Prometheus and Panspermia


When considering the origin of life on Earth, it’s worth thinking of the planet as a giant petri dish. Between 3.9 and 3.5 billion years ago life began to evolve. It’s unknown exactly what started the conversion of the primordial soup into the single-celled and then multi-celled organisms that would first populate the seas and then climb out of them, but there are two main theories. Abiogenesis suggests life naturally began to evolve when the surrounding conditions of the soup, the temperature of the Earth, cloud cover and so on, became ideal for the amino acids in the quagmire to start to coalesce. The other, exogenesis, requires an outside element, some kind of cosmic dust (rather than, say, a dissolving 8-foot albino humanoid) falling to Earth in a meteorite and starting off the chemical reactions.

The exogenesis theory is part of the notion of panspermia: that life – in the form of dormant bacteria (perhaps from the disintegration of older planets) floating through space – might seed a planet like ours and lead to the long process of evolution. More fanciful ideas of exogenesis and panspermia involve fully formed aliens (rather than bacteria) landing in spaceships and using the planet as a laboratory to create new life or give the existing fauna a push in the right direction.

This science-fictional concept was at its most popular in 1968 thanks to the book Chariots of the Gods: Unsolved Mysteries of the Past, written by Swiss author Erich Anton Paul von Dä;niken, who, not long after the publication of his most famous pseudo-scientific work, was arrested for other successes in the fields of fraud and forgery, in particular the embezzlement of $130,000 over a twelve-year period. The uncredited co-author of the book, filmmaker Wilhelm Utermann, found fame for disseminating another story that captured the imagination of the public a decade later – the adventures of the von Trapp family in The Sound of Music.

Chariots of the Gods puts forward the theory that aliens visited the Earth in ancient history and had a hand in forming religions and civilisations. The popularity of this notion in the late 60s was further bolstered by the release of 2001: A Space Odyssey in the same year. Kubrick’s film shows aliens playing an active role in evolution, leaving a black monolith in prehistory, which inspires our primate ancestors to first pick up tools, and another on the moon to act as a calling card, suggesting that modern man, having found this second monolith, should travel on further to the next sign post on the galactic road.

All of the above, in a tangential way, brings us to the $120 million entertaining sci-fi epic Prometheus. Including elements from the science and pseudo-science I’ve talked about so far – the film mixes elements of panspermia, exogenesis, Chariots of the Gods, alien star maps and so on – Prometheus is a prequel to the seminal (and I mean that in every sense of the word) sci-fi horror film Alien (1979). Its status as part of the ongoing Alien franchise is something that the filmmakers became ambiguous about as the film neared release, which is understandable given the failure of many recent prequels. Furthermore, ‘prequel’ implies a direct narrative link to an existing story, which Prometheus doesn’t specifically have; the film certainly puts some of the 1979 film’s events in motion but it doesn’t end in a way that immediately sets up the plot of Alien, so using the term ‘prequel’ could lead to disappointment.

That said, I think any fan of Alien who sees Prometheus is much more likely to be disappointed not by the lack of explicit joining of dots, but rather by the poor quality of the dialogue and plot details that drive the film forward. There are lamentable lines of dialogue such as a geologist defining his character with the immortal line, ‘I’m a rock guy, I fucking love rocks’. Another problematic area is the cavalier attitude the characters display while on a scientific mission (compared to the miners in the original film, who might be forgiven for their actions): they open their helmets in an alien environment; finger the exogenic slime in a subterranean chamber; and try to befriend extra-terrestrial snake creatures when they rear from said obsidian goo… These are dumb movie characters acting in dumb movie ways and saying dumb movie lines; something that was not true of the original Alien films but did characterise the Alien vs Predator spin-offs, which this new film was supposedly created to replace and eradicate from our memories.

In fact, Prometheus can’t help but evoke the first AvP movie (2004), which echoes Chariots of the Gods with the existence of an ancient Mayan-style temple covered in alien symbols built beneath or before the Antarctic permafrost; this was designed as a weapons testing ground and discovered by a group of archaeologists, led by the titular head of the Weyland Industries corporation. That film received a worse critical reception than Prometheus has and certainly is the less impressive film of the two, but it also contained the input of some of the creators of the original Alien, in this case, the writers rather than the director.

There is one thing that AvP does better than Prometheus: the lighting of the sets. Much of the atmosphere of Prometheus is undone by overly lit chambers, in contrast to the stygian locales of Alien, which allowed the eponymous creature to hide in the shadows and create a genuinely disturbing world. One of the reasons for the existence of Prometheus seems to be to render some of the unused designs H.R. Giger had produced for the original film, such as the wall relief depicting the messianic original alien, a giant head in a mysterious cavern and more of his archetypal biomechanoid set designs. While it’s great to be able to see these on screen finally, having them too well lit destroys much of the atmosphere that made the first film so great.

Prometheus tries to be scientifically credible – the recent discovery of extremophiles, creatures that can withstand environments we didn’t believe could sustain life, improves the odds of finding life on another planet or moon – but it ultimately disappoints for having loftier aims than its predecessors, which it doesn’t realise in nearly as satisfying a way. In its characters and scenarios, Prometheus mines the rest of the franchise. Ripley’s iconic flame-thrower makes a return, as do mad scientists who mix alien DNA with humans – previously seen in Alien Resurrection (1997) – and an emotionless android who acts both in the interests of his human colleagues (as did Bishop in Aliens, 1986) and against them (as did Ash in Alien), and meets the same fate as one of his fellow robots. All this means that you could see the franchise itself working as panspermia, with characters and plot elements dispersed among the sequels where they take root and grow in different directions. Prometheus sows the seeds for a possible sequel, and leaves the door open for its makers to try and correct their flawed creation through further evolution in a future Prometheus 2.

Alex Fitch