A closer look at Prometheus’ sci-fi roots

Feature Ryan Lambie 12 Jun 2012 - 06:28

In creating Prometheus, its makers appear to have drawn inspiration far and wide. Ryan takes a closer look at the sci-fi lineage of Ridley Scott’s movie…

It’s fair to say that many of us were expecting great things from Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, a movie that headed back into the Alien universe to pose big questions about humanity’s origins. 

The grand sweep and detailed production design are recognisably Scott’s, but what we were unprepared for was just how much of a debt it would owe to classic science fiction movies or literature; whether Scott and his team of writers and filmmakers intended to or not, Prometheus is pure pulp. Its head may be full of philosophical ideas about religion, faith and death, but these are matched by its strange, perhaps accidental allusions to other works of sci-fi. 

More than any other genre film to have come out of Hollywood over the last few years, Prometheus is a bubbling cauldron of strange SF elements, and not all of them sit comfortably next to one another in the same pot. To highlight this, here’s a closer look at the works of science fiction whose DNA appears to have fed into Prometheus as much as the Alien series – needless to say, there are more than a few spoilers running throughout this piece…

Chariots Of The Gods?

Much has been said of Prometheus’ debt to Erich von Daniken’s 1968 pseudoscientific bestseller, Chariots Of The Gods. Like von Daniken’s book, Prometheus posits that life on Earth was sparked by an advanced race of aliens, and that evidence of their intervention can be found in ancient artefacts and cave paintings if we know where to look. Ridley Scott has himself admitted that Chariots Of The Gods was a key inspiration for Prometheus’ concept, but it’s fair to say that his movie owes a debt to some earlier works of literature, just as von Danken did…

The Nigel Kneale connection

Many readers will surely be aware of the classic Quatermass And The Pit, one of several classic science fiction thrillers written by UK screenwriter Nigel Kneale. Appearing first as a TV serial in the late 1950s, before appearing on the big screen as a Hammer movie, Quatermass And The Pit saw a group of scientists (among them the titular Professor Bernard Quatermass) discover an ancient vessel buried deep beneath London. 

This vessel, it’s revealed, belonged to a race of long-dead Martians whose experiments resulted in the human race. Prometheus’ spooky atmosphere of scientific curiosity can be traced right back to Quatermass And The Pit, we’d argue, and the somewhat puzzling references to “Martians” in Prometheus’ script could be read as a vague reference to Kneale’s classic tale of god-like extraterrestrials.

2001: A Space Odyssey

Released the same year as Chariots Of The Gods, Stanley Kubrick’s A Space Odyssey would go on to have a profound effect on genre filmmakers, so it’s little surprise that traces of it can be plainly seen in Prometheus – from the composition of certain shots to the latter’s grand themes. Like Prometheus, 2001 begins in Earth’s prehistory, and suggests that aliens had a hand in the development of the human race. 

HP Lovecraft

The Great Old Ones of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos are written all over Ridley Scott’s movie. It’s been said many times in the past that Alien owes a certain (quite significant) debt to Lovecraft’s At The Mountains Of Madness, with its explorers discovering a deadly alien threat in a bleak, remote place. But in Prometheus, the debt to Lovecraft is writ larger still; in the Cthulhu mythos, human beings are the creation of an alien race worshipped by primitive humans, but the Great Old Ones (as they’re called) are actually as compassionate to its creations as we might be to a nest of cockroaches. 

Similarly, in Prometheus, our kind was created by a race of alien Engineers apparently on a whim; we were little more than an experiment, and once our makers learn that we’re smart enough to follow their breadcrumb trail and knock on the door of their military base, they have few qualms about sending off another probe to kill the entity they’ve created.  

What a bitter irony it is, therefore, that Prometheus' thematic similarities may have been one of the nails in the coffin of Guillermo del Toro's potentially wonderful At The Mountains Of Madness adaptation. As Lovecraft himself established in his writing, the universe is indeed a cold, cruel place.

Leviathan

This largely forgotten 1989 oddity has one or two surprising common points with Prometheus; disturbing, given that Leviathan is clearly a rip-off of both Alien and that other Hollywood body horror classic, The Thing. The most obvious similarity, other than it’s about people coming into contact with a mutating entity, is that the virus-like creature in Leviathan first infects its victims via a bottle of vodka. This is strikingly like the sequence aboard the Prometheus in which the apparently avuncular robot David spikes his unfortunate victim with a bottle of booze laced with Engineer DNA. 

Thanks to Michael Fassbender’s enigmatic performance as David, this scene is far more intriguing than it could have been; there’s an ambiguity to his motivations which, unlike some other scenes in the film, is intriguing rather than confusing. Was it an act of childlike curiosity that provoked David to do something so cruel and ultimately fatal to his colleague, or an act of aggression? It was clear that neither character liked the other. David may have just been following the orders of his aged master, Peter Weyland, but it’s notable that David appeared to choose the crewmember he liked the least as his guinea pig. 

Contact

The female protagonist in Robert Zemeckis’ 1997 sci-fi movie Contact appears to provide as much of a template for Prometheus’ Elizabeth Shaw as the Alien franchise’s Ellen Ripley. In Contact, Jodie Foster played Doctor Eleanor Arroway, a scientist whose grief over the loss of her father is matched only by her desire to make contact with extraterrestrial life. Like Contact, Prometheus deals with issues of faith, and like Doctor Arroway, Elizabeth Shaw lost a parent in childhood, and subsequently immerses herself in the quest for alien life. Of course, once Shaw actually makes contact with the Engineers, Prometheus’ events divert wildly from those in Zemeckis’ movie…

Forbidden Planet and Star Trek


Prometheus is littered with debts and possible references to classic science fiction films from 50 or so years ago. Its breezy spirit of adventure harks back to such films as Forbidden Planet or the TV series it inspired, Star Trek, and indeed, the perfunctory characterisation and downright odd behaviour of Prometheus’ crewmembers immediately recall those of Forbidden Planet’s C57-D cruiser, who mostly served as dim-witted fodder for the movie’s id monster. 

Even Marc Streitenfeld’s somewhat jarring music sounds more like the soundtrack to a Star Trek adventure than a tense space thriller, with its triumphant horns and rousing drums. Prometheus’ collection of tentacled monsters and goo snakes may be straight out of a Freud nightmare, but its story and execution is pure space opera. 

The X-Files

On the subject of space goo, what are we to make of Prometheus’ apparent debt to the classic X-Files TV series? Like Chris Carter’s show, Prometheus features a black, oily substance of alien origin, which is capable of attacking and possessing humans, just as it did to the luckless crewmember played by Sean Harris. And lest we forget, The X-Files also suggested that aliens visited Earth in its prehistory, and left lots of von Daniken-esque artefacts for scientists to uncover. Whether the similarities are intentional or not, the parallels between The X-Files and Prometheus are subtle yet numerous.

Lost

An obvious one, this, but any article on the sci-fi lineage of Prometheus has to contain a mention of Damon Lindelof’s magnum opus of TV, Lost. Like Lost, Prometheus revels in mysteries and conspiracies, science versus faith, and of answering questions with more questions. It could be argued that Prometheus might have been better served had it been more forthcoming with its answers and less aloof, and more focused on telling a direct story well rather than meandering from action adventure to philosophical melodrama to mild horror. 

Nevetheless, Prometheus does two things which Lost did singularly well: it’s got people engaged in discussion – some over what the movie was all about, others over its relative merits – and left more than enough material left over for a sequel. Whether that film will be as steeped in the lore of pulp sci-fi, only time will tell.

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Can't wait for Dark Knight Rises so we can all move on..

......and complain about that? lol

I still can't decide which writers I find more dissapointing, Lindelof or RTD. :-)

As much as I liked the film and loved it's Ancient Alien themes it could have delivered so much more..

Not sure if this counts, but when Fassbender was talking to the (as far as I knew, dead) Wayland in the suspended animation pod, I was reminded of Darkstar when the crew at one point need to ask their dead captain on ice some questions.
Also, I know you've mentioned the OS Star Trek, but there is a NG episode that is totally ripped off called: 'The Chase'.
Also, also, I'm positive the black goo has been 'inspired' by the ooze from Teenage Mutant Ninga Turtles.

 Has anyone heard whether or not they are making a sequel? They could get a better screen writer, I reckon it could turn out to be a really good film.

Don't forget they've delayed the real answers for the very possible 2nd movie which Scott has said he is keen to do if he gets the chance.  

Whether he has a trilogy in mind I have no idea.

In interviews Scott has said he's very open to a sequel and has inferred that he deliberately didn't answer everything definitively in this movie because of that.

To me that's fine because if he does do a sequel then hopefully it means the film has time to breathe like I felt this one did.  I thought Prometheus did a great job of lingering on the wonder and mystery at the heart of it all and would have been disappointed if they had lost any of it just to add more exposition.

"And lest we forget, The X-Files also suggested that aliens visited Earth in its prehistory." Actually, no. Not to spoil a show that ended years ago, but the "aliens" were originally from Earth, who were returning to re-colonize the planet.

You forgot to tie it in with 'The Smurfs and the Magic Flute'. Surely a huge debt is owed there!

I've noticed another thing, though others may have already picked up on it.  The video game series Metroid owes its creation to Alien, on which it is largely based.  However, the Metroid series has taken its own path since the first game, and has established its own history of an ancient alien race, The Chozo, creating the titular Metroid alien monsters.  Now, it seems as though Prometheus has taken the same idea.  The Space jockey dons a similar position as many of The Chozo statues found throughout Metroid games, and it seems as the The Engineers have a hand in the creation of the Xenomorphs. 
Just a coincidence, I guess...

Can't wait :)

Really?  I only watched 4/5 of the episodes and never realised that. Live and Learn.

I'm going to see it this afternoon and am so excited!!!  I haven't read the above article, I just wanted somewhere to be excited.  I know a lot of people were less than impressed; I'm not worried. 

I don't normally like 3D at all,  but i decided to see this on an imax screen as it was actually shot with 3d, and not converted in post production and people have been saying it is bright, not dark

 nobody likes an event picture anymore, just on to what's next.  this is Scott's first sci-fi picture in 30 years and it is surprising that people want to linger over it for, what, a week or two?  It's still playing and only just opened in most countries

I've been considering seeing it in 3D after seeing it in 2D first as the cinematography alone would make it worthwhile.

I do like the movie though.

The Guyver

or Bio Boosted Armour Guyver also posited the theory that mankind was a weapon made by tinkering aliens.

No.You'll find no one likes a 'non-event' picture.Heh heh.I love event pictures:I've been lingering over JAWS(arguably the first event picture) for 37 years!And with its recent make-over,return to cinema and upcoming bluray release hope to be lingering over it for another 37 years!Personally,I just don't think Prometheus warrants all the attention it's getting.Speaking as a huge ALIEN/ALIENS fanboy/man I think it slightly spoils the mystery and alienation of ALIEN.A bit similar to what Alien3 did to ALIENS but in reverse.Can't wait for Dark Knight Rises...

You seemed to have missed a lot of Contact.

In Contact, an eccentric, dying old man who is head of a gigantic corporation and is unfathomably rich funds and supports a female doctor's search for answers the whole way through, finally providing everything necessary to make the actual contact all the while having unknown intentions. This old man even shoots himself up into space to survive longer.

Sound familiar?

"
drawn inspiration"? You mean ripped off! Prometheus is a terrible mess of ideas done better in other films

Think how much more interesting it might have been to see a film with a few new ideas, a well-crafted plot and characters with more dimensions than the visuals.  Instead we got a pastiche/bricolage.  One can only hope the 'borrowed' themes include enough Harlan Ellison 'homages' to interest the litigious...

sorry, I think you have all been taken in by a really mediocre film. Strip away the 3d, and CGI, and the story is threadbare. Wake up and see it for what it is, because even after all this time, we all talk about Alien, and Aliens, because they rock, but Prometheus for me, is just act 1 of a 3 part story. As part 1, it is suffice, nothing more.

 I liked some of the ambiguities in the film, humans left unable to understand things far more advanced than themselves.  that said, i would happily watch Shaw consider her pursuit.  as far as flaws go, i hope if they move on with a sequel, that it isn't wishy washy about whether it is high minded sci-fi or a monster movie--that really did make a mess.  i was pretty engrossed in the sci-fi film and was really jarred when occasionally it turned into a monster movie

 the 3D is definitely subtle, which is good.  there was no darkness on IMAX, it was brightly lit.  best, it didn't have the blurring problem i often see in 3D--where if there is motion going on, much of the screen goes out of focus--that is often my biggest problem with 3D.  plus for my eyes, 3D, instead of looking like it has depth ends up looking like many two dimensional images at varying distances from me--like a translucent stage set(so, in effect, i lose the normal illusion of 3D that has always been in film.  i think this is an effect of post production 3D, and not films made with the proper cameras.

I thought this was one of the better 3D films out there - it made good use of the technology without showing off.  And the film, as a whole, did look fantastic. 

 and that old man was played by John Hurt, the first victim of the alien we ever saw 30 years ago!

 isnt the story from Alien pretty threadbare?  Prometheus basically retreads the original Alien story with the added element of a mission to discover the origins of man.

Alien is a superior film and a downright masterpiece, not due to a more complex or elevated story, but do to finer execution--score, sound design, special effects, set design, rapport between the actors, etc.

Also we have been watching Alien for 30 years, constantly reinforcing our sense of pleasure and meaning from it and it was more unique when it arrived.  Prometheus is brand new and hasn't been imprinted on our psyches over and over, and arrives a generation into the ascendancy of sci-fi and effects pictures.

I'll have to check out my local IMAX then and a grab a ticket before it moves on.

The only part which made me almost shout at the screen were the two scientists who got lost. That was just dumb but i can see why they did it.

Plus I wanted more of Theron's character as the way the movie ended for her wasn't very satisfying.

 They introduced her as a hardnosed, disciplined, cold character, and within the normal language of cinema, the suggestion was that she is a significant character, then it turned out she was fairly superfluous--especially with the last character revealed.  and her finale was nonsensically camp in a movie that had no business having any camp.

I can only wonder, if an extended release arrives on disc, if her character will have more meaning, purpose.  she may, as people have suggested simply been a symbol for the corporation.  maybe too, as a polar opposite of Shaw.

This is the best review I've read to sum up why I liked the movie.  I'm an H.P. Lovecraft fan who is the same influence for writers as Jimmy Hendrix was for rock.  I saw the movies mentions from the 50's on and also have been intrigued with my realization that there is no judgment and that the best survivor is all that matters to these aliens.  To breed people like cattle and genetically engineer the creatures that destroy them.  It flies in the face of our evolutionary past, which makes this absolutely unbelievable, but it also begs the question.  Do we really matter? If not, then we can delude ourselves that we do.  So, all we have to do is call the superior race demented and find a way to get to them before they get to us.  : )

How about the 1979 Doctor Who story City of Death, in which the body of an alien hundreds of millions of years in the past seeds the primeval Earth with life (via an exploding spaceship, but never mind). This story was written by Douglas Adams, who recycled large chunks of it for Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency.

 good film nuff said...

 good film nuff said

HP Lovecraft + Jimi Hendrix references = I love you, Laura

Makes us appreciate just how brilliant and groundbreaking Alien (and even Alien 2) were. Problem is there is not much ground to break anymore in Sci-Fi and most action dramas.

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