Maybe it was my age, maybe it was the captivating performances, maybe it was the spine-tingling terror that the original film induced, but when I watched Alien sometime in the early Nineties (after hearing about from some kid at school who kept impersonating the grunts in the second film, Aliens), I came away breathless with awe. And I don’t remember having too much of a problem with the science either.
Skip forward twenty years, and oh-boy, do I wish I could hold the latest chapter–or prequel–in the Alien franchise, Prometheus, with the same reverence. Not only did I come away thinking that the film failed artistically, emotionally, and most of all, logically, it also must qualify as one of the most excreable examples of Hollywood attempting something the media-execs probably go round calling “Scienze”.
Interesting Scientific American speak with co-screenwriter Jon Spaights about the roots of the film’s mythology, and yet don’t pull him up on any one of the egregious scientific howlers. Guess it’s down to Creepy Treehouse. Spoilers ahoy.
Okay, we’ll begin gently. It’s almost a standard trope that starships will always employ some form of artificial-gravity, but it still pains the rigorous scientist in me when I see the crew of these vessels prancing around as if they were standing on good ol’ Earth. In Prometheus, the rough riding over this universal law is particularly in-yer-face as the AI caretaker character waltzes around playing basketball while riding a bike. Solution? One-gee acceleration out, one-gee deceleration after halfway. Centripetal force. Take your pick. Then you come up with the problem how humanity gets anywhere by the year 2093. FTL anyone?
2. Evolution by natural selection
In possibly the dumbest single moment in the entire film (although maybe not–there’s a lot of them), the “Redshirt” biologist challenges the Scientific Lead when she claims that maybe humanity didn’t evolve on Earth but was put there some tens of thousands of years ago by a “progenitor” species. “You mean, you want us to throw away three hundred years of Darwinism?” he asks. “Yes,” she replies. Argument won.
Woah! Hold your horses. I know this one’s probably for the Creationists, but Darwin’s theory isn’t a theory to explain the last few hundred years of life on Earth. Evolution by natural selection explains the last four billion years of life on Earth. The evidence is deep, diverse, and overwhelming. Humans are genetically related to the most primitive lifeforms that evolved aeons ago. So, either our “progenitor” species seeded life at the dawn of time on Earth and remained essentially the same for the interim period, or they added the homo sapiens species to an existing biosphere, just happening to match the existing DNA. Hmm.
3. Caesarean section
Dr Shaw, after becoming implanted with one of the “stomach rippers” takes the surgical procedures into her own hands when she uses the automated medical facility to extract the critter from her womb. This involves cutting open a ten-inch long gash across her stomah, and using clamps to physically pull the invader out. Afterwards, within minutes, she is running around.
I don’t think so. Her stomach muscles are completely severed, her core strength knocked for six. She’d have trouble getting to the bathroom, never mind outrunning a crashing alien spaceship.
The critter that she does pull from her stomach doesn’t die, of course. Despite being exposed to the automated facility’s “decontamination” procedures. Okay, I’ll buy that. What I won’t buy is the same organism then going on to become a giant octopus of writhing, carniverous tentacles with serious kissing-with-tongues issues that is bigger than the hulking white supermensch–when it has nothing else to eat. Conservation of mass. Come on, that’s basic!
In one scene, David, the mission’s AI awakens one of the Engineers, and in perfect Engineer language, doesn’t ask the obvious question–where do you guys relax?–but instead quizes the three-metre giant if Biff, sorry Peter Weyland, can suck on some special immortality juice before he kicks the bucket. Unless David has already had contact with the Engineer language–and I grant being an AI might give him learning advantages so as not to need as much time as us meat-sacks–there is no way he could’ve learnt the verbal language from a bunch of cuneiforms. (Why an advanced space-faring civilization would still be writing in triangles on stone like they were still at Playschool is another mystery).
6. Biological contamination
In one memorable and horrific scene, Meridith Vickers, the cold-hearted Weyland Industries representative, makes a stand on their vessel’s Entry Deck after an expedition to the alien pyramid goes wrong, and the group tries to bring back a clearly sick Dr Holloway. Despite half the crew breathing in the exoplanet air and opening themselves up to airborn infection on the first day, the dissection of an alien head with no quarantine procedures, and the obvious fact that Dr Holloway was probably infectious earlier in the day WHEN aboard the ship, Vickers torches him anyway.
And there’s lots more, but maybe someone else would like to point out what’s wrong with electrical stimulation of a two-thousand year old head, dating an archaeological site in the blink of an eye, professional scientists who dismiss evidence and instead “choose to believe”.
Damon Lindelof, the other co-writer recently said: “In really, really good science fiction the line between the science and the fiction is blurry.” I’m surprised Mr Lindelof is even able to make such a statement given the obvious paucity of his scientific knowledge.
For a discussion on the gaping plot holes, sorry, plot abysses (you just can’t get round these problems), see this post. And for a mainstream film that gets the science right go see Contagion.