Science fiction (sci-fi) is a broad genre of motion pictures (movies) characterized by the depiction of scientific or technological advances that have not yet been appropriately peer-reviewed, and are therefore speculative and often faulty. Although science fiction movies can gross hundreds of millions of dollars (USD), up-to-date reviews on the accuracy of immunological phenomena depicted in such films are lacking. This review focuses on the science fiction topics of alien parasitism and immunity, epidemics resulting in zombies and/or vampire-like zombies (VLZs), and organ transplantation.
Alien parasitism and immunity
Alien parasitism has a critical role in the plot devices of science fiction movies. The 1979 horror movie Alien was one of the first movies to encounter alien parasitism and was a pioneer in this field of study. The titular Alien is hatched from an egg that incubates in the body of a human host. When it matures, it rips its way out of the host to grow into adulthood and seek another host from which to spawn. The human, after inoculation with the Alien egg, experiences memory loss but suffers no inflammatory symptoms, which suggests parasite-induced immunosuppression. It is implausible that an alien from a distant galaxy could secrete immunosuppressive factors specifically designed for the human immune system. As the humans and this alien life form were in their premier encounter, it is highly unlikely that the alien had evolved the adaptations necessary to utilize a human as a host. Understanding the molecular mechanisms underlying Alien-human parasitism will require a detailed analysis of how immune cells interact with Alien antigens.
Although alien parasitism has been extensively studied in the context of human infection, little is known about the alien immunity against pathogens. The H.G. Wells novel War of the Worlds was adapted into a 2005 movie, which provides much of what we know about the limitations of the extraterrestrial immune system. In this movie, Earth is attacked by alien tripods that come out of the ground, having buried themselves in the earth eons ago. Before the extraterrestrial’s imminent conquest of Earth, the aliens are killed by an onslaught of infections. Previous work proposed that they had no immunity to the bacteria on Earth, but this hypothesis has lost support within the alien immunology field. Considering the technological superiority of the aliens, it is perhaps surprising that they did not attempt to characterize global microbial taxonomic and functional diversity before they decided to bury themselves in the earth. In addition, unless they had buried themselves so deep in the Earth’s crust as to be devoid of interactions with microorganisms in the soil, they would have been constantly exposed to bacteria and either died right away or evolved to resist infection (Fig. 1). One alternative theory posits that over time, they developed their own commensal microbiome, protecting them from pathogens in the soil. Furthermore, exactly how the aliens were infected by Earth’s pathogens is unclear, an issue reflective of the alien-human parasitism dilemma. Further work is needed to elucidate the alien-specific virulence factors that Earth’s microorganisms somehow possess.
A frequent source of epidemics in movies is known to be mutant viruses transmitted through biting, as evidenced by the post-apocalyptic horror movies 28 Days Later (2002) and I Am Legend (2007). 28 Days Later details the collapse of society after a highly contagious virus is released. Activists break into an animal facility and release chimpanzees infected with a highly contagious rage-inducing zoonotic virus, transmitted through biting. The ‘Rage’ virus then infects humans worldwide, turning them into a specialized form of super-fast zombie (discussion of how the Rage virus can infect every cell in the host in 20 seconds has been previously examined, and thus will not be discussed in this review). Similarly, I Am Legend describes an epidemic caused by an out-of-control retrovirus, which was initially administered to patients who received it as a cancer cure. This virus, while shown to be 100% effective in clinical trials, mutated and killed 90% of those infected; the remaining 10% became VLZs who transmit the virus through biting. The virus further mutates and goes airborne, killing 5.4 billion people and leaving only a handful of survivors with uncharacterized immunity to the virus. As virus transmission through biting is far less efficient than airborne transmission, it would not have created a pandemic, much less an epidemic, as in 28 Days Later. Moreover, it is extremely unlikely, if not impossible, for a virus that is transmitted through blood and saliva to mutate into a virus that is spread on airborne droplets, as in I Am Legend. It remains to be seen whether institutes worldwide will continue to ignore the importance of zombie-focused microbiology research.
Face/Off is a 1997 movie about craniomaxillofacial allotransplantation, starring John Travolta as an FBI agent and Nicolas Cage as a lunatic terrorist, who undergo a surgical procedure where they switch faces. The two patients rapidly recover from surgery and proceed to perform extremely biologically unsound action movie behaviours. This movie suggests that a transplantation scientist in 1997 had the knowledge of how to successfully perform allografts in the face without extensive rehabilitation, with minimal rejection, without the use of immunosuppressants and with no scarring. In the late 1990s, the first hand transplants took place, and in 2005, the first partial face transplant was performed in France. As of 2015, there have been several cases of successful partial or full vascularized composite allografts of the face in patients who suffered from traumatic injury, burns, or acquired malformations. As it is not impossible that the Face/Off scientist was the most brilliant transplantation immunologist the world has ever seen, and was persuaded to keep his findings private with some form of financial incentive or the like, this review proposes that Face/Off has the least faulty science of the movies discussed.
The progress made in understanding alien immunity and parasitism has underscored its importance. With such a pivotal role in future alien-human contact, research must continue to strive for an understanding of these immune interactions. Clarification of how viruses can create zombies or ZLVs is needed. Finally, further investigation of immunology in movies may shed light on how a scientist could resist publication of transplant immunology’s greatest achievement.
Acknowledgements: This work was supported by years of skeptical viewing of science fiction movies by N.I. The author would like to acknowledge D. Boyle, F. Lawrence, R. Scott, S. Spielberg, and J. Woo as the directors of these movies. We apologize to directors whose works could not be made fun of owing to space limitations. The author declares this article is ridiculous.
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|FBI Federal Bureau of Investigation
SCI-FI Science fiction
USD United States dollars
VLZ Vampire-like zombie
ZLV Zombie-like vampire