Prometheus Analysis Part VIII – Act 3

I have classified the plot in Prometheus into different Acts. Act 1 corresponds to all events preceding the first exploration on LV 223. Act 2 is the exploration and the immediate aftermath when the crew escapes back to the ship. Now, let us focus on Act 3, which details the happenings back on the ship before they venture back into the hollow facility on LV 223.

As we saw at the end of Act 2, the crew finally makes it safe to the ship after a dramatic encounter with a storm, sans Fifield and Millburn, who are lost inside the hollow facility. Captain Janek advises them to stay put inside the cave for the night due to the storm. The next scene is a critical element in Act 3. This is the scene where Shaw, Ford and David examine the head of the engineer that they brought along from the cave. In their preliminary inspection and based on further scans, it is evident that what they see is actually an exoskeleton type helmet.

Scan of the engineer's head - Copyright 20th Century Fox

Scan of the engineer’s head – Copyright 20th Century Fox

David carefully removes it and the head is revealed, which is incredibly human like. In the meantime, Vickers comes by and asks Shaw if all of the engineers were dead, to which Shaw replies that she doesn’t know. Upon further inspection they see some remarkable features on the head and Shaw says that they could be new cells in a state of change. Vickers then asks what they are changing into. Shaw then theorizes that they could trick the nervous system into thinking it’s still alive by running a stemline into the locus coeruleus. They play around with the current and after an incremental increase to about 50 amps, the engineer’s eyes start twitching. It becomes vigorous after a while and the mouth starts opening and closing as well. They try to reduce the current, but its too late. The face starts twitching violently and the black goo starts oozing out of his skull. They have no other choice, but to contain the head. David contains the head in a glass shield and the head suddenly explodes. Ford complains about the smell and David poignantly comments that the engineer was mortal after all. Finally, they decide to take a sample for DNA testing and the the movie progresses to the next scene.

Engineer’s eye twitch – Copyright 20th Century Fox

Black Goo oozing out of the head – Copyright 20th Century Fox

Before going to the next scene, let us see what we can learn from the engineer’s examination. There are a couple of important things one could observe from the examination. First, the engineer’s head is in a state of change with new cells replacing his old ones and changing into something. Second, the black goo oozing out of his head prior to the explosion. It would be easy to explain the black goo since, it is evident that the engineers had been experimenting on themselves. The black goo turned out to be more potent than they had imagined and eventually caused their death.

Now, let us look into the cells and their state of change. Here, I would like to make a hypothesis. It goes all the way back (or forward, if you consider the time line from Prometheus) to the original Alien movie. There’s a scene in the film, right after the very first examination of Kane with the facehugger attached, where Ash and Ripley have a short conversation. When Ripley asks Ash if he has found something about the visitor, Ash replies that he has confirmed that the creature has an outer layer of protein polysaccharides and has a funny habit of shedding his cells and replacing them with polarized Silicon. He further theorizes that it provides him a prolonged resistance to survive in adverse environmental conditions.

Tough little son of a bitch scene – Alien 1979 (Copyright 20th Century Fox)

There we have it. It’s all about Silicon. As we saw in Alien, it is more complex – the creature is a perfect carbon-silicon hybrid organism. Carbon is the main source in it’s earliest life cycle and upon subduing the host, it rapidly evolves to replace its carbon base with silicon. But the carbon map is not completely gone. This carbon base is still a vital aspect the production of eggs, facehuggers or in some cases, direct infection by the creature. Life begins as carbon based and turns into silicon based during the life cycle of the Alien.

So, it is highly possible that the replacement of cells on the engineer’s head reflects this shift from carbon to silicon. It then seems that the black goo had been successful in doing what it was intended to do, to a lesser degree. But, all in all the experimentation was unsuccessful and hence, the carbon-silicon transition is not that drastic. That’s why it was mentioned in passing by Shaw and Ford. Now, I do have a theory for why the whole experiment failed. It has to do with a critical element they had overlooked in the way they had planned creating the Alien. But, I will talk about it a bit later.

The Devil in the Dark

Star Trek Original Series

I would like to take a small sidestep and talk about Star Trek. Wait, what the hell has Star Trek gotta do with Alien and Prometheus? I am getting there. In the first season of the original series, there was an episode titled, “The Devil in the Dark”. It was the 25th episode and first aired on March 9, 1967. The plot of the episode is as follows:

On stardate 3196.1, Enterprise attends to a worrisome request for help from a pergium mining colony on planet Janus VI. It seems that a strange creature has been acting up and has killed 50 miners and destroyed a whole array of equipments. The miners are all burnt beyond recognition. It suggests that the creature uses a strong acid to attack and due to its corrosive nature, the miners instantly disintegrated. Kirk, Spock and McCoy beamed down to the planet and based on their investigations come to the conclusion that they are dealing with something that is radically different and put in their own words, “Life as we didn’t know it.”

Spock inspecting a silicon nodule (Later turns out to be an egg) – The Devil in the Dark

Without going into complete details about the episode, what they learned is that the creature is silicon based and lives deep under the surface of the planet. It produces an extremely corrosive type of acid to digest rocks and hard material to navigate. When the miners reached the level where the creature lived, it naturally had to defend itself against the intruders. Based on Spock’s mind-meld, we also learn that the creature is called Horta and every 50,000 years, the entire race of Hortas die, except only one who acts as a protector of the eggs. When the humans encroached upon the egg resting area, it had to attack to protect her children. In the end, everything turns out fine.

A reactor room sabotaged by the creature’s corrosive acid – The Devil in the Dark

Horta, the creature – The Devil in the Dark

Spock’s mind-meld with Horta – The Devil in the Dark

This episode is pretty interesting in the Alien context for two reasons. One, the Horta is silicon based and two, it produces a corrosive acid both to aid in its mobility and as a defense mechanism. The fact that the episode aired in 1967, I just wonder how much of an influence it had on the original Alien, in terms of thinking about its biology. 

Silicon based Life

Now, let us talk about the plausibility of  natural evolution of a silicon based life form. Based on what we know, it would be highly unlikely for such an evolution. One can think of many reasons for such an improbability. Firstly, there is a huge abundance of carbon in our universe, compared to silicon. This is the case, thanks to stellar evolution. Secondly, we all know that organic life is made possible due to carbon’s ability to bond and form complex molecules. Silicon based complex molecules can exist, but their bond lengths are longer than carbon bond lengths and hence, silicon bonds are weaker and can quickly become unstable. For instance, a group of silicon based complex molecules, polysilanes, are extremely unstable in UV light.

There is another issue as well. But, I believe this could be dealt with, at least theoretically. I am talking about expulsion of respiratory waste. If the organism evolved in an oxygen based environment, then silicon dioxide (silica) is the carbon dioxide equivalent. But, silica is solid as we very well know. Yet, there are some extreme critter like life forms on our own planet that can expel silica. Even in our earth’s history, there are some fine examples of workarounds for such a situation. You see, silica need not be expelled as a solid. It is soluble in water, and hence there could be an intermediary step, prior to expulsion. If you look at the case of diatomites, you would see that the ash of these once-living creatures contains a fair amount of silica. Nearly 30% of the earth’s crust is composed of silicon. Carbon, on the other hand is less than 2%. The all important enzymes on earth are composed of protein (amino acids), sugars and metal complexes, not carbon. If you think that just long chain carbon molecules are enough for life, think again. What is crucial is the fact that such molecules should contain hydrogen and a polar end group. This is the norm as far as our own biological makeup is concerned (fat and lipids). Life as we know it has to satisfy the criterion above. That’s why polysilanes are interesting, because they fit the niche perfectly.

It would be fascinating to speculate on what a strange world it would be where such a creature could evolve. Such a speculation would also provide us hints about the biology of the Alien as designed by the engineers. For a natural evolution of a silicon based organism, it would be reasonable to assume that the environment might be devoid of oxygen. Strongly reducing conditions might be the norm (similar to conditions on prehistoric earth before the evolution of photosynthetic bacteria). But, if oxygen were present, it provides us with another fascinating possibility – the environment might be highly acidic or strongly basic. Why? It would simply facilitate the transfer or silicon around the “body”. Fluoride/fluorine might be the redox couple that replaces oxygen/water, which is the carbon based redox equivalent. Energy might be derived from UV rather than from chemical sources. And what about energy storage? Surely not as a carbohydrate! May be polysilane or polysilazane? What of the enzymes? They would probably have to me more flexible, have specific shapes and reversible binding. Chemical changes to their structures would have to affect the binding affinity and change the presentation of active sites. What kind of active sites would these putative enzymes have? For us, solution-based processes are the norm. May be, the silicon creatures would use liquid methane or ammonia or even carbon dioxide as the solvent. I could go on, but I will stop right here. Bottom line is, such a creature would be a biological marvel and involve a completely new, fascinating mode of chemical communication!

Such a scenario paints a very interesting picture. Remember, when I first spoke about the inconsistency of the very first scene when the engineer sacrificed himself on prehistoric earth? I said, it should have happened way prior to the evolution of photosynthetic bacteria and hence, the atmosphere was reduced due to the lack of oxygen but that the engineer obviously did not show any discomfort breathing. Could it be that silicon had already been part of the engineer’s biology and that way he could survive breathing in a reduced environment? This silicon part of his biology never got replicated during natural evolution on earth. Just a thought! The next thing has to do with the acid part of the creature. It has been established very well that the Alien “bleeds” corrosive acid. which acts as a defense mechanism. In the next section, let us look into this aspect and how it fits logically into the silicon basis for the organism.

Bacillus cereus

Silicon is considered to be a quasi-essential element for most living organisms, even here on earth. Bacteria, Bacillus strains in particular, are well known to have an efficient silicate uptake system in place. The physiological function of such process though had remained obscure for a long time. But, evidence is currently emerging that helps define the role of such an uptake process. It turns out that in Bacillus cereus, the Si is deposited in a spore coat layer of nanometer-sized particles that enhances ….. wait for it ….. acid resistance. Such a novel acid resistance of the spore mediated by Si encapsulation was also observed in other Bacillus strains, representing a general adaptation enhancing survival under acidic conditions. If that is the case for bacteria, then you can imagine the role played by silicon for a creature like the Alien. There has to be a profound mechanism that would require silicon to play a larger role. Perhaps, in addition to enhancing the survival standards of the creature in extreme situations, the silicon also helps in preserving its “acid blood” preventing the Alien from an internal corrosion of sorts. There is another thing. The fact that the creature has polarized silicon, it means that we are talking about some kind of organosilicon material that involves carbon-silicon bonds. That way, irrespective of the specifics of the biology, it provides a possibility to sort of still preserve the carbon basis in a form that could be utilized in various cycles of the creature’s existence.

In conclusion, the state of change of cells on the engineer’s head points to the replacement of normal cells with polarized silicon. The engineers could not achieve the efficiency level of the Alien creature and hence, not that drastic of a change.

Now, let us proceed to the next scene. David is seen communicating with someone. He says that he will take care of it and mentions that it is unfortunately slightly broken. After he is done, he is confronted by Vickers, who wants to know what the other person had said. After some resistance, David tells Vickers that he asked him to try harder. Later in the film, it becomes clear with whom he is communicating. The interesting part in this scene is the fact that David mentions about something broken. Could he be talking about the vase that he brought with him? At this point it is not that clear.

In the meantime, Shaw and Ford analyze the genetic sample they obtained from the engineer’s head and compare it to human DNA. Obviously, they find a match letting them conclude that humans are engineers.

Engineer’s DNA Match with Humans – Copyright 20th Century Fox

We also see that David is inspecting the stone vase that he snuck into the ship. He breaks open one of the glass storage columns holding the black goo and takes a drop in his finger. He realizes that the goo is reactive and comments that big things have small beginnings.

Black Goo inside a glass column – Copyright 20th Century Fox

Big things have small beginnings – Copyright 20th Century Fox

In the next pivotal scene, David meets a disappointed Holloway and offers to pour him a drink. They also strike a conversation about the purpose of their visit to LV 223 and if Holloway found what he was looking for. At first, Holloway is sort of condescending to David, seemingly considering him to be sub-human. Actually, he was a bit less receptive to David even in the very beginning. Prior to their first inspection on LV 223 there were all suiting up. Holloway asked David why he would need a suit, since he is android. David said that it would make others comfortable if he stuck to the norms. They have a philosophical conversation about why the humans created David and how that correlates to engineers making humans. At the end, David pours Holloway a drink, but, he taints it with the black goo that he inspected prior to meeting Holloway, who ends up drinking it.

It brings us to another aspect of the title of the film, Prometheus. Remember, I wrote earlier that Prometheus is also a trickster figure in Greek mythology? By stealing fire from the Gods and giving it to humans, he inadvertently started a monumental chain reaction which resulted in both good and bad. David fits that profile perfectly. If he hadn’t spiked Holloway’s drink with the goo, it might have been very different. Not just that, as we will see in the next few sections, he is central to the progression of the entire movie. In my opinion, he knows more than he is actually letting them know. Besides, his short conversation with the unknown person earlier is also pretty mysterious. It would be interesting to know if he has his own motives for doing what he is doing. More on David a bit later.

The next scene cuts to the interior of the structure they previously explored. Fifield and Millburn, who are stranded in the structure come across a pile of dead engineer bodies. Its a huge pile and high up. It is obvious to Fifield that they were running from something. They notice something that shocks them. The engineers bear a gaping wound on their chests, where something seemed to have opened up from inside – akin to an explosion of sorts. Millburn is extra worried. Janek, the captain, interrupts them from the ship and enquires them about their position. He seems to have observed a ping, a click westward from their original position. He concurs that the probe might be picking up a life form. This shocks both Fifield and Millburn, but suddenly the ping disappears. Janek thinks it might be a glitch. He advises them to stay tight and they will be picked up in the morning. Fifield tells Janek that what they have seen inside the structure is worrisome and asks if the visual they are transmitting is picked up by Prometheus. Janek tells them that the signals come in sporadically due to the storm. Fifield and Millburn finally decide going eastward, since they don’t want to run into the life form that Prometheus picked up westward from them.

One of the elements in the above scene is a bit confusing for me. It has to do with the dead engineer bodies with their chests ripped open from within. It tells that something broke out, but what exactly? I would like to come back to this issue a bit later. This scene though could tell us a bit as to how to resolve another piece of inconsistency in the film as it relates to Alien. This had been bothering me for a long time. Hopefully, when we discuss this aspect in detail later, a consensus would emerge.

In the next scene, Shaw is recording her findings and Holloway walks in. Without going into the romanticism of the scene, basically, Holloway is happy that they found a link between the engineers and humans. Although, he is a bit disappointed that they couldn’t talk to them. The fact that they have now found out that engineers made humans, Holloway asks Shaw if she would remove her cross. Shaw tells him no, and that we still wouldn’t know who made them. Then they talk about creation of life and how easy it would be. Shaw, being infertile, becomes emotional, and after a couple of moments of consolation, they both end up having sex.

Sexual intercourse is an important element here, since, the infection that Holloway was carrying, courtesy of David, is transmitted to Shaw. As we see later in the film, it results in a whole lot of chaos.

In the meantime, there is some bantering going on between Vickers and Janek, which results in both of them sleeping together. The scene them cuts to the structure. Fifield and Millburn reach the spot from the beginning of the film where they first discovered the stone vases and the human looking head. The vases are all affected with black goo flowing out of them. The goo seems to have also mutated a few worm like creatures that we saw in the beginning. Millburn and Fifield encounter such a creature. They try to inform Prometheus about the creature and as they put it, is an elongated reptilian type creature, thirty to forty inches long and transparent. Since, Janek is busy engaging in coitus with Vickers, he is not listening. Millburn tries to touch the creature, at which point it flaps its head open. Suddenly, the creature seizes Millburn’s hand and wraps around his arm real tight. The grip becomes so strong that his arm snaps. Fifield tries to cut the creature off Millburn’s arm, but the acid blood of the creature gets sprayed on Fifield’s helmet melting it onto Fifield’s face. The creature then gets into Millburn’s suit and crawls into his mouth, knocking him out. Fifield falls face first on the pool of black goo and that starts mutating him real fast.

Now, it’s morning, the next day. Holloway feels sick and checks himself out in the mirror. He finds that his eyes are blood shot with something crawling in them. As he is about to freak out, Janek calls Shaw if she is up already and that they are planning to go back to the structure since they haven’t heard anything from Millburn and Fifield for quite a while. As they are about to leave for the structure, Janek asks Ravel, if he had fixed the glitch, to which Ravel replies negative. Janek informs David that a probe is picking up a life form and the signal pops up every hour or so for a couple of seconds before disappearing again. David, seemingly interested in the “glitch”, volunteers to find the “faulty” probe and fix it. Janek agrees.

It is evident that Holloway has been infected pretty badly by the black goo and he is fast changing. David, figures out that the glitch could point out to something or someone who is still alive and he is motivated to find the source. At this point, Shaw knows nothing about Holloway’s infection.

With that, we conclude Act 3. I hope I have not missed any important element of the whole Act. We learned a few things here, namely, that the skin of the engineer was changing, getting their organic cells replaced by polarized silicon, their DNA matches with human’s and hence, humans are engineers, David seemed to have figured out some specifics of the black goo and his deliberate tainting of Holloway’s drink leads to a chain of events, Fifield and Millburn find that the black goo had mutated worm like creatures inside the structure, one of which killed Millburn. So many developments, one might say. Anyway, let us focus on the next Act that chronicles the second visit to the structure in the next post.

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