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What’s In A Name: Prometheus, the myth and new movie

By Ron Peltier

Sci-fi films have long found inspiration in literature and mythology. Many academic articles have been written on the copious references to mythology in the Matrix films, for example. Morpheus, Neo, Trinity, Niobe, Zion and Persephone are just a few of the mythological references in that film. While the new Prometheus film does not employ as many references, it draws inspiration from Greek mythology.

The ship’s name should not be ignored when enjoying the film. Prometheus has been written about, rendered in art and examined frequently for a very long time. Perhaps the most famous is Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus. The title provides a not-so-subtle reference to the mythological character. Her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, on the other hand, made Prometheus the main character in his famous lyrical play, Prometheus Unbound. The myth pre-dates Shelly by a few thousand years. However, many other artists have offered their own interpretations and drawn inspiration from the 8th-century story.
Prometheus, the myth goes, comes into conflict with Zeus, the main Greek God. Prometheus tricks Zeus, and Zeus responds by taking away fire from humanity. However, Prometheus restores fire to humanity, further irritating Zeus, a God known for his temper. As punishment, Zeus chains Prometheus to a mountain, where his liver is eaten nightly by an eagle. Because of his immortality, each night, his liver grows back only to have the eagle return again to devour it—quite a price to pay for helping humanity. Subsequent writers expand Prometheus’s gifts to humanity to include arts, math, writing, science, agriculture, etc. Eventually, Prometheus is freed from the eagle’s torment.

And this is where the artist’s imagination begins. Often, Prometheus is viewed as a hero of sorts, helping humanity (fire is important to human’s continued persistence) but enduring serious repercussions for angering the all-mighty Zeus. This idea forwards that great strides in humanity are often accompanied by even greater pains and tribulations.

So how does the myth fall into the new film Prometheus? Certainly, the film’s writers were well aware of the mythological reference and evoked it deliberately.

First, the ship is called “Prometheus.” It conveys the crew to its destination where perhaps they discover the origins of man. The myth does not deal with the origins of man, but it does supply the origins for women. In Hesiod’s rendering, before Zeus chains Prometheus to his eternal torment, Zeus sends Pandora, a woman, the first woman, to live among man. As these myths go, this was not an easy transition as she causes all sorts of problems for mankind, like what happens the moment the crew enters the artificial structure on the planet and removes their protective helmets—who knew scientists were so capricious and risky?

If there is a character that best resembles Prometheus, perhaps it is the android David. After all, David, like Prometheus, is immortal. Further, he suffers some degree of torment, though it is not clear he feels pain. For example, his decapitation finds some similarities to Prometheus. He lives but can’t move, just like the chained Prometheus. David’s constant torment is not having his liver eaten daily; rather, it is not being reconciled to his body. He talks but can’t move and must be carried about.

But does he actually help humanity retrieve or find important gifts? Gifts that are essential to civilization and humanity? Essentially, he seems to be finding ways to destroy humanity, or at least a few crew members. He certainly does not appear to be humanity’s advocate as Prometheus is often portrayed to be. But as the film ends, it is David who possesses the knowledge to pilot off the planet to further search for humanity’s genesis. Without him, Dr. Shaw would surely have perished on the planet. So perhaps it is David who exemplifies Prometheus best. Of course, future films are necessary to confirm this interpretation, and those are surely on their way.

What do you think? Supply your thoughts and interpretations.

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