The Science of Prometheus - a review, containing a lot of spoilers

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.

The Mission
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.

The Scientists
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.

Just wait til the Kent Hovind Institute gets a load of my new paper!

Just wait til the Kent Hovind Institute gets a load of my new paper!

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.

The Science
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.

Hey guys, look at that sign. What the hell is "BSL-4?"

Hey guys, look at that sign. What the hell is "BSL-4?"

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.

The Environment
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?

Dammit, who put alien biowarfare agent in my coffee, again?

Dammit, who put alien biowarfare agent in my coffee, again?

The Aliens
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?

Military plans
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?

In conclusion
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?


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Nostromo :)

By Steve Wilson (not verified) on 31 May 2012 #permalink

Thanks for the interesting review.

I'm wondering of Bladerunner would fare much better, though? The "replicants" never made any real sense to me. (If they're robots why are they made of tissue? If they're made of tissue why are they built and not grown?) The movie still works despite that, though.

It does sound like Alien might fare better. Apart from a few blunders (sound in space, etc.), it's not too bad as far as the science goes (although it doesn't overexplain things, and its characters are mostly blue collar workers, not scientists).

By Mike Keesey (not verified) on 31 May 2012 #permalink

Like wow dude. Did you not get the science? That's why it's called fantasy and fiction. Movies are made for juvies nowadays, not for 30 something writers with nothing else to do. You'd probably complain if they spent time explaining the force fields and selectively permeable membranes in the filters. It's a paen to the question of life.

By Robert Ando (not verified) on 31 May 2012 #permalink

Ta Steve - fixed!
Mike - to be fair, it's never stated that the replicants are robots! They're a good example of not trying to over-explain stuff - it doesn't matter how they're made, just that they're nigh-on identical to humans. (on the flip side, anyone remember Midi-chlorians?.... sigh)
Robert - I address this in the final para. It's the one just above the comments.

Excellent review. From it I deduce you play Mass Effect, probably on the XBox360, king of consoles. Top man.

By Terry Harvey-C… (not verified) on 01 Jun 2012 #permalink

WHAT on EARTH (or rather: moon of a far away Saturn) is wrong with movies depicting scientists/engineers/professionals?

What kind of professional scientists/engineers (I don't mean "Engineers") go and rush to touch every flipping thing that moves or is biological without any caution. Who throws off his face masks, without any such concern as: “Hey, we’re in completely alien territory here, maybe we could become infected if we don't take EVERY PRECAUTION WE CAN." Scientists, engineers and technicians at such a level and especially ones who go on NASA-like missions are not silly little children. They are incredibly alert to the sheer number of risks they will face, and how isolated they are from outside help, that they proceed with real caution foresight, planning, etc..

The sloppy attitude of everyone in that stupid crew is in light of this, so cringeworthy. What bloody captain is so lax by communication? Why does he go off duty (is there even duty in this half-a55ed crew?) without leaving anyone in charge? Why the heck does the BIOLOGIST touch the alien thing…especially when it looks like a COBRA.

I hope, I really hope, that researchers, engineers, etc. world-wide who see this pile of junk film will cringe at this idiotic representation.

We were sitting through this film thinking, "you know what, this crew is so full of flipping morons, they deserve to become wasted by these aliens."

Now as regards the story, the time-length of this film is far too short. On scientific expiditions normally for anything slightly interesting to happen, it can take days, weeks, months. Oh but hey, we'll have it all happen in 2 days: finding the right place to land, finding an alien cavern/ship, finding alien tech, finding alien corpses, finding biological weapons, aliens evolving about 3 or 4 times, etc. etc..

I would not compare this film with sci-fi ones from ages ago: I would compare them to what's come recently out. The main one I would compare it to is Avatar. Now that film had it right. Whatever flaws it possessed, it had a realistic cautious science crew, and a LONG time-line, so that we, the audience, felt like this was really happening. (The only bumbling-touching-everything morons in that film were: the soldier placed into a scientific/military mission role — and that made a lot of sense with his character and the context of the story — and the businessman, which also made sense, since having a conflict of interest, he cared only about some product and not about the interests of preserving native life, etc..)

B1ooc|y he|| think things through a little — no actually, a LOT — before producing such a piece of junk!

I should say something positive tho:

1. the Introduction was excellent.
2. the Android was a great and well-played character — and his evolution was, unlike everything in the rest of the film, acceptably paced: e. g. he had years to learn the languages (although as pointed out: speaking an extinct (in the human world) language known found by archeologists, is rather incredible(=not credible))
3. the Bridge room scenes (apart from the chaotic idiocy at the end) were well done — it was clear what had happened: David sprung the trap and indicated the Homeworld of the returning foreigners(=the humans).

However, I must say one more negative thing. It’s really cringeworthy to have so much chaos happen and see so little success: esp. when the chaos came down mostly to idiocy and incompetence on the part of the characters.

Who's to say these Space Jockeys/Engineers aren't a splinter group, and would never have wanted this contact from humans. The coordinates were left by more benign areas of the race. Or maybe they were left initially with love, and later hatred at our failings. I'm interested as to why there was the mural of the alien in the area with the statue. Why have that as their Sistine Chapel? A place of worship? Reminds me of Ash's comments in Alien, which suggested the Xenomorph was perfect and pure. Makes me think of a nightmarish, black Blakean dragon.

Lastly, correct me if I'm wrong, but that's not the same planet as in Alien, is it? When David says there's other ships he can pilot I took it as the film letting us know, there's even more out there in the universe. And that these aliens on this particular ship aren't the same bioweapons as the ones the Nostromo discovers. But then why have the mural and the alien in the final scene. There's definitely gaping holes in the plot....

Whilst I commend you for your attention to detail, you missed one thing, Frank - this isn't LV426. The alien birthed at the end doesn't lay the eggs you're thinking of in Alien. This is an entirely differently planet, LV223.

By Ben Bowen (not verified) on 08 Jun 2012 #permalink

Nice, just one correction this isn't set on the same planet as the one Alien starts on. Thus opening more plot holes but at least explaining why the Nostromo set doesn't tie in with the end of this film.

By Bobby Boberson (not verified) on 09 Jun 2012 #permalink

There's another piece of evidence from the film that suggests a lack of attention to detail. One of the human civilizations who left an image of the alien star map was the Hawaiian civilization. Hawaii was populated between 300 CE and 1100 CE. In other words the Hawaiian civilization didn't exist at the point ( 2000 years ago, according to the story) when the engineers were wiped out by the alien/xenomorph.

Great article! I knew lots of this science stuff watching it, being a biologist who would NEVER EVER touch alien snake things myself, but still enjoyed the hell out of it as you did. At some point I decided they were intentionally making everybody stupid to underline humanity's hubris (or something) and as a wink-wink to horror/sci-fi movie tropes. This may not be true, but it helped me enjoy it more.

So, I'm not entirely clear on the xenopmorph life cycle to begin with, but wouldn't the alien mama at the end be a totally new stage in evolution, since it presumably incorporated human DNA during the whole Holloway impregnating Shaw bit? Or maybe the acid-spitters died off leaving the goo stage as insurance, since there were no more hosts to facehug. Maybe the Xenos are smarter than we think, and somehow infected the last Engineer to pilot their eggy vase things to another planet full of hosts, zombie-caterpillar style.

I agree that the movie wasn't entirely consistent, but it was still a great ride, and maybe subsequent sequels will explain things a bit more, if they happen.

You're an idiot. The film went over your head.

By Tom Strong (not verified) on 09 Jun 2012 #permalink

Nice review, Frank! However, I have one question regarding your "Kind of like Frankenstein, but in reverse. The monster in search of his master." lines - isn't a major part of 'Frankenstein' actually about the monster in search of his master?

I've been assuming that Peter Weyland is Prometheus because he wants to steal the secret of immortality from the Engineers. That's why David infects the crew member with some of the black goo. He's monitoring for effects that might lead to the discovery of anti-ageing properties. It may not be a good example of the scientific method but it would be consistent with Weyland's morality. So here are two questions for the brains trust here. What's the science that allows a robot to interface with the dreams of the crew members in hibernation? It's later repeated with the alien sleeper. And how does David know how to operate all this alien kit? Are the walls covered with Alien Tech Handbook for Robot Dummies?

By David Marshall (not verified) on 10 Jun 2012 #permalink

@David Marshall- I thought David infected Holloway with the goo because Holloway was a jerk. It seemed to me that he was sort of sabotaging Weyland, with his whole "we all want to kill our parents" line, so it doesn't really make sense that he would run his "experiment" at Weyland's behest. We also have no idea what he said to the Engineer concerning Weyland's question.

As far as David seeing their dreams, aren't our dreams brainwaves? If he had a sophisticated enough sensor, he might be programmed to pick up on them or translate them through whatever monitoring equipment was attached. For the alien kit operation, he probably runs algorithms in his head to known Earth console operating instructions, and maybe also to possible language configurations, to figure out the most likely commands. If the stuff is organic, there could also be some sort of chemical signal he's getting off of them, as well.

You missed one glaring plot hole that undermines the very theory behind the mission...

Holloway demonstrates his thesis by showing the same "map" produced by civilizations that "shared no contact with one another".

The problem is that three of these Civilizations, namely Babylonia, Sumeria and Egypt were connected. In fact the connection between Babylonian and Sumeria was so strong that many proclamations were written in both Akkadian (the Semitic language) and Sumerian. This fact is the basis of the original translation of Sumerian. What makes this simple error so egregious is that the Wikipedia article on Babylonia mentions this. No need to do any in depth research there.
It is also now commonly believed that there were contacts between Sumeria and Egypt, and there were certainly contacts between Egypt and Babylonia.
Given these simple mistakes, one wonders what research, if any, was done,

Julian, was Egypt one of the civilizations mentioned?
I thought it was Babylonian, Sumerian and Mesopotamian (and Hawaiian) .
Not that this improves things, Mesopotamia is the same region as Babylonia and Sumeria.

Yep, Holloway specifically says "Egyptian, Bablyonian and Sumerian"...though it wouldn't surprise me if he added Mesopotamia for good measure. You wouldn't want to miss any unconnected civilizations.

Ooops, I think you are correct Julian, - although I'm not completely wrong. The full set of civilizations mentioned were Egyptian, Mayan, Sumerian, Babylonian, Hawaiian, Mesopotamian and finally the famous Isle of Skye civilization.

The presence of Mayan and Hawaiian artifacts in Holloway's holographic powerpoint indicates either;

a) That Engineers continued to contact Earth after the crew of the ship we see in the film was massacred 2000 years ago, and did so peacefully, without wiping humanity out with their black goo bioweapons.


b) that the filmmakers made a mistake when they cited the Mayan and Hawaiian contacts... The Mayan Astronaut image Holloway cites is a pretty popular image, maybe they couldn't help themselves.

I thoroughly enjoyed the movie, but I sure can't argue with your logic. And thank you for making my day with the phrase "liquid facehugger cakemix." Pure gold, my friend.

By Elissa Mac (not verified) on 20 Jun 2012 #permalink

Who said for certain it was the engineers who left the maps (cave paintings)?

The thing that really just ruined the film for me was when someone says something like "there's 3% carbon dioxide in the atmosphere ... you wouldn't last five minutes breathing that". And I'm sure they say carbon DIoxide (not carbon monoxide, which really is lethal). Shame! Isn't it supremely idiotic - or arrogant - to script a sci-fi film and not have it looked over by anyone with any semblance of scientific knowledge?

By Nick Roberts (not verified) on 02 Dec 2012 #permalink

"Movies are made for juvies nowadays, not for 30 something writers with nothing else to do."


And thats exactly whats wrong with prometheus, the star wars prequels and tons of other exploitive hollywood shlock.

They're intended to cater to and exploit the ignorance of children,
and people who think like ignorant children.

The classic movies like Star Wars and Alien that inspired and enabled so many sequels and imitations didn't do that.

In fact movies like prometheus aren't even good as juvenilia,
because the best juvenilia like say vintage John Hughes relates to young people but doesn't talk down to them.

prometheus is a baby talk fantasy-fi for dullards.