A myth for our scientific era
Pinning down exactly what Ridley Scott’s larger-than-life Prometheus means may be impossible. But it’s safe to say that the movie – the 3-D quasi-prequel to Scott’s seminal technoscience-horror fable, Alien – is self-consciously a myth for our scientific era.
Prometheus opens over the shoulder of an alabaster figure on the edge of a prehistoric waterfall. This alien, called an Engineer, drinks a poison and falls into the waters. Our camera-eye follows, diving into his cells, which are darkening and cracking apart. Then we dive further – into his very DNA, which is rapidly rotting and unwinding, but not disappearing. We are left unsure where his broken-down DNA is headed. Cue title sequence.
Why does Scott open with an act of alien genesis triggered by crumbling, black DNA? Regardless of what else the filmmakers want the opening scene to convey, this is a horror movie. Its opening suggests that something about DNA and DNA manipulation is a source of dread – even as society today embraces biotechnology.
The biggest questions Prometheus asks may be, if DNA is a type of code or a language, who wrote the code of human life, and what did they intend for us? Our discomfort with the fact that manipulating DNA is a technique like any other – something you can learn and exploit for useful, perhaps lucrative ends – is driven by concerns over the motivations of those doing the manipulating.
If we were coded by authors with a motivation – the Engineers in Prometheus – can we be sure that we’re acting on our own volition? Our discomfort with being “programmed” is logical, because free will presents us with a reason to behave more responsibly (you can’t blame anyone else) and a gift of constant discovery.
The Engineers are not new to our trove of archetypes. In a way, they’re unknowable like God, but in another way they’re just a larger, paler version of ourselves. Scott makes this clear when his archeologists discover that we share genomes. Humans are the Engineers’ golems, Pinocchios, and Frankenstein’s creatures. The horror that comes with this discovery is that our makers are just about as ungodlike as we are.
via Scientific American – Daniel Grushkin and Wythe Marschall
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