Decolonizing Dread | Colonization and the Cosmos in ‘Prometheus’
History is full of events soon forgotten and too often repeated: Napoleon’s failed invasion of Russia in 1812, followed by Hitler’s failed invasion in 1941; The Great Depression in 1929 spurred on by the same careless economic conditions that gave us the Great Recession in 2008; five previous mass extinction events in history, with all the signs pointing toward an impending sixth; conquests of imperialism and colonialism led to the spawning of forever wars over one hundred years later.
We refuse to learn from our mistakes, instead believing that we are too smart as a species to make them twice. For example, genocide existed long before it was finally given a name by Raphael Lemkin in the 1940s during the Holocaust, starting with the Roman destruction of Carthage in 146 BCE and the Athenian Massacre in Melos in 416 BCE. We as a species refuse to learn from our extensively documented history.
Taking the ideals of Manifest Destiny that we have previously explored, Prometheus (2012) brings them into play in a new way. Our world is many eons old, while humanity has only been around for a mere fraction of that time. In some 200,000 years, we as a species have repeatedly discovered, innovated, conquered, and crumbled repeatedly, time after time. One of our most static traits as a species has been the inability to learn from mistakes, eschewing millennia of recorded history and insisting that this time, at this moment, things would be different, because “we” were more superior, more intelligent, or different.
Prometheus gives us our first foray into the events that preceded director Ridley Scott’s earlier film Alien (1979). The film, like most of the Alien series, oozes cosmic nihilism. Cosmic nihilism, or cosmicism, is described in History of Humans by Trung Nyung (2016) stating that “there is no recognizable divine presence, such as a god, in the universe, and that humans are particularly insignificant in the larger scheme of intergalactic existence.” This is the more realized philosophy, combining nihilism (the belief that life is meaningless) with the terror of an immeasurably and incomparably large universe, essentially the fear of the vast cosmic void. This search for answers, for God or a creator, is contrasted heavily in the film by the unforgiving nature of the cosmic void. The scientists and explorers meet brutal ends throughout the film, yet never decide that the search for answers is too dangerous. The hubris of Western civilization can be seen here, just as it was seen in Los Alamos in 1945 with the first nuclear detonation, seeing the potential of scientific conquest instead of the cost of human life.
Early in the film, the research team investigating the artificial dome structure witnesses a hologram recording in which the Engineers (the alien beings) race down a tunnel, running from something. Yet, in standard human fashion, they push on. What becomes clear is that the race of Engineers encountered something, or more aptly put, created something, that they were unable to control. The research team realizes the atmosphere is like earth, shirking the need for helmets and inadvertently leaving themselves open for exposure to the same forces that killed the Engineers. Both precursors should tell the team that this mission is doomed from the start, knowing that whatever the Engineers were running from made sure that they no longer exist on that planet. Janek (Idris Elba) sums it up by stating, “They made it here. It got out. It turned on them. The End.” The refusal to heed even the earliest warnings tracks within our history as human civilization, refusing to heed the historical warning because we believe that we are the perfection of eras of human evolution.
During the film, David (Michael Fassbender), an AI in human skin, rationalizes the Engineers’ decisions by stating that “sometimes to create, one must first destroy.” This quote is at the heart of Manifest Destiny, that to make something new, it does not matter what is destroyed in the process. It says that creation is divinely inspired, and those that are sacrificed for that art are just a part of the process. But what happens when the conquerors are under threat of being conquered? What happens when the people that shaped the faces of modern civilization are subjected to the destructive and falsely justified beliefs that they once inflicted upon countless indigenous cultures around the globe?
Prometheus, at its heart, is the reckoning of Manifest Destiny and colonialist forces, viewing it from the other side of the coin. It is a complete abdication of history, understanding nothing about the past mistakes of our species instead of pushing into the stars to answer a question not all that important in the first place. The pedestal on which religion is placed in this film shows the stress that a societal and cultural construct can place on humans. Weyland cryo freezes himself with only hours left in his life, just to unthaw to hopefully meet his “maker,” an Engineer that sees the flaw in its creation, bashing him to death and setting about on its mission to eliminate humanity in hopes of a better creation. This brutal portrayal of cosmic nihilism, the idea that our place in the universe is ultimately meaningless and of no importance, is played out as the maker rejects its creation. The need for answers of origin in this film leads only to one inevitable conclusion, that being death. In wanting more, be it answers, land, power, money…in the end, we are guaranteed nothing but death.
The last quote by Shaw sums up the idea posed in the thesis that we never learn from our own history. “There is only death here now, and I am leaving it behind. It is New Year’s Day, the year of our lord 2094. My name is Elizabeth Shaw, last survivor of the Prometheus, and I am still searching.” Having recently lived through no less than five near-death experiences in a search for the origins of life, Shaw signs off by confirming that she is continuing her search with David, regardless of the amount of danger and death she has just witnessed. Hegel posits that “what experience and history teach is this — that nations and governments have never learned anything from history or acted upon any lessons they might have drawn from it.” Shaw and David learn nothing from history, either their own shared experiences or humanity’s as a whole, by instead choosing to extend colonialism and Manifest Destiny to the stars, an unforgiving void that refuses to care in the slightest about the accomplishments, beliefs, or needs of mankind. 🩸
Hegel, G., & Forbes, D. (1975). Lectures on the Philosophy of World History (Cambridge Studies in the History and Theory of Politics) (H. Nisbet, Trans.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CBO9781139167567
Nguyen, Trung (20 December 2016). History of Humans. Is There a God? Vol. 3. EnCognitive. ISBN 9781927091265. Archived from the original on 26 May 2021. Retrieved 16 October 2020.
Jordan Gerdes is an author and educator based in Houston, TX. His writing has repeatedly upset his teachers and professors, typically by applying academic analysis of history and literature to horror media. When he isn’t teaching, writing, or devouring Stephen King novels, he can be found spending time with his wife and dogs outdoors.
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