or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Tuesday, June 12, 2012


We saw "Prometheus" this weekend, and while it has some gorgeous cinematography (this would be a good movie to see in the IMAX format) and some nail-biting sequences (including a gut-wrenching caesarean section), it's not really very good: the only sense I can make of it is that it must have originally been at least three hours long, but the studio demanded it be cut down to two, and as a consequence there are obvious gaps in the narrative, the characters behave in ways that seemingly make no sense, and the film is a collection of bits rather than a coherent story.

The problem, though, starts at the very beginning. (Spoiler alerts.) After a series of sweeping vistas of a lush Earth with no evidence of animal life, presumably billions of years ago, we see a pale, muscled humanoid (entirely human, actually, except for a slightly odd but not completely freakish upper face) standing on a rocky outcropping by a massive waterfall.

Above him is a spaceship which departs, leaving him with a small cup of liquid — scary, black, and moving of its own accord — which he drinks, after which his body rapidly breaks down: he tumbles down the cataract and into the waterfall below, whereupon his body dismantles itself into component DNA. His species, then, has either created animal life on Earth or has changed the course of its development by replacing existing DNA with its own. Fast forward to the near future: human beings think they have discovered an invitation to a planet which will answer their questions about their origins, which will lead them to the descendants of that fellow above, dubbed the Engineers.

We are expected to believe, then, that evolution after many millions of, or even a couple of billion, years produces creatures which look more or less exactly like the originating species, and that when we discover the Engineers, they haven't changed at all, which is to say they have stopped or sidestepped evolution entirely, and all I can say about that is

Evolution doesn't have a goal, doesn't have an endpoint: human beings aren't some apotheosis of life on Earth, but just another interesting solution to the problem of existence. Evolution doesn't produce creatures who are fitted to some ideal template. It's dependent on environment and random mutations, and as the environment changes, living things change in response. And they keep changing, too. The Engineers couldn't have distributed their DNA on Earth and assumed that human beings would be the result: there are too many variables for them to control. And even if humans had evolved from Engineer DNA, by the time we discovered them, the Engineers wouldn't look much if anything as they had when they seeded the planet: we would have diverged in the intervening millennia. (If you can find a copy of Man After Man by Dougal Dixon, possibly at your library because it's out of print, you'll find it a fascinating look at the evolutionary history that led to humans and one of the infinite directions it could potentially go in the future.) (Also, read this. Hilarious!)

ANYway. The name "Prometheus" is Greek: he was a Titan, one of arace of gods, who bestowed the gift of fire on the human race and was punished for his theft by being chained to a rock and having his liver torn out by a giant eagle: since he was immortal, his liver would regenerate every night, only to be devoured again the next day. (Eventually he was liberated by Hercules.) His name, depending on whom you ask, is derived either from the Greek for "forward-thinking" ("pro-" plus "-methos", related to "mind" and "mental") or from Sanskrit "pramathyus", "thief", since he stole fire from the gods to give to humans.


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