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Psychology : Applied

The Psychology of Prometheus: Freud, the primal father, and his primal horde

Ridley Scott’s Prometheus feels like Stanley Kubric’s 2001, a Space Odyssey, and as a result, it looks brilliant. I had the pleasure of seeing it in 3D at London’s @BFI IMAX: the images are meant to saturate and saturate they do. There is no argument that this film looks good: it’s the content that’s been getting a lukewarm response form the critics (I’d give it a 6.5 out of 10, if you want to know).  I’d like to use this space to read the film, as I do, psychoanalytically.

Having just re-watched both Alien and Aliens (not bothering with the rest) I was primed for what was to come. I previously subjected Alien to a Kleinian psychoanalytic analysis, but my analysis here of Prometheus will be somewhat broader.

Manifest content is a term used by Freud to indicate the content of your dreams – the surface of the dream: the sounds, images, and feelings.

The film opens over an impressive primordial landscape before resting upon the image of a hyper-masculine figure imbibing a liquid that appears to disintegrate his DNA ultimately spilling the contents of these amino-acid chains into the torrent of a waterfall. The apparent subtext here is that he is fertilising the Earth with what will ultimately become humanity. Jump ahead several millennia and we are back to the future following the starmaps left behind by primitive peoples scattered across the globe all indicating the same location – LV-426 the alien planet.

There are many resonances from early Alien films, notably the humanoid android with dubious moral programming (and sickly white blood) and the usual scenes of the crew awaking from cryogenic stasis in order to enjoy a meal together in the mess hall. Also reflecting the earlier films, the group dynamics of the crew is unsettled and hierarchical, and there is much discussion about financial compensation, and the dubious machinations of the Weyland corporation that sent them there.

Despite lots of speculation to the contrary, this film does appear to be a sort of a prequel to Alien. We ultimately find that Mr. Weyland (founder of the eponymous Weyland Corp.) is on board, seeking out eternal life from the original “engineers,” as they are termed, who gave us life in the first place. Like Alien and Aliens the mission itself is a ruse. It is not about scientific enlightenment at all, nor is it about answering the question of where we come from: instead it is a massive junket created to give an old narcissistic man eternal life.

To keep it as brief as possible, both missions fail, with the usual series of dramatic interludes in between. We find that the ‘engineers’ are by no means good, and that they have left behind rather evil beings that destroy everything in their paths. The entire crew are slaughtered excepting Dr. Shaw, who goes on further seeking the engineers (LV-426 was just a proving ground for them, it seems) with the remains of Peter O’Toole look-alike (and Lawrence of Arabia obsessed) android David. Frankly, as the surviving woman, Dr. Shaw doesn’t hold a candle to Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley.

Freud used the term latent content to refer to the underlying meaning of a dream. The ground from which the manifest content emerged

If Alien and Aliens were about primal fantasies of motherhood and the womb. Prometheus is very much about the father. Father themes abound. What are we to make of this übermensch, the first character in the film who seeds (or rather, mothers) the creation of life on Earth? What of Dr. Shaw, whose mother, we learn, died when she was young, to be brought up by her father alone?  Weyland himself, the elderly man and powerful father figure, is indeed not only the father of Weyland Corp., but of Vickers too, the mission leader. Weyland doubly suits the father figure of the android David, in classic Ridley Scott fashion he makes us wonder; does android David dream of electric sheep?

Vickers (who is practically a non-character in the film) tries for one moment of communion with her father, and she is immediately rejected. The android David notices this (as he notices everything) and asks, “Don’t we all want to see our parents die?” While this quote may remind us that David the android has been reading his Freud, it also throws up the opposite question posed in the film. Why would the parents want to see their children die? In this case, why have the primal fathers created the means to destroy the people they themselves have created? David makes this point poignantly when he says “One must destroy in order to create*.” Here we have Old Testament resonances for sure, but more so, this appears to be a quote from Stalin which indicates (I think) a move from the small group human scale of social structure (Russian Agrarianism) to the industrial collectivist structure of the Soviets. Borg, anybody?

The Psychology of Prometheus: The Primal Horde and All That

Freud, in one of his speculative** yet illuminating books Totem and Taboo thinks about what sort of myths and cultural rituals underlie culture and society. His theory is controversial because he seems to indicate that events from the earliest days of human kind are somehow transmitted through the generations. Freud calls this the phylogenetic transmission of memory – something akin to Jung’s idea of the archetypes of the collective unconscious (no room to go into this in detail here).

In any case, Freud tells the story of the primal father and the primal horde from the very earliest human grouping:

“There is a violent and jealous father who keeps all the females for himself and drives away all his sons as they grow up . . . One day the brothers who had been driven out came together, killed and devoured their father and so made an end of the patriarchal horde. United, they had the courage to do and succeeded in doing what would have been impossible for them individually. (Some cultural advance, perhaps, command over some new weapon, had given them a sense of superior strength). Cannibal savages as they were, it goes without saying that they devoured their victim as well as killing him. The violent primal father had doubtless been the feared and envied model of each one of the company of brothers: and in the act of devouring him they accomplished their identification with him , and each one of them acquired a portion of his strength” (1912, p. 141-2).

Freud goes on to say that this terrible deed left the band of brothers with a feeling of tremendous ambivalence: relieved to be rid of the father, but full of guilt for having murdered him so treacherously.

“A sense of guilt made its appearance . . .  which . . .  coincided with the remorse felt by the whole group. The dead father became stronger than the living one had been – for events took the course we so often see them follow in human affairs to this day. What had up to then been prevented by his actual existence was thenceforward prohibited by the sons themselves” (p. 143). – (this prohibition would later come to be understood as a cultural super-ego).

There are a couple of themes that strike me in this narrative in how they engage with the film. Firstly upon re-reading this tract in Totem and Taboo I was delighted to find the sentence I put in italics above:

 “Some cultural advance, perhaps, command over some new weapon, had given them a sense of superior strength”

This is a film that seems to be about some new advance, some command over a new weapon that instigates the reversal of the progeny to the creator. This previously throw-away bracketed line from Freud somehow begins to help the whole film make sense.

We know from primate psychology and evolutionary psychology the threat that exists to the alpha male as he ages by the betas just below him waiting to take his place***.  In the film we have a series of vulnerable father-relationships including the original engineers who fear their own alien creation as well as their own progeny whose technology has allowed them to come seeking their creators; and the elderly Weyland who refuses to be mortal and his implied relationship with David who was created by the humans because, as Dr. Holloway states, “we could.”

The dynamics seem to go both ways in the film indicating both fears of creation and fears of progeny (most imagistically born out in Dr. Shaw’s desperate abortion).

The film seeks to mess around with the tensions of generational fear through one of the final scenes in which the birth-alien of Dr. Shaw (sort of impossibly pregnated as she was by Dr. Holloway after being orally infected by David) proceeds to skip a generation by failing to kill Shaw, and instead killing the primal father himself.

Queer Aliens?

The surviving primal father in ultimately engulfed in what can only be described as the vagina dentata on the underbelly of the starfish-like alien. It is impossible, by the way, to determine a starfish’s sex, without examining its gonads, which brings me on to my next point****.

What Prometheus seems to be about is the tension between the creator and the created. In Aliens we learn that the creator is indeed a queen, as in a queen bee or queen ant. The showdown in the end of that film is between the queen alien and Sigourney’s Ripley, herself looking after a young child (a replacement daughter for her own lost progeny). In fact, Ripley’s very strategy to escape the queen is rooted in the process of identification whereby the queen seems to let Ripley go with her progeny under the implicit understanding that Ripley won’t destroy the queen’s; Ripley ultimately reneges on the promise and burns the poor queen’s eggs to a cinder in a maternal fury.

In Prometheus though all the founders or “engineers” appear to be men, their created progeny seems to be intersex.

Whereas in Alien we have the undeniable phallic heads:

In Aliens the revengeful queen:

In Prometheus we have a combination of both phallic protuberances and vaginal imagery – both of which are violently aggressive. If phallic protuberances aren’t being stuffed down the throats of the poor victims, they are engulfed by the vengefully toothsome vaginal openings (no image for this one, I’m afraid).

What is queer about the aliens in Prometheus is that the new progeny seem to have transcended the binary of mother and father, and have become both. They are able to reproduce (as famously demonstrated in the original Alien) by infecting either women or men successfully. The object of the primal scene (the union of the mother and father in coitus) is an object of fear for the child – and looks like the combination of the two sexes.

In the end of Prometheus it is indeed the queer progeny that wield the most power. They fear neither castration (it just grows back) nor suffer penis envy (they have both). Lacking both the anxiety and envy, they are indeed the ultimate weapon. From the unconscious level, their danger doesn’t lie in the manifest content of their violence, but rather in the latent content of their inhabiting a zone at the edge of our own binary comprehension being both penetrating and engulfing, male and female, both parent and child.

Okay, the fact that they can chop your head off or spawn babies in your abdomen is pretty scary too.



Freud, S. (191) Totem and Taboo. Standard Edition XIII. Hogarth Press. London, 1958.

*I had assumed that this quote came from Lawrence of Arabia, but upon some research found that it is actually Stalin (unverified google research, mind you – if you know better, let me know).

**Speculative indeed, and for this reason (and its Lamarckian assumptions) has invited a great deal of criticism (more than usual, in fact).

***Will Self’s book Great Apes is a delightful fictionalisation of this process.




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