Academic journal article Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts

Beyond the Mountains of Madness: Lovecraftian Cosmic Horror and Posthuman Creationism in Ridley Scott's Prometheus (2012)

Academic journal article Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts

Beyond the Mountains of Madness: Lovecraftian Cosmic Horror and Posthuman Creationism in Ridley Scott's Prometheus (2012)

Article excerpt

Lovecraftian cosmic horror is, at its core, a nihilistic view of the universe that, if accepted, threatens to unravel human epistemology as currently understood. It posits that scientific advances do not offer the prospect of a progressive future but risk revealing our insignificance and powerlessness on a cosmic scale, a philosophy outlined in the opening paragraph to H. P. Lovecraft's iconic short story "The Call of Cthulhu" (1928):

   The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of
   the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid
   island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it
   was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each
   straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but
   some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up
   such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position
   therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee
   from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.
   (139)

As China Mieville notes, "Lovecraft's horror is not one of intrusion but of realization. The world has always been implacably bleak; the horror lies in our acknowledging that fact" (xiii). In such a world, belief in the intrinsic value of human life is a delusion that we cling to in order to remain sane. Thus, cosmic horror fundamentally challenges our anthropocentric understanding of the universe.

It is this unveiling of human insignificance that Ridley Scott's Prometheus stages, as a corporate-sponsored team of scientists follow star maps found in paintings from disparate ancient human civilizations in the hope of meeting the mysterious Engineers that created humankind. The plot bears numerous conceptual and narrative similarities to Lovecraft's novel, At the Mountains of Madness (1936), in which a scientific expedition to Antarctica discovers that life on Earth was created by extraterrestrial colonizers known as the Old Ones, thereby destabilizing Darwinian theories of evolution through natural selection by blurring them with a secret history of alien intelligent design. (1) If, as Elizabeth Leane argues, Lovecraft's Antarctica is "the place of ultimate enigma, introducing to the continent beings that, in their amorphousness and mutability, mimic its abject qualities" (65), Scott's narrative moves beyond the Mountains of Madness in every sense: the setting for Prometheus is even more remote from civilization, inhospitable, and abject, as are the beings the crew finds there. While the Engineers, in contrast to the weird physiologies of the Old Ones, are remarkably similar to humans in form, it is clear that we are not simply unwanted, accidental creations to them, but materially connected to an inscrutable alien plan. Whereas Dustin Geeraert argues that, "Lovecraft begins with a cosmos that science has shown not to be anthropocentric (and one which he interprets as nihilistic), and then presents as true many features of religion that rely on explicitly non-materialistic premises" (15-6), Prometheus suggests that humans are indeed significant to the beings that created us, but only as a stage in a merciless experiment. Thus, we neither understand the processes by which we evolved nor are we the creations of the paternalistic God of Christianity. I will explore the ways in which the film challenges both faith in God and science through what I conceptualize as nihilistic posthuman creationism. The prospect of the scientists meeting their makers holds out the hope of unlocking the secrets of life, but instead results in a visceral reminder of the fragile mortality of the human condition.

Joseph Bulbulia notes that there are evolutionary benefits to religious belief, including group cohesion and longevity, explaining why "for innumerably many people, powerful and dramatic religious understandings and dramas are thickly draped over an impoverished secular reality" (680). …

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