we get into it, the more science accepts the fact that we’re not alone in this universe, and there’s every feasible chance that there’s more of us, not exactly as we are, but creatures that are organically living in other parts of this particular galaxy. [Stephen] Hawking said he thinks that there are and that he hopes they don’t visit. Because if they do, they’re way ahead of us.

…”I think it’s entirely logical. The idea that we’ve been here three billion years and nothing happened until 75,000 years ago is absolute nonsense. If something happened here two billion years ago, if there was a civilization at least equal to ours, there would be nothing left after two billion years. It would be carbon. We talk about Atlantis and cities under water that have long gone, long submerged, but they’re in the relatively recent past. I’m talking about one-and-a-half-billion years ago — was this planet really empty? I don’t think so.

– Interview with Ridley Scott, Empire, May 2012, excerpted at Silver Screen Saucers

To repeat, this idea of extraterrestrial “previsitation” is usually associated with von Däniken in most people’s minds. But — and here we can imagine the sound of a needle scratching off a record — Jason Colavito, long-time writer about science, pseudoscience, and speculative fiction, argues persuasively in his 2005 book The Cult of Alien Gods: H.P. Lovecraft and Extraterrestrial Pop Culture that the entire ancient alien meme may well have been launched quite inadvertently not by von Däniken but by Lovecraft via his loosely connected fictional mythos of extraterrestrials and other-dimensional beings visiting planet earth ever since the inconceivably distant past. Colavito’s claim goes beyond the mere fact of the striking thematic parallels between Lovecraft and von Däniken, which had been noted by Lovecraft scholars at least as early as the 1980s; he uncovers an actual, traceable lineage of direct influence and inspiration flowing from Lovecraft to France, where, like Poe, Lovecraft was venerated long before his home country chose to recognize his genius, and from thence to von Däniken via the writings of a couple of European writers and enthusiasts about occult and paranormal matters. (You can read a shortened version of Colavito’s argument in his free pdf “The Origins of the Space Gods: Ancient Astronauts and the Cthulhu Mythos in Fiction and Fact.”)

Lovecraft’s mythos includes the idea, presented most specifically in his short novel At the Mountains of Madness, of an extraterrestrial race that came to earth many millions of years ago and built a great civilization on the Antarctic continent. They created all life on the planet, including humans — whose ancestors they may have created as a kind of accidental by-product of some other endeavor, or else as pets — and were eventually destroyed. The discovery of this awful secret about our origins and cosmic status, and indeed the basic idea of the horror inherent in “the piecing together of dissociated knowledge,” which will some day “open up…terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein” (as Lovecraft phrased it in the celebrated opening paragraph to “The Call of Cthulhu”), is a foundational part of what has come to be called the Lovecraftian worldview.

It is also, obviously, foundational to the horrors presented in Prometheus, where, so far as we can tell from the advance descriptions of the plot, the discovery of humanity’s alien origins sets in motion a catastrophe that may lead to our demise, just as in Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness the discovery of the ancient alien city lets loose the force that destroyed humanity’s makers. The original Alien was rightly described and praised for being a superlative example of Lovecraftian or quasi-Lovecraftian horror cinema, but for all of the reasons just described, I’m sensing that the newer film may well up the Lovecraftian ante to unprecedented levels of directness and intensity.

A Lovecraftian ‘2001’

So, in short and in sum, I’m anticipating that Prometheus may well be a landmark science fiction film that draws together a multitude of culturally potent and pertinent themes and merges high entertainment with the cinema of ideas. It feels awesomely relevant, as if it’s set to channel the psychic energy of the epic Age of Apocalypse that we collectively entered with the dawn of the 21st century. To merge the Frankensteinian theme of Promethean overreach with the real-world crossover theme of the imminent discovery of human life’s ultimate origins, and to wrap it all in a horror-leaning take on the ancient alien hypothesis that channels the implicit but definite presence of H.P. Lovecraft and his mythos of cosmic monstrousness, seems, well, epic. And of course the proper way to enjoy the film when it actually hits theaters will be to forget entirely about all of these anticipations and expectations, and simply let the thing unfold and build its own case.

Speaking of the Promethean/Frankensteinian theme, if you haven’t seen the following additional viral video, then I highly recommend it, especially since it, too, penetrates the fiction/real-world barrier by incorporating a current and prominent real-world trend (the popularity of TED talks, whose masterminds actually assisted with the design of this segment) into the film’s fictional world of ancient alien horrors and human technological overreach.

15 thoughts on “Is Ridley Scott’s ‘Prometheus’ A Lovecraftian ‘2001’?”

  1. Absolutely agree that Prometheus appears, at least through marketing, to be the first “big idea” science fiction to be made (with stellar production and budget)in a long time. It would seem that, at this point, the filmmakers and studio are confident in what they have, and one can only hope that audiences get out to see this on the big screen.

    The trailers are truly spectacular.

    @Pump:
    Prequel, as it is used here, is merely a way to indicate that the film is set in the same universe as the Alien film. The writers and Scott have clearly stated that the film is not constricted or “directly” linking to the events of the Alien film.

  2. I was under the opinion that von Däniken has been thoroughly debunked and most of his ideas where copied from Robert Charrox. Not a good influence to quote to get people to attend a “serious” science fiction movie.

    1. Yes, Charroux apparently served as one of the main sources of von Däniken’s ideas. Other sources included Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier, editors of the French occult/Fortean magazine Planète and authors of the 1960s occult/conspiracy classic THE MORNING OF THE MAGICIANS.

      Personally, I don’t think Scott’s invocation of von Däniken’s name hurts things in the least. The “mythic” impact of it (as we might say) is to interlace the increasingly frequent and prominent real-world speculations — from hard scientific quarters, no less — about extraterrestrial life and the possibility of terrestrial life having been seeded by an extraterrestrial source, to the daimonic psychological underworld or otherworld of UFOlogy, conspiracies, occult/alternate history, cryptoterrestrials, and so on, which von Däniken clearly inhabits. The human psyche resonates powerfully with these tropes regardless of their factual truth value (and in a way that, to my mind, indicates the existence of a middle/liminal category of reality bridging the fact/fiction divide). Mixing up the hard scientific and technological aspects of PROMETHEUS’ futuristic vision with these paranormal-ish, von Däniken-esque themes seems roughly parallel to, say, Mary Shelley’s overt mingling of cutting-edge early 19th-century scientific research and experimentation with the spiritual/philosophical legacy of the ancient alchemists and the Gothic genre’s doppelganger trope in FRANKENSTEIN. For me, it just enhances the whole thing.

  3. We need to stop crediting Lovecraft with all of this, like immediately. It’s totally inaccurate. Lovecraft ripped it all off from two sources– pretty blatantly, I might add– and added his own inimitable spin to it. The first is Charles Fort’s Book of the Damned, published in 1919. The more direct and obvious source for Lovecraft’s mythos comes from Jack London, with his posthumous story “The Red One,” published in 1918. Lovecraft’s stories are essentially a parody of the much more prominent and well-known writer’s work. HPL basically waited 10 years for people to forget the story and rewrote it according to his own deliciously twisted vision.

    1. A quick look at Colavito’s linked essay shows that he does credit The Book of the Damned. “H. P. Lovecraft read both The Book of the Damned and ScottElliott, in the compilation volume The Story of Atlantis and Lost
      Lemuria (1925), and from these fragmentary ideas about prehistoric
      extraterrestrial visitation imagined (more-or-less) flesh-and-blood aliens
      arriving on earth in the distant past and all that this implied.”

      1. The question of whether Lovecraft should be credited with originating or quasi-originating the ancient alien idea as it has made its way into global popular consciousness and culture is distinct from the question of whether he himself invented it out of whole cloth. Obviously, Fort and London preceded him in talking about such things. But HPL may have become, via the route traced by Colavito, the nexus point from which the idea has been most widely disseminated.

        It’s just like the question of his famous cosmicism. He obviously didn’t develop this attitude spontaneously, as a matter of sheer original thinking. And his influences were pointedly not just philosophical but literary, and in a very direct way. Abraham Merritt’s THE METAL MONSTER begins with a paragraph that reads like it must have served as a direct model, whether conscious or unconscious, for HPL when he wrote the (eventually famous) opening paragraph to “The Call of Cthulhu.” Merritt wrote, “In this great crucible of life we call the world — in the vaster one we call the universe — the mysteries lie close packed, uncountable as grains of sand on ocean’s shores. They thread, gigantic, the star-flung spaces; they creep, atomic, beneath the microscope’s peering eye. They walk beside us, unseen and unheard, calling out to us, asking why we are deaf to their crying, blind to their wonder. Sometimes the veil drops from a man’s eyes, and he sees — and speaks of his vision.” Hell, this one even sounds like it must have inspired some of Lovecraft’s imagined lines from the NECRONOMICON that appear in “The Dunwich Horror.”

        But this doesn’t invalidate Lovecraft’s originality in digesting and appropriating these ideas and emotions for his own life, work, and psyche, nor the personal-ness of his doing so. Nor does it change or invalidate the fact that he’s the person with whom such thoughts and ideas are most widely and closely associated in popular memory and mainstream literary history. Everybody has influences. Nothing is ultimately, wholly original. But sometimes we can validly identify where, practically speaking, a given buck really does stop.

        1. I don’t see how anyone would associate Lovecraft’s grotesque, supernatural chimeras and non-Euclidean geometry with the humanoid gods and rockets and pyramids in Morning of the Magicians or Chariots of the Gods. I think the connection exists solely in Colavito’s very limited imagination. It’s what you might call a “unique hypothesis.”

          I also guarantee you more people read London’s story than ever read Lovecraft until the Lovecraft revival in the 60s. London was one of the most popular writers of his time and Lovecraft was a marginal figure at best.

          1. The fact that Bergier was involved in translating Lovecraft into French is indeed excellent evidence- of Bergier translating Lovecraft into French. Colavito’s premise is weak.

            As to London, I stand by my original statement.

          2. It appears you didn’t look at the link, I just mentioned the translation because it was the only connection mentioned between *Pauwels* and Lovecraft, but there is much more evidence at the link that Bergier was a lifelong Lovecraft fan who made explicit analogies between some of his own serious “ancient alien” ideas and Lovecraft’s stories. Given this, it’s ridiculous to suggest Bergier was more likely influenced by Jack London (whose story had nothing to do with ancient aliens playing a major role in human history, as I noted in a comment below) that Lovecraft.

    2. Jack London’s story “The Red One” features a single ancient alien artifact that landed on Earth long ago, but doesn’t mention actual alien visitors (though it may hint at them with the lines “He noted the absence of the shark and turtle gods, so common among the shore villages, and was amazed at the constant recurrence of the helmet motive. What did these jungle savages of the dark heart of Guadalcanal know of helmets? Had Mendana’s men-at-arms worn helmets and penetrated here centuries before? And if not, then whence had the bush-folk caught the motive?”) More importantly, there is no suggestion in the story that this event had any influence on human evolution or the development of human civilization, at most it influenced some isolated island tribes. So, to say “Lovecraft’s stories are essentially a parody of the much more prominent and well-known writer’s work” is completely absurd, his stories are really no more similar to “The Red One” than to “The War of the Worlds”. I haven’t read Charles Fort’s “Book of the Damned” so I don’t know if Fort mentioned the idea of ancient aliens being a major influence on humanity, but if not, Lovecraft is probably the most likely candidate for a writer who may have influenced later proponents of the idea like Von Daniken (who might plausibly have read Pauwels and Bergier’s “Morning of the Magicians”, or Bergier’s solo book “Extraterrestrial Visitations from Prehistoric Times to the Present”, in which Bergier claimed to have corresponded with Lovecraft in 1935). Lovecraft did not actually originate the idea of an ancient alien influence on humanity, but other precursors were more obscure (such as “Edison’s Conquest of Mars” by Garritt Serviss from 1898, or A. Merritt’s “The Moon Pool” from 1919, which is known to have influenced Lovecraft) and less likely to have influenced Pauwels/Bergier or Von Daniken.

      1. Minor correction to my last post: from reading some plot summaries, it seems A. Merritt’s “The Moon Pool” doesn’t involve actual aliens, but rather an advanced species from beneath the Earth, putting it in the the tradition of Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s 1871 novel “Vril, the Power of the Coming Race”.

  4. Prometheus is more of a tie-in I think to “Alien vs Preditor” than Von Daniken’s Chariots of the Gods or even Sitchkin’s books, although those books may have contributed to the idea, I think that the books of Von Daniken specifically speak more of ExtraTerrestrial Exploration and nurturing of the human race whereas A v P and Prometheus speak more of science gone wrong and using humans as ginea pigs in some intergalactic chess game between hunters and prey.

Comments are closed.