I saw Prometheus over the weekend and was delighted by its aggressive use of mythology. Narrative consultant Adrian Bott does a great job dissecting the symbolism of each scene, so I'm just going to highlight the storytelling techniques that make this film work.
How do you make the incredible feel credible?
1. Appeal to the archetype. Referring to the story of Prometheus in The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell said that every culture in the world has a story for the discovery of fire, and that every one of those stories involves theft. It's as if people believed they didn't deserve this power and that those who try to harness it suffer the sin of pride. Given fire's inherent danger, that belief was no doubt proved justified many times. Today, this myth is a stand-in for technology. Whether it's Tower of Babel, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein or the atomic apocalypse stories of the 20th century, we have deep doubts about our ability to control technology. In Prometheus, we see this on a few levels. The humans have the android David who hates his human creators, tells lies, invades their dreams and experiments on them. The Engineers, who are supposed to be more advanced than humans, also suffer from hubris and are killed by their own bioweapons.
2. Take an event that people agree happened and reveal a new cause to change its meaning. It's widely believed that DNA came together in Earth's primordial sea and evolved into people on land. In Prometheus, the cause isn't an accident of chemicals coming together, but aliens purposefully placing it there. (This idea is a close cousin of Star Trek: Next Generation episode 146, The Chase.) In this way, the credibility that has built up around an idea for years is channeled in a new direction.
3. Reveal the hidden truth that's in plain sight. The story of Prometheus has survived for millennia. For most people, it's a sad tale that ancient people took seriously. But the story told in Prometheus makes you feel like there was a strand of truth to that story all along, and we just missed it. This also kindles hope that other romantic fantasies (golden ages, dragons, heroes) might also be true.
4. Extrapolate recent technology trends to the Nth degree. Humanity is currently in a state of awe over touch screens. Ridley Scott takes us all the way forward by creating 3D holographic interfaces. The humans' version takes up a room, and the aliens', who are farther ahead, takes up a city-block.
5. Include something very old that will never change. It's coldly comforting that in a world so technologically advanced, human nature hasn't changed. Peter Weyland, the man who rejects nature by trying to buy his way out of dying, gets killed by his maker. On the surface, this feels like justice served. Below that though is the feeling of a restoration of balance, a regression to the mean.
6. Create a sense of purpose and hope of redemption. Our hero Elizabeth and the captain of the Prometheus sacrifice themselves to save others. This echoes the sacrifice of the Engineers themselves, who gave their lives so that humans could be born. At the end of the movie, Elizabeth continues her search for her makers, keeping hope alive that we may still learn why we exist, why we're both good and evil, and most importantly, why we'll pay to see the sequel.