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On Prometheus


I saw Prometheus Monday evening and have a few thoughts.  Spoilers ahead.

The Good

I liked the movie quite a bit.  The imagery and feel of the film are gorgeous, and I enjoyed the concepts for the monsters, the idea of the alien race being a kind of morphing biological weapon, the ship, the terror the individuals feel, the albino creepy engineers, and Michael Fassbinder competing with Charlize Theron.

I enjoyed the mix of explanation and mystery, and the end that involved an open question.  I enjoyed that the film set the ground for Alien without being a direct prequel.  It’s an ancestor, not a parent.

And as often happens, I found myself agreeing with Mark Bousquet at Atomic Anxiety, even if I disagree with many things he says at the same time. In particular, Bousquet suggests that the film serves as part of a retrospective, in which Scott reflects back on themes and ideas that haunt his films.  This movie certainly returns to questions of the soul, of humankind, etc.


The Bad

There are a lot of howlingly bad moments in this movie.  I find these critiques of the science, of evolution particularly, and of the overall plot and character development all valid and correct.  Don’t get me wrong — I’m not a realism pedant.  I don’t generally complain that spaceships make noise in space, or that gravity shouldn’t work on a spaceship like it does on Earth, or even FTL travel.  These are things to note, but I’m happy to consign them to the “they solved that problem with technology” magic wand that SF writers get to wave.

At the same time, I don’t cotton to astoundingly stupid rewrites of current knowledge NOR to stupid decisions from characters who shouldn’t be stupid.  And I think these kinds of lapses make it hard to really like films.  Keep in mind Stephen Spielberg’s dictum about dumb things in movies — if the audience is with you, they’ll forgive you dumb mistakes in favor of drama.  For example, the scuba tank at the end of JAWS.  But to get there, we had to have some realistic-seeming shark attacks first.  Prometheus doesn’t give us any time for such things.

My top three complaints about the structure, shape, and storytelling of Prometheus that got in the way of me enjoying the film (some of these appear in the lists linked above.  This list is the things that occurred to me personally, but my description of them certainly owes to having perused the links above):

First: Dumb scientists. The film presents archaeologists as evidence-light crackpots, biologists as alternatively cowardly and stupid, and geologists as belligerent.  Admittedly, the sample size is pretty small here, but all the scientists are really stupid.  Some quick examples of how dumb they are: they take off their helmets in an Earth-like atmosphere (microbes, anyone?), they use their bodies to investigate things instead of using remote probes, they take almost no quarantine procedures, and they’re really cavalier about encounters with alien creatures.

Second: Poorly planned mission.  The hodgepodge crew and the idea that they’re just getting their mission briefing when they land is ridiculous.  Presumably, this was meant to mirror the situation in Alien, when the idiosyncratic crew awoke at an unexpected time with an unexpected mission.  But these aren’t miners who’ve been on a dozen trips to deep space — this is a specialized ship outfitted directly for this mission, and the idea that they’d pick such unstable buttheads is just DUMB.  And that they’d know nothing about their mission, even DUMBER.

Third: Evolution.  Jesus H. Darwin.  This film shows an incredibly uninformed notion of how DNA and evolution work.  While I’m personally not closed off to the idea of panspermia, the introduction of life on Earth would have had to happened billions of years ago in order to fit the fossil and genetic record we see all around us.  And the shaping tides of natural selection and adaptation would by no means have necessarily shaped human beings at the end, nor would that DNA match.  So for the scenario in the film to have happened, the “Prometheus” character who tumbles into the waterfall at the beginning wouldn’t have guaranteed that human beings evolved at the end of the line.

Instead, to have a DNA match, they would have had to seed humans directly, around the time we emerged, within the last 100k years or so.  But that raises the gigantic question of the rest of the biosphere — why does it match our DNA?  If we’re “made” how is it that our DNA is so close to the other members of the animal kingdom?  It just doesn’t make any sense. When the archeologists found the DNA match, they shouldn’t have concluded that the engineers made us, but rather that we’re their siblings.  It’s also extremely irksome that the biologist is both cowardly and stupid instead of curious, and that he uses the term “Darwinism” to describe his field of study.  In my experience, Darwinism is a term used mostly by people who oppose evolution on philosophical grounds.

An alternate plot:

I would have found it MUCH more plausible if the filmmakers had proposed an alternate historical timeline, one that included a humankind that evolved an advanced civilization during the first twenty-thousand years of homo sapien‘s time on Earth.  It would have taken some fancy footing to explain where the ruins of that civilization are, but at least it wouldn’t have ignored a vast compendium of evidence.  What if the Engineers weren’t an alien species at all, but an early human civilization that rose to high technology, got endangered by some coming global cataclysm, and set out for the stars?  After several thousand years, they return and find humankind regressed to technological infancy, so they leave the star calling cards the archeologists find.  BOOM, same premise for the movie without such stupid science (I’m sure archaeologists would find it just as implausible as biologists find this movie, but it seems like a much smaller cheat to me).

All that said, I enjoyed the movie a lot.  There were good squiggly aliens and neato ships and so on.  But it never got close to plausible, so I never got to suspend my disbelief.

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