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.
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.
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.
ContactThe 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.
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.
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.