Literary Visuality

Exploring the Visual Qualities of Literature

PROMETHEUS; or, The Modern Frankenstein?

In a recent visit to my local cinema to see Sir Ridley Scott‘s much-anticipated Prometheus (2012) I was struck by its links to late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century art and literature. Having expected a chilling return to the Alien saga (which the film-makers’ had insistently played down) I was pleasantly surprised to find in its place a summer blockbuster which explores its own territory, albeit indebted to the Promethean myth.

Promotional poster for Prometheus (2012)

At the centre of the film is the titular starship which takes its name from Prometheus, the Titan from Greek mythology who created man and gifted him fire. Although cast out and punished by Zeus, Prometheus has since been championed as an icon of human intelligence, enterprise and scientific inquiry. From the film’s opening, and beyond the title, the allusions to this myth and how it has been received and interpreted are apparent.

To begin, in the idealised, even universalised, treatment of physique there are striking aesthetic similarities between the film’s angular proto-human ‘Engineers’ and the visionary male nudes of William Blake (1757-1827). Blake, who had himself depicted a nude Prometheus Bound, was famously mistrustful of the pursuit of science, something of which is manifest in his unflattering portrait of a naked, focused and ignorantly blinkered Isaac Newton (below). Equally, the film questions the merits and limits of scientific inquiry and the necessity of nurturing the soul (as embodied in Noomi Rapace‘s Elizabeth Shaw and Michael Fassbender‘s David).

Isaac Newton (1795/1805), an example of the male nude as conceived of by William Blake

An ‘Engineer’ from the opening of Ridley Scott’s Prometheus

From the outset, and much like the original Alien‘s heavy reliance on the work of H.R. Giger, these resonances between the art of Blake and the design of the film’s ‘Engineers’ serve to forge visual links with the Promethean myth, which had been picked up in the nineteenth-century by Mary Shelley in Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818) and Percy Bysshe Shelley in Prometheus Unbound (1820). Tracing indirectly and directly (respectively) the Ovid‘s Promethean myth of creation and destruction these texts can be seen to inform Scott’s film.

In particular, Frankenstein‘s own theme of creation forms a bridge between the ancient Promethean myth and Scott’s new take on proceedings. As in the novel which delves into the usurping of divine power through the creation of a monster, the film is, likewise, dominated by a quest for answers relating to creation and existence – who are the ‘Engineers’?; what role did they play in human creation and development?; is humanity a monstrous visitation on its creator, or is the reverse true?; is human creation linked solely to reproduction and pregnancy or can it be expanded into the realm of technology?

Scott is apparently already eyeing up a sequel to Prometheus which may be entitled Paradise – the original name for the current film owing to its strong links to John Milton‘s Paradise Lost (1667). While any proposed follow-up has a provocative tale to tell, and while it may lack some of the horror of Frankenstein and Alien, as a stand-alone film Prometheus is still that Hollywood rarity: a rich and smart (if flawed) science-fiction blockbuster that is equally interested in exploring compelling questions as it is selling popcorn.


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