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When (Alien) Gods Err

Michael Fassbender plays a replicant in Ridley Scott's <em>Prometheus</em>.
Twentieth Century Fox
Michael Fassbender plays a replicant in Ridley Scott's Prometheus.

It is fitting that I watched Prometheus, Ridley Scott's grippingly gross blockbuster movie, this past weekend after having just written about how ultra-advanced aliens would be indistinguishable from gods. In Prometheus we learn, among other things, how the fearsome human-eating alien of the classic 1979 sci-fi movie Alien came into existence. But before we begin, a heads up: do not read this if you intend to watch the movie, as I will spoil it for you.

From what I could understand of the plot (why must key narrative lines be spoken so fast in these movies?), the "thing" was a bad mistake, a genetic experiment gone wrong. Prometheus is a modern-day Frankenstein tale of scientists losing control of their creation. But with a twist: the scientists are ultra-advanced aliens who are also our creators. (The movie's title is no coincidence, given that the subtitle of Mary Shelley's horror classic was "The Modern Prometheus." The Titan who created humans from clay and stole the secrets of the gods for the benefit of humankind comes in many guises.)

The story goes like this: a long time ago, aliens that look a lot like an overgrown albino Woody Harrelson with black foggy eyes came here and created the first humans. We know this because a pair of intrepid archeologists cum cultural anthropologists found evidence of alien visitation at sites around the world once inhabited by ancient civilizations: Egyptians, Mayans, Mesopotamians and even in 30,000-year-old cave wall paintings on Scotland's Isle of Skye. They all pointed to a particular planetary system located somewhere around 15 light-years from us, if I recall the numbers correctly. The pair, Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green), had an outrageous hypothesis: the drawings indicated the location where the aliens came from and, more importantly, "they" had created us.

Fortunately, this is the late 21st century and not only exoplanetary astronomy but also interstellar travel have reached amazing levels of sophistication, thanks in part to the privatization of space exploration, another topic we just treated here.

A dying billionaire tycoon, possibly inspired by Ray Kurzweil, hires the archeologists to go to the planetary system featured in the ancient documents. His reason was simple enough: if "they" created us, as the pair proposed, they could also keep him alive indefinitely: our creators must be immortal, just like gods.

Soon after arriving at the awful barren moon, the crew discovered the horrible truth. The satellite was not the aliens' home but a laboratory, a "storage place." What was stored there? Some kind of biological weapon, a killer disease apparently designed to be shipped to Earth and kill the human race.

In a perverse twist of fate, our creators wanted to destroy us. We will get back to why later.

As the crew quickly discovers, the aliens made a terrible mistake. Somehow, their biological weapon morphed into horrendous monsters and they all got killed before launching their mission to Earth. The scene, as one of the characters remarked, was like that of a "holocaust," as the biological creations destroyed their creators. In another twist, we owe our existence to the horrible monsters that destroyed our creators.

The alien "gods" were "not immortal after all," as remarked the movie's most interesting character, a humanoid robot with advanced intelligence called "David." (Just like the hero in 2001: A Space Odyssey, certainly not a coincidence.)

David was the tycoon's protector, and the only one who knew of the mission's true objective. Even the tycoon's daughter and leader of the expedition, played by coldly beautiful Charlize Theron, didn't know.

The tycoon's plan doesn't work and, after a lot of horrifying gore, only two creatures survive: the heroine, Elizabeth Shaw, and the famous human-eating alien from the 1979 movie, whom we learn is a hybrid of the sole surviving albino alien from their original crew and, shockingly, an octopus-like baby that Shaw conceived with her archeologist lover after he had been tainted with the alien disease. So, the original alien is actually Dr. Shaw's offspring, twice removed.

If you are still with me, we now go back to what the movie is trying to tell us. First, that messing with the making of new life forms can be very dangerous indeed. (Dr. Shaw's father, we learn, died of an Ebola experiment gone awry.) Second, that even highly advanced life forms, capable of creating things like humans, are still prey to their mistakes, a humbling lesson indeed. Apparently, the intentional mixing of genes doesn't satisfy a predictable pattern. Third, and here we come to the question as to why our creators would want to destroy us, be careful of what you create, as it may destroy you.

Although the answer is not given (the movie ends with Dr. Shaw and the A.I. David's head going to the albino aliens' home planet) — Prometheus 2?, we may speculate. Is it that the biggest fear of a creator is to be overcome by their creation? The amazing humanoid David surely represents the culmination of A.I.'s current aspirations: a robot indistinguishable from a human but "without a soul," or at least without the all-too-human weakness that comes from having feelings. David wanted to learn from the albino aliens, and, like the computer HAL in 2001, no doubt was pursuing his own agenda: on a doubling of the story, our own creation could be bent on overtaking us. Possibly this was what the aliens feared, that we would overtake them, dominate them, and ultimately destroy them.

If this is the case, the story really does revert back to the Frankenstein archetype: a creature may supplant its creator and attempt to destroy it. Artificially creating life and mind, although crucial to our future, is not without risks.

You can keep up with more of what Marcelo is thinking on Facebook and Twitter @mgleiser.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Marcelo Gleiser is a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos & Culture. He is the Appleton Professor of Natural Philosophy and a professor of physics and astronomy at Dartmouth College.

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