Idiot Savant Online

John Lichman's third attempt at a personal blog and online savanting idiotic.

Dead Darlings: The Prometheus and Your Technology essay

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This was an essay on Prometheus‘ treatment of technology and how, in science fiction, we’ve transitioned from needing blunt futuristic images into a more organic shell.  After a few edits, we were all sort of stilled on it but the core of the idea is what fascinates me so much about Prometheus. It works better as an ideal than calling it a prequel.

In a weird way, Ridley Scott rebooted the Alien universe.  Anyway, a whirlwind of words follow.

Science fiction is synonymous with robots, lasers and sprawling space ships like the namesake vessel in Prometheus that promise to take us to far-off worlds. At least, that was the old promise of technology and science fiction before cyberpunk wasn’t just a buzz term. Since the late 80s, our technology has started shifting from circuits into not just ourselves, but organic life. Technology and science fiction go hand in hand, because it allows us a spot to dream about the future. The old model of our future blinded us to what we’ve done to ourselves: we’ve become our own technology.

Back in the 1970s and 80s, the future was going to be about working with robots and flying hovercrafts everywhere. Star Wars gave us helpful droids that would ingrain in us a sense of loyalty, or who were so stupid we could easily outsmart a droid if it came down to it. It took Alien to remind us that technology didn’t just mean clumsy metal robots that could barely walk. When the crew of the U.S.S. Nostromo in Alien become an unwitting transport service for an alien, they freak out–except for Ash, their science officer, who becomes scarier than the chest buster at the dinner table.

He was an android all along.

Being smashed and torn apart, Ash is still able to talk as he gushes thick, milky blood out of his mouth. There was no hint he’d be a robot, or that there was anything more dangerous than the alien hiding on board the ship. But hiding technology in the simpliest of things is what makes Prometheus just as frightening as Ash’s reveal was in 1979.

“We can now create cybernetic individuals who are indistinguishable from us. Which leads to the inevitable conclusion, we are the gods now,” said Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) at the viral TED Talk, which at least stops being boring by 2023. In another viral video for Prometheus, David (Michael Fassbender), technically a predecessor to Ash, is asked what it can do. Quite serenely it replies, “I can carry out directives that my human counterparts would find distressing.”

Technology became deadly the second the idea that R2-D2 could betray us, or like Ash, be among us without ever knowing until he’s revealed as an It with personal motivations.  The Terminator and subsequent knock-offs about killer robots coming to kill us from a future they already won. By the end of The Empire Strikes Back, Luke was a cyborg in all black, just a few body parts shy of his father.

Combining technology with ourselves seemed too weird before, but directors like David Cronenberg and Shinya Tsukamoto embraced it. Cronenberg’s Videodrome looked at a media culture saturated with violence and consumerism where a new global religion of embracing television was practiced.  James Woods played a sleazy UHF station manager that becomes so warped by Videodrome that he grows a VCR in his chest and later pulls a gun made from cancer cells out of his own body to kill someone–with exploding cancer bullets.

Tsukamoto took the mechanical approach in his Tetsuo trilogy, preferring to bond man and metal, as The Man (always played by Tsukamoto) goes around finding people to become a mash-up of scrap metal, living guns and phallic drills.

In the Star Wars prequels, the necessity of organic technology runs from the Gungan race to General Grevious, who scrapes by the bare minimum to be considered a cyborg with severe asthma. Watching Anakin transition into Darth Vader was a cold and frightening process, since his desire to live and take revenge was so strong he’d become a monster to do it.

In an eerie coincidence, The Matrix and eXistenZ came out the same year, both dealing with virtual reality, gaming and changing our bodies so we could become living processors. Yet both couldn’t be more different: Keanu Reeves plugged into the system, while Jude Law had the system connected to his spine via umbilical cord. We’re becoming sympathetic to technology in film because it’s becoming us, essentially. In Prometheus, David is introduced performing rounds on the ship that have a mundane if eerily superhuman quality: he plays basketball (while riding a bike), studies language (multiple, ancient ones) and watches a movie (Lawrence of Arabia). David is so self-sufficient while the humans are in cyro-sleep that he gives himself a haircut and, oh yes, is capable of viewing their dreams to learn about them. But in this re-imagined future, despite technically taking place before Alien, everyone’s fine with an android on board.

We make innovations in our image, as the Engineers prove in the very beginning of Prometheus, down to shared DNA. The technology holding back the viscous black bio-weapon stored in the bowels of LV-223. The Prometheus itself takes on a mixture of anthropomorphic, like the name-sake ship of Serenity. Production Designer Arthur Max told the New York Times, “We played around with the idea that the engines could also be legs. Then we decided that each engine leg would have to have feet to land on the terrain. So it started to take on a kind of insectlike[sic] look.”

Compared to the Engineers’ ship, which almost looks like a giant ‘C,’ the Prometheus looks almost out of place. The Engineers power their ship up with fleshy buttons, harmonics (flute!) and hands-on interaction with light. It’s the type of technology we’re in the early phases of adopting, even on the bridge of the Prometheus while the 3D sensors are mapping out the caverns early in the film. The point is: we’re not at all that different from the Engineers when it comes to practical science. The main thing is the Engineer had enough sense to rip David’s head off after all the tinkering he had done with the bio-weapon goo.

Our acceptance of emerging technology means we want to go further beyond what we have now–hell, a Retina display made a room full of hardened tech people squee the other day. Even when the film ends on Dr. Shaw flying off into space, by using what’s left of David, she can know use the same technology that our creators could use by integrating herself (metaphorically) with a machine.

Who needs stand-alone jetpacks when we can wrap ourselves in technology and fly away?

Or else, let’s just do what David does.


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