Technological and cybernetic advancement started off as the stuff of science fiction, only to become the crux of reality. From the Gothic chambers of Mary Shelley’s Frankestein and the reanimated body parts of dissected cadavers, to the zombie apocalypse of Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend and the irreversible mutation of America’s society, to the Star Trek saga and its extraordinary universe, to the laboratories of current-day universities and corporations, which turn fantasy into reality at a rapid and systematic rate — in the wake of all this we’ve indeed come a long way down the evolutionary track. The substrate of life is at our fingertips, the world in our grip, and there’s light at the end of the flesh tunnel
Big words, bombastic ideas. With rising ability comes growing ambition, the urge to forge brilliant futures out of mediocre presents and outdated pasts, aiming for a progressively better, fitter world. The imaginable becomes necessary and the impossible inevitable. The great becomes grand. It becomes grandiose and can get out of control. It depends on the practitioner. It depends on the practice. It depends on the aim and purpose of the change envisioned. On the person behind the helm.
Ridley Scott, one of the industry’s visionary filmmakers and long-time aficionado of the future, known for his legendary films Alien and Blade Runner, revisits the subject that launched his career. His latest project is Prometheus, a film that deals with the events leading up to Alien‘s saga. It’s not so much a prequel as a substrate; an exploration of the pre-Alien world, that’s it. The only uniting thread is the villain: Weyland Corp.
In particular, we get to meet Peter Weyland, the corporation’s founder, who sets the tone for what’s to come. In a promotional video gone viral, we get to see that by the year 2023, Weyland Corp is the proud developer and owner of technology capable of producing “cybernetic organisms… completely indistinguishable from us”. The statement is made by Weyland at a TED talk in a jam-packed arena where he unleashes his “unlimited ambition” on the world with a snarl. Unwilling to “settle for nothing short of greatness, or… die trying”, this TED talker declares that he wants to change the world, if the world will indulge him. One can’t help but feel that Weyland neither seeks nor needs the world’s consent. He’s forging ahead no matter what.
The notion is noble. The aim perhaps not. There’s something unsettling about Peter Weyland. When he declares, “We are the gods now”, one can’t be sure whether he’s talking about humanity in general or about his corporation. Such power is unsettling, and allusions to it sound ambiguous. Sinister. Purging. Perhaps this is what greatness is built on – on the sacrifice of those whose consent isn’t needed — on those who are forgotten down the line, eclipsed by the magnitude of the brilliance achieved at their expense. Who remembers the people who suffered in the name of the wheel and all that it entailed? Who talks about the lives shattered by the power of agriculture or the printing press? All we know is that our great inventions changed the world forever, so much in fact that entire ways of life were eradicated, by default, in their wake. We evolved beyond our limitations, into new worlds and horizons, thankful for their invention, building our future based on lessons learned the hard way, aware that to make an omelet you have to break those precious eggs.
Evolution is a brutal process, no matter how you look at it. It plays tricks on morality. Ridley Scott knows this and has created a memorable character (kudos to Guy Pearce for an inspired performance) who speaks grand words and promises grand worlds, forcing us to put their content under the microscope. The inevitable blends with the sinister in a presentation that makes an impression. It’s up to the audience to make up their minds whether Peter Weyland is on the right or the wrong side of history, or if there’s such a distinction in the first place. The film may or may not take sides after all, damning the evil, vile corporation that led to the calamity that follows (it’s a Ridley Scott film, there’s bound to be calamity!), showcasing how Weyland is driven by greed and power, but the truth is that the future is never as comfortable as our fairytales paint it.
For our visions to materialize, we have to bite into reality and leave our mark. We need visions that shatter what’s acceptable, and which last beyond the night that separates today from tomorrow. At the same time, let’s not abandon caution. Let us remember the classic stories and keep their lessons in mind, happy to work around the universe’s axioms.
Take Prometheus, for example, from Ancient Greek mythology. He was the Titan who stole the fire from the Gods and gave it to humanity. For his deed he was punished with eternal suffering. What does it mean? What’s the lesson here? Perhaps steal not from the haves because stealing is a sin? Glorify the thief in the name of the have-nots because some things are meant to be shared? Emphasize that life advances only through courage, defiance and self-sacrifice? Beware of power handed down to those who abuse it? Note how knowledge comes at a price? Which of these caveats would you apply to the tale of Prometheus, bringer of light, unruly Titan? What angle would you apply to Peter Weyland, titan of the 21st century?
Like I said, you decide.
Eyes open, mind sharp.