Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Myths, Science and Medicine of Prometheus

"Big things have small beginnings."

David 8 in Prometheus (2012)

By now, anyone to whom this information would mean anything had already found out long ago that Ridley Scott's latest foray into science fiction after 30 years, Prometheus, is a not-so-stealthy prequel to the Alien films. I have thoughts about this film and in the interest of full disclosure, I must volunteer the fact that I had only saw Aliens (the James Cameron action movie sequel to Ridley Scott's sci-fi horror) from the series - but after watching Prometheus, I went back and saw the original 1979 film. While Prometheus is not astounding in its quality of storytelling, it is a true blue science fiction story in the questions it tried to raise.

Prometheus Poster
I see what you did there.

This review/discussion is very much a child of those questions, many of which I take a pedestrian interest in. Expect unrestrained spoilers.

The Myths

The name Prometheus itself suggests the premise of the picture: one about the quest for knowledge, and the damning of consequences. It was the name of the Greek Titan who stole fire from Zeus and gave it to mankind, and for that he was chained to a rock where an eagle visits him daily to lunch on his liver, only to have it regenerate overnight to be eaten again the day after. Prometheus the film tells the story of not only the xenomorph's origin but also the origin of mankind. Disparate human civilisations which were separated by thousands of miles and thousand of years all retained the motif of an arrangement of celestial bodies in their art, and only one star system fits that configuration - and only a moon dubbed LV-223 orbiting a planet within that system was deemed Earth-like enough to support life.

Star Map Prometheus
I understand that this looked awesomeballs in 3D.

In find it interesting that Pandora from James Cameron's Avatar is also a habitable moon and the story surrounding the first woman, Pandora, in ancient Greek mythology is closely linked to the story of Prometheus. Zeus, to counterbalance the boon of fire which mankind had received, created the first woman as a curse for mortal men (yes, misogyny was quite a thing back then) and she carried an amphora with her filled with all the suffering, diseases and strife that ever was. Coincidentally, her arc was also one about the dangers of curiousity and discovery; she would eventually release the contents of her jar and literally unleashed a world of hurt into existence. That is basically the premise of Prometheus. The movie even kept the jar motif. Considering the similarities and mythic connections, one can't help to wonder if LV-223 was in fact Pandora in the past or future.

As for how everything relates to Christian mythology, an element brought up repeatedly in the arc of Elizabeth Shaw, I direct you to this impressive article which caused me to rethink what Prometheus is really about, blowing my mind in the process. I am now ready to accept Space Jesus as my Lord and Saviour.

The Science

The distance between Earth and LV-223 was stated as 3.27 x 1014km. I calculated that that's 34.56 lightyears away i.e. it will take light more than 34 years for light to travel from here to there. The journey via in the titular spaceship, Prometheus, took 2 years. This must meant that they were travelling about 17 times faster than a speed of light which according to Einstein's special relativity, is a fundamental impossibility - but we wouldn't have much of a movie if we adhere too closely too it. Also, I was surprised that Charlize Theron's character, the hard assed ice queen Meredith Vickers, could do pushups after 24 months of being cryogenically frozen on a spacecraft. As artificial gravity is apparently a thing in Prometheus' universe, the effects of microgravity would be neutralised, but try sitting up after a two-year coma. Heck, try moving your legs after a two-week coma. While I was watching the film, I simply suspended my disbelief by assuming that there's magical future tech that prevents disuse atrophy of muscles.

The Prometheus starship
Fuck you, laws of physics.

The film opened with a suspiciously humanoid alien drinking an obviously biohazardous dark liquid before quickly decomposing, falling into the water system and seeding what was presumably a young planet Earth with its DNA and cellular material. That is a reference to panspermia, the idea that life on our planet was kickstarted by an external source of organic life, accidentally or intentionally - as opposed to abiogenesis, which is the prevailing hypothesis that life arose from non-life through natural processes (as supported by the Miller and Urey's landmark experiment). The foreign genetic material from the extraterrestrial's body was implied to be the kernel from which all subsequent living thing on our planet evolved from, so it was not at all surprising that after analysing the severed head of the Engineer alien they found should possess DNA as its carrier of genetic information rather than some hitherto unknown compound.

There was an initial scene where Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) explained to the rest of the crew of Prometheus regarding the nature of their mission, about how they believed that the human species was created by extraterrestrials - a conclusion I couldn't see how they could draw from the limited archaeological evidence they had show on screen. There is shades of Erich von Däniken's crackpot ancient astronauts hypothesis here (but unlike von Däniken, the character's within the film had good reasons to believe in their version of the Chariots of the Gods).

A botanist rightly called them out on it, asking them, "You're willing to just throw out three centuries of Darwinism?" Never mind that no self-respecting biologist would refer to the theory of evolution as "Darwinism" (and that may or may not have betrayed a creationist bias within the script), but supposing that humans are created the way they are and did not evolve from precursor species - that directly violates common descent which is supported by an overwhelming amount of molecular evidence. Francis Collins, American physician-geneticist, leader of the Human Genome Project, director of the NIH and a Christian famously said: "Yes, evolution by descent from a common ancestor is clearly true. If there was any lingering doubt about the evidence from the fossil record, the study of DNA provides the strongest possible proof of our relatedness to all other living things."

Shaw's reply to the botanist's challenge was "It's what I choose to believe." No real scientist would let that steaming pile of words tumble out of their mouth when it comes to their field of study. That is just not how science works. Besides, the opening scene clearly proved her beliefs wrong.

Noomi Rapace as Elizabeth Shaw
Noomi Rapace as yet another Liz.

What subsequently made zero sense was that the Engineers' DNA should be a 100% match with human DNA after almost 4 billion years of evolution. How did that particular genome get preserved through that much time? My personal feeling is that the screenwriters screwed up here. Supposing the opening scene was an accurate representation of their intent (i.e. panspermia), that botanist wouldn't make that quip about "Darwinism" because the theory of evolution says nothing about how life arose on Earth - merely how it changed and diversified. Also, they shouldn't have portrayed the Engineers as having an identical genetic code as human beings but instead point out how some basic genes common to most life are present within the Engineers' DNA, even though there are other variations which can code for the same proteins. Of course, scientific accuracy isn't as dramatic as "ZOMG THE ALIENZ IS US!!!"

The Engineer's morphological similarity to us can be explained as an extreme case of convergent evolution, but I think the likeness was meant to relate to the identical DNA (which we learnt later in the film) so that wasn't it. However, they are also way taller, paler, have weird eyes and hairless, so how can their genomes be the same? This is not impossible if you factor in epigenetics, and depending on the environmental pressures in the earliest stages of an organism's development, the expression of genes may differ, producing disparate phenotypes from the same DNA. Okay, that's a bit of a hand wave of an explanation but at least it makes logical sense.

But in its totality, the scientific premises of Prometheus simply do not compute for me - the facts they presented do not add up. Either the screenwriters didn't understand evolution or they didn't understand genetics.

Another tiny nitpick I had was the character of Millburn, the resident botanist of the expedition. He simply does not act or think like any biologist I know. He's on a moon that could possibly harbour alien life but he's not in the least bit excited. He was surprisingly unconcerned about how they might be seeding LV-223 with their own personal bacteria flora on a place with a very Earth-like atmosphere and therefore corrupting (and possibly destroying) what ecosystems it harbours. He allowed his teammates to take off their helmets and following suit without knowing what contagions there might in the very Earth-like air. Spoilers for H. G. Wells' The War of the Worlds but the invading aliens in that were killed by Earth bacteria and viruses.

When they found the dead body and decapitated head of an Engineer, Millburn was not at all interested in examining the first ever fucking specimen of extraterrestrial macro-life that was ever discovered but instead, was spooked and wanted to leave. Later, when he encountered a living eyeless space-cobra and have a genuine reason to be freaking out, he thought it was adorable and wanted to fondle it, displaying a complete lack of caution and - not to mention - a baffling change of personality from before. Serves him right for being killed by that proto-Facehugger.

Dumbass Botanist in Prometheus
Not pictured: a real biologist.

As for Holloway's throwaway line about how "God does not build in straight lines" - and assuming that he's using the word "God" poetically to refer to nature - he was quite wrong. Naturally formed tessellated pavements like those found at Eaglehawk Neck on the island of Tasmania showcase very straight fissures. Basalt columns like those famously found at the Giant's Causeway also feature polygonal formations with straight sides and sharp angles. I've seen similar basalt columns at St. Mary's Island off the coast Malpe a couple of kilometres away from my med school in Manipal and I can attest to the fact that they do look freakishly man-made.

Eaglehawk Neck, Tasmania
Eaglehawk Neck, Tasmania.

The Medicine.

Now, the medical aspects of the film are the only things I'm actually qualified to speak about and when they showed Shaw marvelling at a Chekhov's gun Med Pod 720i (which can apparently perform open heart surgery), I knew at some point that it would be used to cut a growing alien out of someone's body. Sure enough, after Shaw and her boyfriend (who was unwittingly infected with some alien goo) got their bone on, her barren womb was impregnated with the fetus from hell. When the baby started um, kicking, Shaw headed right for Meredith Vicker's Surgeon-o-matic, which was apparently programmed for male patients only. I immediately had a quick succession of thoughts: Was Vicker's a tranny and how surprised was Janek? They can program a very lifelike android which can easily ace the Turing test with its motherboard tied behind its back but they can't program it with extra information on how to operate on a woman's body? Oh wait, does that mean that Peter Weyland is actually hiding somewhere onboard the Prometheus? Yeap.

However, I think that that was simply a plot point to show how resourceful and tenacious Shaw is when she had a freaking womb-burster quickening in her belly.

Med Pod 720i
The next stage in the evolution of the iPod.

While the audience I sat through that scene with retched, screamed and covered their eyes, I was all, "That's not how it's done!" The robotic laser simply cut her open, reached in and pulled out a gross, murderous squid baby. Okay, even assuming that the single cut neatly penetrated through all the layers of the abdomen down to where the squirming cephalopod was, one simply cannot patch that up by just stapling the gash on the outside. If you don't suture the womb up, it's just going to continue bleeding inside her and she'd die from overwhelming blood loss. And that horizontal incision? That must have severed her rectus abdominis muscles clean through. Without having those muscles fixed, I was surprised she could even stand up, let alone leap across bottomless chasms or run from a humongous rolling alien spacecraft. While it did not outright break my suspension of disbelief (I maintain it by mentally chanting "Magic future medicine... magic future medicine..."), I still find it a tad distracting.

That bit where they stimulated the locus coeruleus of the severed dead Engineer's head to animate it was not without basis in neurology as it is a part of the brain that excites and stimulates pretty much the entire central nervous system - though I highly doubt that the neural connections within the Engineer's brain could still function after 2000 years of being dead. My question was how the fuck did they knew that this alien being even have a locus coeruleus prior to them finding out its genome? It's a freaking alien. Its brain could have been located in its arse for all they know.

And the locus coeruleus is a pea-sized collection of pigmented neurons located in the pontine region of the brainstem. If any of you remember episode 16 from season 5 of The Big Bang Theory, that's the piece that Sheldon had so much problem dissecting from an exposed, sliced slab of brain. I like how Shaw and her friends could just stab blindly into the side of the Engineer's head and somehow locate it without using any precision instruments.

Final words.

There is no doubt that the star of the show is Michael Fassbender, who I did not realise is in Prometheus and it took me a full minute to be sure that that's him. If that isn't a testament to his ability to vanish into a role then I don't know what is (or maybe I'm really a racist and all white people simply look the same to me). The first scenes of the film which features him having the run of the Prometheus while its crew sleeps certainly invokes the beautiful melancholy of the first third of WALL·E. The motivations behind the actions of his character, the android David 8, is baffling and his motivations are inscrutable - if he's capable of having any at all. In respond to his handler's insistence that he should "try harder", he deliberately infected Shaw's boyfriend with the dangerous-looking black goo of unknown providence. Did he do it maliciously or out of curiousity? I can't tell.

Michael Fassbender as David 8
Michael Fassbender's range includes "uncanny" apparently.

One can't help think that he might be harbouring some degree of contempt for humans. When discussing the origin of mankind with Holloway, who spearheaded this expedition in the hopes of finding out why the Engineers created his species in the first place, David asked: "Why do you think your people made me?"

"We made you 'cause we could," quipped Holloway.

"Can you imagine how disappointing it would be for you to hear the same thing from your creator?" said David. I find this simple bit of dialogue to be the most profound and insightful element in the entire film. Of course, when they finally managed to find a live Engineer to talk to, his answer was basically, "KILL ALL HUMANS!" and immediately went postal on Weyland and his entourage's ass. I actually laughed when I was watching that scene.

I wonder what David actually said to the Engineer.

If nothing else, this is a very gorgeous film, which was to be expected coming from Ridley Scott. While the original Alien was claustrophobic, Scott went the opposite direction with Prometheus where he not only expanded the spaces but the ideas as well. What I am going to say next might be blasphemous in some circles but I far enjoyed Prometheus than I did its predecessors. Was it a poorer film compared to Alien and Aliens? Maybe, but I don't think very much about them long after the credits rolled.

Found Space Jesus,
k0k s3n w4i


nicoletta said...

Faster than light space travel existed in the previous Alien film, I think. Maybe by that time Einstein's theories had been disproved or something.

Those two Hollywood scientists made me angry. A biologist trying to pat an alien cobra, indeed. Wonder why they were chosen for such an exclusive mission. But then there had to be some stupidity in order to allow for the nasty deaths.

I read Cavalorn's article which you'd linked in your blog post, and holy shit I can't get his theories out of my mind. Except for the fact that the Engineers supposedly died out approx 2000 years ago on LV223 (~93CE???), bu they appeared in the Mayan and Hawaiian paintings, dated 620CE and 680CE respectively.

Interesting film. I'd be happy to see a sequel.

nicoletta said...

just thought again about the article - actually there's a whole lot that doesn't make sense, especially: how did humans corrupt that black supposedly life giving slime 35 light years away, which resulted in the destruction of the Engineers?

many other thoughts will come to mind over time.

and man, putting together the proto xenomorph at the end is one complex process requiring several parties.

Darryl said...

Science fiction is just that..fiction. It is fun to watch for entertainment, but to count on accuracy..big mistake. with the proliferation of junk science, it is incumbent to do your own research and thinking. A true scientist works hard at disproving their own theory.BTW The original Alien movie was entertaining.
Darryl from affordable-tutor.comtyjudasa

Anonymous said...

You're now in your mid-20s, right? If so, and if you're still around in 2030s, you would be in your mid-40s, about the right age to go on NASA's first manned mission to Mars. Would you, if you're picked by NASA? Not interstellar beyond the speed of light, or via wormholes but better than going to the moon. Just say goodbye to your wife n kids for 2-3 years! How about it, to be the 2nd Malaysian astronaut, and the 1st non-bumi to go to Mars! Make your fellow Malaysian Chinese proud of you, like we so proud of Chong Wei the ex-No.1, now No.2 by accident. But still better than the Sidek bros.

Anonymous said...

Continuing from above comment, sorry, I left out your mission objective - as the onboard medical specialist and later Mars base doctor/surgeon/blogger.

k0k s3n w4i said...

nicoletta: yeah, i felt physically angry at all the so-called scientists depicted in prometheus. and good catch there; i didn't notice that there were supposedly archaeological evidence in the film that postdates jesus but then again, i think only the engineers on lv-223 were killed off. i thought it was implied that there are more of them back on their home planet - where shaw is heading to next. as for how humans screwed up the batch of goo - if we're going by cavalorn's theory - i assumed that the crucifixion of their emissary made the engineer's vengeful and angry, and they brought that sentiment back to lv-223.

Darryl: there are people who gets dumber and dumber as they watch more and more stuff. i am not one of those people. i like to think about the things i watch.

Anonymous: dude, what are you smoking? but yes, if i can go on a mission to mars, i would. and if i do, i wouldn't go as a chinese malaysian - i'll go as a malaysian. you sound racist, by the way.

John Burtis said...

As far as traveling faster than light, perhaps the Prometheus ship used a wormhole or in some way it bent space, eliminating the need for super light travel. It would provide them a way to LV 223 without violating Einstein's theories of expansion at light speed.