One of the more intriguing, and controversial, thematic aspects of Ridley Scott’s new film Prometheus involves its overt discussions of science and faith. The character of Dr. Elizabeth Shaw is a scientist whose father was a Catholic missionary. She retains her religious faith even after she finds scientific evidence that an ancient alien species created humanity in its own image using genetic engineering. Rather than question the concept of a supernatural creator, she merely shifts her belief to the notion of an intergalactic God who created the creator species.

It will certainly be interesting to see how the scientific community responds to Ridley Scott’s embracing of the pseudoscience “ancient astronaut theory” promoted in Erich von Däniken’s 1968 book Chariots of the Gods. But, it will be even more interesting to see how religious communities respond to this plotline. The notion of an external force playing a role in humanity’s creation is a concept which has the potential to both delight and anger religious groups. On the one hand, the film’s positing of humanity’s descent from ancient aliens takes human creation out of God’s hands. On the other hand, the film provides support for the idea that human development required direct assistance from an outside entity. The film also leaves open the possibility that a supernatural being was responsible for the larger act of creation. As part of a book I am writing on science, religion, and cinema I have examined a number of ways in which religious groups, in particular Christian communities, have responded to scientific depictions and themes in movies. It is still too early to tell how religious groups will react to Prometheus, but we can examine how religious groups have previously reacted to science fiction films featuring alien beings as the creators or saviors of humanity.

Prometheus is not the first science fiction film to embed issues related to science and religion within its plot of extraterrestrial visitors. The concept of aliens coming to earth was a rarity in science fiction films until the 1950s, but one of the first films featuring this storyline was a not so subtle Christian allegory. In 1951’s The Day the Earth Stood Still, a visitor from the heavens comes to earth with a message of peace and love, is killed by the authorities, and resurrected before leaving and promising to return again. The parallels to the Christian story were hard to ignore and the similarity did not sit well with Hollywood’s censorship board—the Production Code Administration (PCA). The head of the PCA, Joseph Breen, particularly objected to the fact that the messiah figure Klaatu was brought back from the dead through the use of alien science and technology. To avoid offending religiously minded audiences, the filmmakers added dialogue in which Klaatu answers a question of whether his robot Gort “has the power of life and death” by claiming: “No, that power is reserved to the Almighty Spirit.”

The PCA was founded in 1934 to address religious concerns about morality in cinema and the organization had strong ties to the Catholic Church. So, it was particularly sensitive to overt depictions of religion including the juxtaposition of science and religion in films involving alien visitors. A case in point was the 1953 film version of H.G. Wells’ novel War of the Worlds about technologically advanced alien invaders. In Wells’ novel, religion was depicted as the last refuge of the desperate. Breen was concerned that the depiction of clergy in the film adaptation would be equally negative. To underscore the PCA’s desire for positive depictions of religious figures, Breen reminded Paramount Pictures several times that “with regard to the portrayal of Reverend Collins, it will be necessary for you to obtain adequate technical advice.” They ultimately screened the film for a theologian to “certify the religious angles.” Given that the film version privileges religion over science it is not surprising that the PCA’s theologian approved of the film’s religious depictions.

Although the aliens in 1950s films tried to influence human civilization, they were not directly influencing human evolutionary advancement as occurred in Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey. The film’s scriptwriter Arthur C. Clarke had previously played around with the notion of aliens impacting future human evolution in his novels, but 2001 was the first time he indicated the possibility of an alien species directing human evolution in the past. It turns out that their film struck a chord with many religious groups. The National Catholic Office for Motion Pictures even bestowed on the film its 1968 award for “Best Film of Educational Value.” Both Kubrick and Clarke were bemused by the positive response the film received from religious groups. As far as they were concerned the film was about an alien species directing human evolution, not God. But for certain religious audiences, the important point of the movie was the recognition that evolution is too complex a process to happen without external intervention. Kubrick and Clarke called it advanced alien technology, religious communities called it God.

Some more recent films have included the concept of alien-directed human evolution or aliens as God-like saviors. The response to these films from the Christian community has been mixed. The 2000 film Mission to Mars, for example, has a plotline similar to Prometheus with an ancient Martian race seeding the galaxy, including Earth, with its DNA. Some Catholics appreciated the film’s underlying conceit for the same reasons the Church had embraced 2001 previously. The film acknowledged the necessity for unearthly intervention in human evolution while leaving the larger question of ultimate creation unanswered. Yet, Mission to Mars did upset other Christians who did not take kindly to the thought of creation being displaced from God’s realm to the materialistic domain of technologically superior Martians. On the other hand, another recent film featuring alien visitors, 2009’s Knowing, was warmly received by Protestant and Catholic commentators who supported the film’s message of benevolent extraterrestrials rekindling a scientist’s religious faith while offering salvation to a doomed planet. In this case, the rapture involves spaceships rather than spiritual transcendence, but the film’s message about the need for belief resonated with many Christian reviewers.

So what does this mean for Prometheus? Reviews so far suggest that while some Christians are pleased with the scientist heroine’s faith in the film, most are more disturbed by the ancient alien creators. One Christian reviewer sees the film not just as biblically problematic, but morally dangerous because in his view it “helps to prepare the world for a Satanic deception.” Despite the earlier award for the similarly themed 2001 and the acceptance of a similar plot in Mission to Mars, the official Catholic review of Prometheus from the Catholic News Service finds that the alien-directed human evolution plotline “renders Prometheus extremely problematic for viewers of faith.” Do these responses indicate a trend? It is still too early to tell, but (spoiler alert) given that the film ultimately ends with the creator species trying to wipe out humanity, these negative reviews may well represent the primary reaction by Christian commentators. Unlike in The Day the Earth Stood Still, 2001, Mission to Mars, and Knowing, the aliens in Prometheus are not compassionate beings intent on helping humanity. Whether the aliens in Prometheus are taken as an allegory or not and despite the God-fearing scientist character, the fact that humanity’s alien creators are more malevolent than benevolent does not bode well for a positive reception from religious audiences.

David A. Kirby was a practicing evolutionary geneticist before leaving the lab to become Senior Lecturer in Science Communication Studies at the University of Manchester. His research on the collaboration between scientists and the entertainment industry can be found in his recent book “Lab Coats in Hollywood: Science, Scientists, and Cinema” published by MIT Press. He is currently working on a book titled “Playing God: Science, Religion, and Cinema” which examines how cinema served as a battleground over science’s role in influencing morality.

Images: 20th Century Fox, Paramount, Touchstone Pictures

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