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.
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.
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.– “New Trailer from Ridley Scott’s ‘Prometheus’: Robot as Ultimate Management Consultant,” Forbes, April 17, 2012
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.
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.
Filed under: Stained Glass Gothic
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