How Is the Title of “Prometheus” Significant?

In Greek mythology, Prometheus is the Titan who stole fire from Mount Olympus and gave it to mankind. As punishment, Zeus bound Prometheus to a rock and ordered a bird to tear out the Titan’s regenerating liver for all of eternity. The tale of Prometheus serves not only as the origin story for humanity’s literal enlightenment but also as a prime example of hubris being punished. In Ridley Scott’s Prometheus (2012), the sort-of prequel to the Alien series, the title refers directly to the name of the film’s spacecraft while holding deeper thematic meaning.

When one of the film’s scientist characters refers to the mythical Prometheus and implies that the ancient thief’s time has come yet again, we infer that these scientists are looking to capture divine powers for themselves, reenacting Prometheus’ transgression and upsetting the natural order.

Funded by a rich benefactor, the scientists are on a quest to find humanity’s extraterrestrial parents. However, the audience discovers that these otherworldly beings are not the most admirable. Suffering from a serious God complex, they worship sculptures not of a higher being but of themselves. They intervene in other worlds and create life, then decide to destroy it. The film never spells out why they do this, but one interesting interpretation is that they are just a higher order of scientists—conducting ultimately destructive experiments with hyper-rational emotional detachment.

In Prometheus, lead character David (Michael Fassbender) is an android who admires the film Lawrence of Arabia (1962). That film’s protagonist, played by T.E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole), fashions himself as a sort of earthly demigod, intervening with the power to forcefully impact another world. Overlooking his own status as a product of artificial intelligence, David asks one of the scientists why would one create something. The scientist responds, basically, that they do it because they can. Following suit, David also performs experiments without concern for the individuals involved—spiking the drink of one of the scientists with deadly mutating goo, an act which leads to Elizabeth Shaw (Noomie Repace)‘s becoming impregnated with the prototype for the titular creature in the Alien series.

Technically infertile, Shaw is unable to give birth to a human baby, but through this affront to nature, she can gestate a monster. When ego outweighs good judgment and is not tempered by any degree of emotional involvement or empathy, the film implies, science creates abominations.

David takes away Shaw’s crucifix necklace, her symbolic deference to a higher power, but she takes it back when her belief is vindicated and her faith restored. At the end of the film, she goes off with David to find the beings who seeded the earth with their DNA and seeks the reason why they wanted to return and destroy humanity, their offspring. David asks again, “Why?” Just as the scientist earlier answered that they created because they could, Shaw instinctively answers that she needs to know.

As with the rest of the Alien series, Prometheus hinges on the moral message that bad things happen when humans reach too far beyond their natural grasp. If the scientists had not gone poking around for their ancestors, the chain of events would not have led to Shaw’s pregnancy and the dangerous developments of the later Alien films.

In spite of the inherent risks and consequences, humanity will continue to explore for answers. In so doing, they may follow the likes of Prometheus, Eve, and the cat—doomed by curiosity.