Why shouldn’t you get your science from Prometheus?

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.

1. Gravity

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.

4. Biomass

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!

5. Linguistics

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.

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28 thoughts on “Why shouldn’t you get your science from Prometheus?

  1. Anatoli says:

    Very good points all of them. This movie…. *sigh*…

    You also have to wonder about the alien life forms and the ridiculous amount of steps in their life cycle/evolution from egg becoming a mini squid to the alien “queen” in the last scene.

    I think Ridley Scott is as responsible as those who wrote this crap. How could anyone with half a brain not spot all of this mess – one can only assume that he didn’t care.

  2. Brian Crab says:

    Great post! On point (2), let’s suppose the Engineers seeded all life 3.8 billion years ago by dropping the first self-replicating molecule in Earth’s primordial soup…

    1) How would they know their hominid species would be created by natural selection? Dinosaurs were probably the best bet for developing intelligence before the totally random Yucatan peninsula asteroid.

    2) How likely is it humans would visit the Engineers at the exact moment in their evolution when both species DNA “perfectly matched”?

    Disappointing! From the movie poster and the trailer, I thought the whole mystery of the movie was we a) figured out aliens seeded all life on earth, then b) discovered a human-shaped statue on a alien world. That’s an intriguing idea! It would mean aliens have been twiddling with earth’s environment for billions of years with the goal of creating homo sapiens – the same way we create dog breeds but on a massive, geological time scale. Why? That’s the movie I wanted to see 🙂

  3. Robin Jubber says:

    Hi – great article! Your perspective and mine are not dissimilar. I’ve only seen the film once, which was enough, or I’d have torn it into smaller pieces. http://rjubber.blogspot.co.uk/ I also agree with Anatoli – just how many different forms does this particular bio weapon take?

  4. Days later I’m still reeling over how ill-conceived so much of this movie was. It’s annoying that defenders of Lindelof et al. will probably develop some convoluted “explanation” of that seeding scene at the beginning i.e. it wasn’t on Earth, but on the bio-weapon planet. Or that the fact the bio-weapon had so many different forms was a consequence of some information we haven’t been given. It’s just sloppy storytelling.

    Anatoli–I think you’re probably right about Ridley Scott. The problems are so basic that they could’ve been eliminated way before filming begun. Depressing.

  5. DeadRabbit says:

    Here is the biggest plot hole I found with the movie….They found all these drawings around the world, in different cultures of people worshipping a giant being who was pointing at a star constelation. So, the Engineers, either came back every few thousand years to see the progress of life on earth and made their presence known to the civilizations then showed the people what to draw on the walls, and then for some reason stopped showing up (probably got into an intergalactic war with the Predator species…the markings on the walls of the structure on the planet did look very Predatorish). Or, they just showed up every few thousand years, did the drawings themselves to show the evolving species they should worship them, or they would reign down biological hell fire from their warstations in this constelation that none of them could see( thats what I can figure is why they would show that star constellation with a planet of biological death on it), and of course stopped returning to the planet when the Engineer Predator war broke out. Or, they are a superior species of sado/masachists with a god complex, and did this intentionally, knowing that eventually we would evolve enough to find out the star constellation, travel there and be completely massacred, probably some kind of Predator influence in there. Ooooooor, the guy in the beginning, was a rouge with a SUPER GOD COMPLEX and created life on earth when he wasnt supposed to, and when the others found out, they figured life would probably die off and not be a problem, but if so, we will leave them a map to our military base, and when they show we will then head to earth and eradicate it…Something Predator. My point is, screw the why did they create us question! How did those drawings get on all those walls, and why would they point us in the direction of that system? (another viable option is they just picked the wrong planetoid body to land on in that system, and the big dude, just started killing them because he couldnt let the biological weapon escape….but thats shot through because he trys to head to earth afterwards)

    • lazyfruit says:

      In the first scene, the Engineer drinks the black goo from an ornate container. His body totally disintegrates. If there’s any explanation for the cave drawings, it’s that a similar drawing was written on the container.

      Of course, that doesn’t explain away the fundamental question of why humans (and hence the Engineers) share 97% of their generic code with chimps and bonobos.

      • DeadRabbit says:

        While I didnt notice the drawing on the container in the first scene, its a pretty long stretch to think that the container made it to all of those different civs and then each chose to draw it on a wall. But apparently there was also an interview with Scott where he said that the first scene may not have been earth, which would answer how the weapon got loose and caused all the fuss on LV223.

  6. owen says:

    Hi. I’ve just seen this film. I’m not claiming to be a massive Alien fan or know all the ins and out of the whole franchise but one thing puzzles me, maybe it’s some thing I’ve missed. One of the big things about this film was that it was going to expalin the “space jockey” So we see the big white guy climb into what I assume it his ships guidance control and attempt to take off. He promptly crashes and is discovered years later in Alien, However, in Prometheus, he appraently gets out of this control chair and goes after Dr Shaw. SO, who or what is still sitting in the chair when it’s discovered by the cast of Alien?

  7. Junco Bath says:

    Since we have no idea what technology will be like in 80 years, I think this is all a little silly and nitpicky. Most of the plot elements you guys are faulting could easily be explained by some technological advance or alien science that we are not meant to fully understand. Suspend your disbelief a little.

    Could you really enjoy a film that took the time to explain that maybe other processes were at work in the automated surgery machine that minimized actual tissue damage and/or accelerated healing? Who knows/cares? Such details would burden the plot and make the film unwatchable.

    Anyway regarding your 2nd point, “three hundred years of Darwinism” refers not to how long natural selection has been operative, rather how long the theory itself has been in existence.

    • Dr. Butt says:

      Yeah, 80 years is not going to change immutable facts of science. If things could be explained by “alien science,” why do all the characters, except for Shaw and Holloway, scoff at the idea of going into space to discover aliens? It doesn’t seem like they give that idea much credence (which is a whole other point that makes the movie not make any sense). Anyway, you can’t change the fact that conservation of mass is a scientific fact and that scientific expeditions, which this was suppoed to be, have decontamination protocols that not one of these scientists followed. You can only suspend disbelief so far before it snaps in two.

      • John Cochtosten says:

        I agree with Junco Bath for the most part. It’s called science-fiction for a reason. Not to mention that Moore’s law describes the growth of technology as an exponential curve rather than a linear one, so it’s hard to predict exactly where our technology will be in 80-years.

        The problems this movie had weren’t in the “science.” It was an incredibly dumb script, and I don’t just mean the dialogue. Many scenes were random, and had little bearing on the rest of the movie. They attempted to give the characters little affectations (i.e. the Captain playing Stephen Stills’ accordion) in an attempt to give them more dimensionality, but then getting lazy and not building on them. Lines of dialogue introducing critical information (“I can’t create life) were delivered at the last second, rather than earlier when we would have had time to process what they meant to the characters. The characters make incredibly stupid decisions, oftentimes in direct contradiction to their already established traits (the cowardly biologist suddenly wanting to touch the alien life form, despite being too scared to go into the chamber earlier; Noomi’s character asking to perform a reanimation procedure on a 2000 year old head despite the risk of it damaging a precious artifact and her being an archeologist).

        I could go on and on…

      • As Dr. Butt says, we might not be able to anticipate technological changes over the next eighty years, but established scientific findings are extremely unlikely to be overturned i.e. Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, conservation of mass/energy, ideas about disease proliferation and non-contamination procedures. In other words, there is no such thing as “alien” science–science is the empirical investigation of universal phenomena, and carbon double-bond is a carbon double-bond whether you’re on Earth or light-years away. Suspending my disbelief was not possible given how grevious the assaults on credibility.

        Forgetting the science in a science-fiction film that is making some sociological point is one thing. Forgetting it in a film that is centred around a scientific expedition and is obviously trying to make extravagant claims as to the origin of the species is something else. All in all the film is garbage on many levels, but what really sticks in my craw is the fact films like this help contribute to a culture of scientific illiteracy–in a century when the future of civilization might depend on a scientifically informed citizenry.

      • John Cochtosten says:

        Stephen, my comment wasn’t meant to defend the scientific errors or to excuse them in any way. Charlize Theron’s character even makes a comment about their traveling “half a billion miles” when it’s a vastly greater distance. That kind of stuff is pretty stupid and should have been cross-checked before production started.

        But I think it’s a bit of a leap to criticize Prometheus by saying it contributes to scientific illiteracy. I don’t think anyone is going to use Prometheus to disprove Darwinism. People who do that will just stick with the Bible. Faster than light ships are something that a great many sci-fi stories rely upon, and many films also effortlessly depict artificial gravity on spaceships. Even Star Trek, which does a decent job of keeping the “science” in science-fiction, still contains the physics defying element of fiery explosions and sounds in space battles. I’m not saying they don’t have a responsibility to keep the science mostly accurate, just that, ultimately, they are creating a work of entertainment using their imaginations.

        Lindelof and Scott share a lot of responsibility for the script, though. That thing is a total mess.

      • The “half a billion” throwaway comment didn’t bother me too much, because I took it as a figure of speech like, for example, “we’re a million miles away from getting astronauts on Mars”.

        I still think Prometheus, in its small way, contributes to an atmosphere of scientific marginalization. Sure, it’s entertainment first and foremost, but it has secondary baggage that it brings with it that people who aren’t informed take away. Think of the way scientists are portrayed in the mainstream media. They’re almost exclusively depicted as dangerous renegades imperilling society e.g. Craig Ventner messing around with the human genome, climate scientists portrayed as misleading the public, environmental scientists as undermining economic growth. Maybe if we had some better portrayals of scientists in mass entertainment–as humane, rational individuals rather than egotistical idiots (Splice, Jurassic Park etc etc) these cheap news stories might not be easily written and would be challenged more readily. Unfortunately, Prometheus doesn’t help.

      • Eric Francis says:

        It is quite pretentious to assert that in a universe so large and ancient as ours, that it is impossible for a creature to have evolved in a way that it somehow grows exponentially in a short amount of time.

        To quote a line in Aliens… “It must be something we havent seen yet”

        Have a little humility toward how old and vast the universe is… and the kind of odd creatures it could have spawned.

      • I’m all for odd creatures springing up across the vast tracts of space of time that is the universe. However, as a physicist who believes in the symmetry of time and space–in other words, conservation of energy and momentum–then I expect any alien life we find to obey these physical laws. In this case, unless the creature was eating the furniture, I couldn’t understand where it got its mass.

        In any case, as a broader point to good storytelling, if the plot created relies on moments when anything can happen, then the story is rendered effectively meaningless.

      • Robin Jubber says:

        In reply to Eric Francis – “It is quite pretentious” – you don’t mean that word – “to assert that in a universe so large and ancient as ours, that it is impossible for a creature to have evolved in a way that it somehow grows exponentially in a short amount of time.”

        I think it’s quite reasonable to assert that a creature hasn’t evolved that, in an enclosed space, can grow in size to be practically larger than the room itself without apparently consuming any raw materials. I don’t think you need to be a top notch biologist or physicist to suggest evolution would struggle to throw up an organism that can convert air into sold muscle and bone. Or have found itself in an environment where such a facility would be necessary. For instance no matter how large the universe I confidently predict no organism has evolved in a heart of a star. There are no zero-point-energy consuming vacuum dwelling jellyfish that have evolved to breed when they pick up the Radio 4 shipping forecast. Big universe could be uniform universe = ie could still equal very few actual types of lifeform. It’s quite possible that evolutionary pressures are broadly the same everywhere and all the lifeforms are all pretty similar in function and physical organisation.

        Also – xenomorphs and humans, in the film, clearly inhabit a tiny subsection of the large and ancient universe you speak of, as they’ve met, and it seems reasonable to suggest this small sphere probably adheres to the same laws of physics across it’s volume. It doesn’t seem particularly pretentious or arrogant to suggest that for a lifeform to evolve possessing the abilities of the aliens in Prometheus would be somewhere between vastly unlikely and functionally impossible.

        But wait – there are still people trying to defend Prometheus on any other level than as an engaging bit of attractive fluff? That film is as dumb as a bag of spanners. Time to accept and move on.

  8. CC says:

    One of the wonderful things about the first two alien movies is that the life cycle of the alien is clear and relatively simple and, most importantly, it makes sense within the world of the movie. The Queen lays eggs, the face-huggers hatch find a victim and then lay an “egg” or pupate inside of the host, then of course, the final xenomorph emerges from the chest of the hose bearing some of the host’s attributes. It is scary and elegant and makes sense. It follows its own rules. It is terrifying genius.
    In Prometheus the “alien” is first a goo, then tiny worms, then a snake tentacle thing, then a zombie creating plague, then some kind of jungle parasite that can grow out of your eye, then a STD, then a baby octopus, then a gigantic face hugger then a weird version of the original xenomorph. Why? It is unsatisfying and pointless. I actually think that they explained too much in this movie and ended up ruining a lot of the Alien franchise by doing so.

  9. starjunkie says:

    Was it 3.29 x 100,000,000,000,000 kms? (10 to the 14th power?) Thats 329 trillion kms in two years! light only travels at 5.88 trillion miles a year! thats more than 50x the speed of light!

  10. Onikun says:

    I’ve been working through some of these problems (and (re-)teaching myself some science and math) on IMDB. (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1446714/board/edit/200251336)

    I’d appreciate it if you could take a look at the thread and add any details you think I may have missed – or math and assumptions I got wrong.
    You can of course use the information in your blog as well.

  11. Xavier says:

    Great points, all of which pulled me out of fully enjoying the movie. I’m no scientist and neither were any of the characters in the film, and if so, they were some of the worst money could buy. I can understand that I could miss some of the themes presented as I’m not up on my Greek mythology and/or the history of the film write-up, but I do know that professional researchers don’t do what this people did, as well as a crew lacking in preparedness for the conditions that arouse, and the oddity of little squid becoming room sized face hugger squid. Yes it looked great, and had a good performance by Fassbender, but that’s not enough.

  12. Minion says:

    I can answer all questions. Protocols were ignored because science will often cut corners for answers. In this case the ultimate questioned was (so they thought) about to be answered and they had already waited (slept) 2 years just to get there.

    The alien at the beginning is not on planet earth when he drinks the goo.

    The aliens thought whatever race may evolve on earth would eventually become space worthy. The maps are meant to send them (humans) to the alien military installation in case we came in guns blazing. Wouldn’t want to fight on their own home world.

    The women ran in a straight line from the crashed alien ship because well… They’re women! It was that or trip and fall like most do in slasher movies.

    The Prometheus has FTL drives (see BattleStar Galactica).

    David had been told to silence those two once he found a cure for the old man which is was he gave Halloway the goo and left the girl they were not meant to survive.

    My biggest question which I will admit I missed the first time is why in the hell is Janek wearing a Game of Thrones T-Shirt 80 years in the future? Yes watch it again.

  13. kiljoy616 says:

    This movie has Scientology and Religion written all over it. Forget the plot holes this movie has that creationism funded all over it. Its a bad movie with money to make it look at least good. Its not a new movie and for the most part most movie in the last few years are terrible to start with, sure the money is spent but the plots are those of a night school play.

    Game of Throne T shirt maybe it is a collectors item like old vintage clothes. Who knows the movie was a mess just hope it bombed at the box office but in today’s brainless society I can see it still making money.

  14. […] Oh, and for those of you looking for a more informed, science-based look at the gaping holes woven together to form the net of this film, check out Stephen Gaskell’s post over at Creepy Treehouse. […]

  15. Xenolicker says:

    Hello Prometheus haters! This movie is out of sight! You’re all alive in the superunknown!

  16. Silent_Dan says:

    Horror movies just have horrible logic, almost universally. They tend to focus on cheep scares and special effects, and figure that’s good enough. It’s like how Michael Bay thinks ‘Explosions = story’. The early days of film, when average viewers didn’t tend to know stories as well, might have gotten away with such terrible story-telling; today’s viewers are waaaaaaaay savvier about stories, because of the access to all this stuff online. People back in the Old West, not so much. But now, with the internet, we can read about how badly movies miss their own plot holes. And we can wise up to the bullshit studio executives – who are rarely if ever writers themselves – try to pull over audiences. It’ll take a long time to get them to think in terms of story, not tick-box plots and easy stereotypes, but the fact that movies are often bombing due to poor story-telling and plot-execution is starting to become a death-knell for studios who don’t know how to write movies, and whose audiences are turning on them, and who are desperately clinging to the formulaic methods for guaranteeing success by doing what’s always worked. And for what looks spectacular. And for the easy shock and awe.

    Which is why they NEED writers. You don’t get a great movie out of a swarm of business executives, politics, committees and competing egos. You get it by Understanding Story. Executives screwing writers is what leads to bad movies, nine times out of ten. Movie-making is a complicated business, and it’s amazing movies get made at all. But you can get a better experience by keeping the story coherent and not changing elements without knowing what it’ll do to the story overall. Of course location availability, actor personalities, and other competing business interests tend to dictate changes that a writer has no real say in. Which sucks balls. But that’s the way it goes I guess.

    Man, that part where she ran away from the rolling ship by RUNNING IN ITS PATH was just the worst part of an awful movie filled with so much bad horror film logic.

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