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In the beginning of Prometheus (the opening scene and the briefing scene), the film conveys that the Engineers did something on Earth that either started life itself on Earth, or started human life on Earth. Does the movie make clear which of the two alternatives it actually tries to convey?

The only thing I found to be somewhat related to that question is the biologist in the briefing stating (I'm paraphrasing here) that he isn't ready to throw out 300 years of Darwinism for some cave drawings. Of course, that comment doesn't make much sense in either scenario (theory of evolution doesn't concern itself with abiogenesis at all, and a single species being added externally to an already existing ecosystem doesn't contradict the theory either), so it doesn't help to decide in either way.

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    Do you have new evidence indicating that it IS Earth in the opening scene? I've seen a lot of discussion debating whether or not it's Earth, LV-223, LV-426 or any one of the other planets that the "Engineers" have experimented on. – phantom42 Aug 13 '12 at 12:51
  • No, I have no evidence for that. However, the scientists seem convinced that the engineers did at least something similar to the opening scene on earth. Of course, they could be wrong, as there is nothing in the ancient depictions actually pointing to the engineers actually creating anything; they could just have been visitors. – WolfgangGroiss Aug 13 '12 at 13:38
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    They initiated the eventual writing of the Lost series finale. – John O Aug 13 '12 at 13:39
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    @JohnO: that's for sure. What's unclear is whether this was better or worse than sending xenomorph-bomb-equipped battleships in our general direction. – WolfgangGroiss Aug 14 '12 at 13:16
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The Prometheus Blu-Ray's Extras menu reveals what the Engineers were doing: seeding Earth with intelligent life:

Scene 7: Arrival of the Engineers

The Engineers touch down on prehistoric Earth for a sacred ritual devoted to the seeding of Intelligent life. Whereas the Theatrical version of the scene is devoted to the Lone Sacrifice Engineer, this early cut features several of his comrades, including the Elder Engineer. The ceremony was filmed with dialogue but unsatisfied with the result, Ridley Scott removed the dialogue entirely.

Screen Capture of the above text

As it was mentioned, there was already plant life on the planet. This can been seen from the areal shots.

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It's not so much a representation of what happened on Earth rather than what the Engineers do: seed life through self-sacrifice.

There are a lot of religious undertones as well. The Engineer hesitates before drinking the cup, something akin to Matt 26:39:

And he went a little further, and fell on his face, and prayed, saying, O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt.

There are many other allusions to religion, particularly Christianism (and obviously Ancient Greek mythology). This paper is quite detailed about it.

One thing is for certain: there was plant life on that planet, as can be seen in this video at 1:48 and in more detail in this picture. Thus, the Engineers are bringing in foreign DNA to swerve life on the planet with their design.

  • Is plant life shown in the opening sequence? I honestly can't remember. – WolfgangGroiss Aug 14 '12 at 13:09
  • Why do you believe that they're seeding life at all? There has also been speculation that he was initiating the destruction of life on the planet by infecting himself with the black liquid. – phantom42 Aug 14 '12 at 13:15
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    @phantom42 2 things. First, the DNA broke down then rejoined in the animation at the beginning. Second, in the case of the humans infected by the liquid, life was born, first as Elizabeth's baby, and remade as the chest-burster that came out of the Engineer. The Engineers schtick is that they create life through destruction (David says something similar at some point). – MPelletier Aug 14 '12 at 13:47
  • Yes, but their plan is to destroy life on Earth. I don't know I'd agree that counts as "seeding life" if they're only creating a new lifeform for the express purpose of wiping out all existing life on whichever planet the first scene takes place on. – phantom42 Aug 14 '12 at 14:19
  • @phantom42 I suppose it's a point of view. The idea that's presented in the paper is that of a cycle, that the Engineers create life through destruction, again and again. – MPelletier Aug 14 '12 at 14:27

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