Jun 19 2012

Prometheus: Cautionary Tale About Seeking Immortality?


Ridley Scott’s prequel set in the Alien universe, the detailed and evocative Prometheus, delivers a science fiction narrative rife with mythological and philosophical implications beyond the standard big budget sci-fi fare, a story that presents fringe speculations about the influence of alien contact with the origins of the human species and offers serious questions about the prospective future of humanity and technology. Upon considering the many mythic references in the film, the transhumanist in me began to wonder: is technology becoming a modern mythic force, a deus ex machina that we presume we can rely on for future salvation? Is it here that we find the greater cautionary message of Prometheus?

Peter Weyland, in the 2023 TED talk that was released as a viral video before the launch of the film, sets up this line of thinking when he tells us, “At this moment in our civilization, we can create cybernetic individuals who, in just a few short years, will be completely indistinguishable from us. Which leads to an obvious conclusion: we are the gods now.” This brazen statement causes a mild uproar in the crowd: is Weyland a foolish heretic? Or a prophetic visionary? Perhaps both.

The first scene where Weyland appears in Prometheus throws his motives into question. If Weyland has honest intentions, why does he hide the fact that he’s part of the expedition? The act of creating life in sentient robots has left Weyland with delusions of grandeur. Like King Gilgamesh and many others before him, Weylan plans to supplicate the alien “gods”, or Engineers, and pry from them the secret of immortal life. Weyland is withered and fragile, aged far beyond the normal capacities of the human body, to the extent that he must rely on cryosleep to survive, and a mechanical exoskeleton to augment his atrophied body. He has cheated death by artificial means, but to what end? His quality of life in this unnatural state does not seem very appealing.

“A king has his reign. He dies. It’s the natural order of things.” Weyland’s daughter, Meredith Vickers, offers as advice, trying to convince her father to abandon this quest. Weyland stubbornly disagrees, choosing to continue forward with his egotistical fantasy of immortal life. His philosophy may be more or less defined as a Transhumanist: Weyland seeks to gain immortal life (or an approximation) by using technology to extend his life as long as possible, with the hopes that the Engineers have even greater technology that could make him immortal, as the gods. Though, at face value, the purpose of the Prometheus mission is to make contact with humanity’s creators for the edification of our species, it becomes clear that the real primary purpose is for the aged industrialist to survive.

This is Weyland’s gamble, betting the lives of the entire crew of the Prometheus, including his daughter and android son, on the chance that he might win big. Which begs the question, if you could extend the length of your life at the price of others, is that morally acceptable — if you feel that you have something greater to give to the world than others might have?

Certainly Weyland feels that his life is more valuable than the lives of others. This is an important question for Transhumanists to consider, especially in the context of global economics; when the time comes that technologies for extreme life extension do exist, who will benefit from them? Wealthy individuals in the first world, at the expense of laborers assembling these technologies in the third world? What responsibility is there to provide access to technological innovation for all, when there are limited resources available? These issues will emerge as more pressing concerns in the 21st century.

Weyland’s less attractive personality traits are also on display in his daughter, Meredith Vickers. Many viewers who had seen Alien were likely questioning Vickers’ humanity up until the discussion with the pilot Janek when he asks her point blank if she is an android, a question to which the audience doesn’t really get a definitive answer. If she is human, she seems to have acquired some of the more inhuman qualities of the technology that she and her father have ensconced themselves in. Vickers’ dependence on technology, much like her father, is evident in her life pod, designed to cheat death and extend her life as long as possible by surrounding her with technological protections.

If anyone embodies the spirit of Prometheus the titan, it is “the closest thing Weyland has to a son,” the android David. Like Prometheus, David is an outsider to human culture but he wants to be helpful. Some of the most mundane yet fascinating scenes with David are towards the beginning of the story when the android watches old Technicolor movies of Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia and the audience is left to wonder about what implications there might be in the future… if intelligent machines look to humanity as role models, or god figures.

It is David who steals the “black goo” from the alien ship and gives it to the human scientists, though his intentions are somewhat difficult to discern. David is ostensibly giving the humans what they want, to have a divine transformative experience. The large human head sculpture in the room offers the implication that humans were genetically engineered using this substance. What the android does not anticipate is that the black goo is reactive to human emotion, as Elizabeth Shaw points out when the landing party is examining the alien murals. Very psychedelic!

Is the black goo a bioweapon or a lifegiving substance? Perhaps it’s both. The effect of exposure seems to accentuate a person’s existing traits. Before entering the alien sanctuary Shaw reminds the geologist Fiefield that they are on a peaceful mission of scientific discovery, but he will not give up his big metal gun or his aggressive attitude. One wonders if perhaps the crew of Prometheus had taken an opportunity to relax, take a deep breath and chant an Om or two, if their pilgrimage would have turned out differently. But we see a negative reaction/symbiosis, most pronounced in the angry geologist Fiefield who devolves into a rampaging zombie after being exposed to the goo. Even something as innocuous as meal worms can become extreme organisms when exposed to the black goo. The shiny green goo that David pulls out of the vials is a different substance. This might be the DNA of the Engineers race, that the “Gardener” released in the opening scene when he sacrifices himself to seed life on the planet. The black goo mutagenic catalyst plus the green DNA base is the volatile chemical mixture that can be used as a bioweapon.

Technology as a whole is also a tabula rosa of the human psyche; a gun without a negative human intention isn’t able to harm anyone. Surveillance technology isn’t inherently evil, but it can be used for evil purposes. Now, suppose you are part of the race of advanced aliens called the Engineers, in control of advanced technologies. What better form of weapon could there be than a biological weapon that you could drop on a planet and will transform aggressive species into monsters to kill each other? You could return hundreds of years in the future to check on the progress of evolution and if the species was still alive, presumably they would have evolved into a super-form.

The most pivotal scene of the film, particularly for transhumanists, is the moment of truth when Weyland “meets his maker.” Although the superior being — the translucent-skinned Engineer — is silent, we can draw conclusions about why his attacked his human progeny. The action occurs quickly. But in those few moments — watching the Engineer perceive us — we get a revealing glimpse into the microcosm of human society.

Weyland, the supplicant, annoyingly pesters the Engineer to grant him the boom of immortality. David relays Weyland’s selfish desires (or at least, we assume that David is in fact relaying Weyland’s desires) while Shaw, acting for the greater good of humanity, is physically suppressed with violence, brought to her knees by the fascistic domination of the dying patriarch. This simple act resounds with intense significance, displaying some of the more immature and uncivilized qualities of our species: how quickly we dominate each other for selfish gain. That the Engineer uses violence to display his distaste for human questions shows that the maker himself is not infallible. Like the humans creating androids, the Engineers creating humans are not “gods”, merely skilled technicians.

If our theoretical creators were to witness the state of our human society, what would they think? Would they want to help us perfect our many flaws, or would they be inclined to destroy us and start over, as God does in with the flood in the Old Testament? The moral of Prometheus’ techno fable may be that we shouldn’t latch on to the idea that machines or aliens or any other outside force is ultimately going to save us from ourselves. And if the quest for immortal life dehumanizes us, what is that life really worth?

While not a flawless film, Prometheus succeeds in tickling our immediate desire to experience the mysterium tremendum, that special kind of paralyzing fear that can only be inspired by a brush with divine cosmic powers. Prometheus also succeeds in presenting a mythic vision of the future, entwined with a cautionary tale about the possible selfishness of life extension technology, and the moral implications of seeding DNA and genetically evolved lifeforms into an environment. These are prophetic themes that engage in a meaningful cultural dialog, pushing the film to a level of art beyond the typical adolescent alien and robot fantasies that comprise a majority of big budget sci-fi.

Mythology and religion have traditionally served to provide answers to serious philosophical, existential questions. These days, many millions of people look to to answer immediate questions about the world around us. The assertion made in Prometheus with religious symbolism and the character of Elizabeth Shaw is that traditional religious faith can still be relevant in an age where human invention is approaching the ingenuity of the gods of legend. Is this true, or will the dated modes of religious faiths and miracles of old be replaced by new technological faiths and modern miracles: bioengineering, nanotech, data complexity, holograms, and advanced computing? Perhaps technology will be the source of future mythologies and religious quests.