So I unexpectedly got a ticket to see the screening of Ridley Scott’s Prometheus on Wednesday. I think it’s because I was nice to Fox and ran that competition for Tim Burton’s 9 that one time where people won sweet ass picture encyclopaedias. That was fun. Anyway. Here’s my review of Prometheus with a look at the science behind it. There will be spoilers. So if you want to go into the movie knowing nothing, and yet insist on reading this blogpost first, you’re going to have a bad time.
Anyway, the science. The basic premise of Prometheus is that humans discover a star map coded into the scribblings of a dozen ancient races, and decide to follow it in the hopes of meeting their maker, an alien race they refer to as the Engineers. Kind of like Frankenstein, but in reverse. The monster in search of his master. Or maybe Blade Runner from the replicants’ point of view. Naturally, within a couple of years, the “scientists” Shaw and her improbably good-looking husband Holloway have convinced ageing bazillionaire Weyland (played by Guy Pearce in a load of face rubber; please for the love of Zeus Hollywood stop pulling this shit, there must be some old actors you can hire) to fund their billion mile space jaunt to an as-yet unvisited moon that can support life, where they think they’ll find their ancestors/makers/answers.
Pretty much the scantest project brief ever. It doesn’t really make sense, because none of the human races were in contact with each other (a fact the movie explicitly states), and arise at different times, which means if the aliens did make people, they must have kept coming back or left reminders or something. But then stopped doing this around 1,000 BC. Go figure. Knowledge of the ancients. With Shaw and Holloway on board, the total number of people on the ship who know what they’re actually doing on this trip is: two. Everyone else has to be briefed on arrival. That’s several more “scientists”, some muscle, the flight crew, an android called David who is Weyland’s surrogate son, and Charlize Theron’s bitch of a manager/executive/not really sure. Seriously guys? Cinema trips with my pals are better prepared than this. No one thought to ask what they’d be doing when they signed up for a 4 year round trip to a new planet? The money must be really good.
You might notice I keep putting scientists in inverted commas. That’s because the scientists in this film are that special breed of Hollywood hyperpolymaths, as they’re at home on archaeological digs and geological expeditions, then slicing up alien corpses, then carrying out medical procedures on eachother. In the future, specialism is so out. Everyone’s a Multidisciplinologist! Shaw seems to be some kind of Creation Science graduate as she’s hoping to find God, or maybe not find God, on the moon. That’s a bit weird filter for an archaeologist to bear, seeing as it explicitly colours her theories and research, but there you go.
Holloway is the materialist, seeking hard answers straight from the Space Jockey’s mouth. Android David doubles as the linguist, using the 2 year outbound voyage to catch up on his ancient Sumerian/Cuneiform, which apparently will let him speak to the Engineers (again, this doesn’t really make any sense, but whatever. Also, a four-year round trip and you people are hypersleeping? Lazy gits. Darwin rolled on the Beagle for five years, and you better believe he didn’t spend all that time in bed. Catch up on your emails or something). Sean Harris’ geologist, as he points out “just came to make money”. I’m not really sure what kind of scientists Kate Dickie and Rafe Spall are supposed to be. But there’s a variety of views and temperaments, so while the notion of “science” in the movie is pretty fuzzy, as characters they’re a well defined, likeable bunch. And the lab coats only get worn in the lab. Extra points for that, Hollywood.
As we’ve discussed, this is probably the most slap-dash, ill-prepared scientific mission ever. No one really knows what to expect, and they only carry out atmospheric analysis on arrival to let them know if they can step out onto the surface without dying instantly. On the upside, they have gorgeous space suits to go out in (costume designer and long-time Scott collaborator Janty Yates deserves high praise). Holloway is the spitting image of Commander Shepard of the Normandy in his suit, which I liked for no clever reason. The scientific techniques carried out during the movie are a bit hit and miss. Conceptually, items such at the moving arm scanner on the hospital bed, and what I will only refer to as the “coin-operated vivisection chamber”, are ace, and a good extrapolation of emerging technology. They’re swish and smooth and white and very much like Apple products. And like Apple products, the people using them don’t really seem to know what they’re doing.
A ‘perfectly preserved’ alien head is sterilised in an autoclave before biopsy. The same head is carbon dated, which doesn’t make a lick of sense as the scientists have no idea what the C14 levels are on the planet where the alien lived, so they’ve no reference data. We know it can’t be the C14 present in the air here, as nothing grows on the moon. NOBODY FOLLOWS ANY KIND OF BIOHAZARD PROTOCOL. One of them brings a biowarfare agent onto the ship in a bloody duffel bag, and Mickey Finns a colleague with it. Two more decide to camp in a room filled with the oozing black goo. Guys, seriously, that stuff looks dangerous. Don’t put that in your mouth. Haven’t you ever heard of airborne infections? Put your bloody helmets back on! It’s like a primary school trip to Vozrozhdeniya Island. The alien DNA is a “100% match” to our own. I’m not sure what this means. That we’re them, obviously. But 100%? I share 99% of my DNA with a chimp. Does that mean they made chimps too? But if they’re a 100% match for us, where did they get the extra 1% DNA we don’t share with chimps? Do they use some other DNA that they manufactured? Does that mean the Engineers made all life on Earth or just kick it off and let it evolve? If the latter, why did they let chimps evolve but make us out of a mould? Doesn’t that mean, at the end of the day, that chimps have a better reason to meet the Engineers, as they clawed their way up from a protist to resemble their gods? This movie probably would have worked better if it had come out in the 1950, before Hershey and Chase published their ideas. Or maybe 1850.
As our heroes approach the moon, there’s a shot of the spaceship as it floats in front of a ringed gas giant. And of course, those rings are popping out in 3D. Which is jarringly wrong, because the huge depth perception I’m experiencing means either my eyes have suddenly become two million kilometres apart, or the spaceship has shrunk to the size of a flea. I really, really think this stuff matters. It’s like suddenly catching sight of of the stage lighting rig, or a really obvious matte painting. Or shooting a planet in tilt-shift. Anyway, on arrival, the world is covered in snow and lightning and clouds and mountains but inexplicably nothing green, so I guess they were wrong about it being able to support life. The atmosphere is 20% oxygen but isn’t suitable for humans, by virtue of its 3% carbon dioxide, enough to make Al Gore rise from his grave and film another documentary. The thing is, didn’t anyone bother to check this first? Who filled out the OSHA forms for this mission? Look, I never studied chemistry, but I know that by bubbling it through some calcium oxide, you could scrub your air of carbon dioxide. Did anyone pack quicklime hookas to let them breathe on the surface of this moon? Did they hell. The strange thing is that the atmosphere is modified inside the alien’s moon base. This suggests that the Engineers can’t breathe the moon’s atmosphere either, which makes sense if they’re a perfect genetic match with us. But if that’s the case, why are the Engineers all wearing breathing apparatus inside the base? And why is one very angry Engineer able to wander unsuited outside the base to chase Shaw without suffocating?
When our heroes arrive on the moon, they find it deserted, filled with the corpses of the Engineers. It seems their bug spray (ha-ha) got loose, probably because they stacked it in thousands of leaky vases that melt when creatures with their exact genetic signature enter the room. So there are essentially four non-human species on this planet. The Engineers, their liquid facehugger cakemix, and the resulting aliens. It’s hinted that the Engineers were overrun by the xenomorphs, and quite a few have big holes in their chests, which is a bad sign. But there are no xenomorphs to be seen. Remember that. We find that the bug spray has very inconsistent effects. In the stockroom, it turns into snake-like facehuggers. At least, I thought it did, until I remembered the split second shot of the worms crawling around on the floor. What are these worms eating?? Why do they exist when nothing else is alive? Anyway, the bug spray combines with the worms to make snake facehuggers. When a human gets in contact with the bug spray, they get very sick, and if they’re not barbecued, they turn into a super powered zombie. I wish I was making that up. Unless they’re tainted in the biblical sense, where upon the goop turns into an enormous facehugger squid. Sometimes if Engineers are exposed to the bug spray, they melt and seed life on a planet. At least, I think they do. It might have been a different goop that the makes the Engineers do that. Weirdly, the only human to get a kiss from a facehugger never gets a follow-up. The creature leaps from his gullet, leaves him for dead, and we never hear of him again. No chestburster, nothing. But here’s the rub: if the Engineers were wiped out by xenomorphs, where did the acid-spitters go? The film ends with a lone, proper, acid-spitting xenomorph left on the planet. We know from experience (and Alien) that a single creature will become a queen, lay some eggs, and presumably pass away. If that’s the case, the Engineer’s base should be chock-full of alien eggs, just as the crew of the Nostromo find it to be when they land. But there aren’t any. Just what exactly is going on?
For what it’s worth, the Engineers (I really believe the original script wanted them to be called Titans, which would make sense, but recent blockbuster films ruled that out), are very big, and very angry. So angry that one, woken from hypersleep several thousand years late (do they not have timer locks on these bloody things?) immediately goes on the rampage. His first instinct is to kill all humans (and androids) present. And then get in his ship to kill a whole planet humans with his bayload of bug spray. Dude, aren’t you even going to check in with your commanding officer first? Why is it so important to bomb Earth? There are humans stood right in front of you! They clearly know how to reach other planets. So what advantage is there in wiping out everyone on Earth? Your roaches have spread. Which leads me onto the biggest problem in Prometheus: why the heck did the Engineers leave a map on Earth to the location of a remote military base where they’re stockpiling biological weapons? A base they established for the sole purpose of wiping out Earth’s humans? What possible sense does that make?
I was entertained by Prometheus, really I was. It had shocks (if little suspense), it looked beautiful, the acting was top notch and the characterisation great. And the science that I’ve picked apart here – none of it was crucial to the plot. It doesn’t really matter how the Engineers make their goop, or how their base stays pressurised when its got great gaping holes in it. It doesn’t matter that everyone’s feet stay on the ground on the spaceship, or how a facehugger grows to giant size with no obvious food source. It’s the application of these slices of science fiction, in a haphazard an inconsistent way, that let the film down. Fiction is all about constructing rules for your imaginary world and ensuring that everything inside that universe sticks to those rules. When they don’t, the viewer is lost amongst so many pretty slices of celluloid. It feels, like so many films to come out of Hollywood lately, that there is a conflict between the director, the scriptwriter and the producer, each trying to make a different film. Is it a horror like Alien? A noirish cerebral like Blade Runner? Like Frankenstein’s Monster, it feels grafted together and pumped into life, with expert attention to the process and none to what the end result will be. This a movie that, if it became sentient, would hunt down its makers and ask the very questions its heroes want answers to: why am I here, why did you make me, what is my purpose?