Sigmund is becoming a regular around here, and has contributed a review of the new SF (or is it “SciFi”?) film Prometheus, which has generated a lot of buzz. He didn’t like it, largely because it’s scientifically inaccurate. As always, readers who have seen the flick should weigh in with their own opinions.
Film Review – Prometheus (spoiler warning!)
The film ’Prometheus’, the first return to science fiction for director Ridley Scott since Blade Runner, is supposedly a prequel to his famous 1979 movie ‘Alien’ and is therefore a major event for sci-fi geeks. As it opened a week earlier in Europe owing to the start of the European football championship, I’ve had a chance to see it (twice!) and can offer a personal opinion of the movie without, I hope, giving away too much of the plot. But if you intend to see the movie soon and don’t want to read any spoilers, I’d advise avoiding reading any further.
The director of two of the most iconic and influential science fiction movies ever has returned to his sci-fi roots by revisiting of the ‘Alien’ universe, this time before the events of the original film. Prometheus, in Greek mythology, was the Titan who, having created man from clay, stole fire from the Gods for man’s use. He was punished for this crime by being bound to a rock and tortured by having his liver eaten each day by an eagle, only for it to grow back overnight, ready to be devoured again. In literary tradition, Prometheus is often a metaphor the overreaching of man or science (Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ is subtitled “The Modern Prometheus”.)
Ridley Scott’s ‘Prometheus’ examines the question one step removed – in this case it’s not humans who have overstepped the limits of science, but another alien species, who, in the first scene of the movie, are shown seeding life on an early version of the Earth. These aliens, in ‘Chariots of the Gods’ fashion, have made themselves known to various cultures throughout human history, all of which have left images of the same star formation in cave paintings or carvings. This clue convinces an aging billionaire with a strong interest in science and spirituality, Peter Weland, to invest in a spacecraft (the ‘Prometheus’), that travels, in the closing decades of this century, to the aliens’ home to “meet our makers”. That it’s already starting to sound like ‘Templeton in Space’ is not a good sign.
Why some markings are evidence of the aliens being our creators, rather than simply repeat-visit tourists, is never made clear, other than the recurring suggestion that the emergence of humanity requires a deeper level of explanation than the one that science provides. Indeed, the premise that a kind of intelligent design (with space aliens rather than Jeebus as the designer) underlies humanity raises a host of scientific implications that go unanswered.
The reason for these lacunae becomes apparent early on in the movie – the writers appear to have never come close to a science book in their life. They certainly seem to know next to zero about evolution or basic biology. You can see one within the first minute of the movie: the aliens seed life onto a barren planet (presumably Earth?). Not only do we notice that the planet isn’t exactly lifeless (we see grass or some other type of green vegetation growing in the valleys), but the seeding process seems to consist solely of the alien’s DNA being released into a lifeless mountain stream. Somehow we are supposed to assume that naked DNA has the ability to self-replicate and populate a planet.
If that isn’t bad enough, we discover later that this alien DNA, having gone through several billion years of replication, modification and mutation—in the process populating the entire planet with a diversity of life—is an exact match of modern human DNA! Unfortunately such basic scientific errors occur throughout the movie, yet never once cause the principal characters—most of whom, we are informed, are ‘scientists’— to say “wait a second, that can’t be right, you’ve obviously loaded the wrong sample into the sequencer.”
A recurring theme in the movie is the conflict between science and religion (with religion being seen as the good choice – “I know it’s true because it’s what I choose to believe”). Both of the two main scientists in Prometheus are religious – one of them, an archeologist/molecular biologist called Elizabeth Shaw, played by the Swedish actress Noomi Rapace (Lisbeth Salander from the Swedish Series of ‘Millenium’ films), is overtly so.
The two minor character scientists, a punk geologist who doesn’t seem to have the slightest interest in his surroundings when on a moon on the far side of the galaxy, and a biologist who freaks out when he finally sees a dead alien, are not exactly shown in a good light. They seem compelled to make the most appalling choices imaginable—most notably, when they come across a snake-like alien who looks like a cross between a very toothy cobra and a vagina (in such circumstances do they: A. Run like hell? or B. Try to hug it?)
The movie certainly looks beautiful, but the level of suspension of disbelief required is almost insurmountable if you know anything about genetics, abiogenesis, archaeology, or medicine. In almost every situation the characters do the equivalent of the typical slasher movie victim faced with a dark cellar from which emanates a menacing growling sound (“I think I’ll go down and check this out, bringing with me a flickering candle and a quick sniff of sneezing powder”).
The script’s numerous logical deficiencies caused the audience in the second showing to which I went to begin laughing at the most inopportune moments – someone behind me even imitating the three eyed aliens from Toy Story, “the claw is our master”, during the cesarean/abortion scene, which, although weirdly fitting, kind of ruined the mood.
That said, if you can get past the numerous scientific and historical errors, there are some interesting ideas in the movie – chiefly centering on the question of consciousness of the character ‘David’, an android played with Machiavellian creepiness by Michael Fassbender. Despite being told by other characters that he cannot understand things because he is not human or (according to Weland/Templeton) because he has no ‘soul’, it is David alone who seems to seems to have a mind of his own – or at the very least is the one character who doesn’t seem intent on a future career as alien snack food.
The movie finishes with many questions unanswered—most notably why on earth Scott chose a script from the writer of the incomprehensible ‘Lost’ TV series and the dreadful ‘Cowboys and Aliens’. It sets up a sequel that one can only hope is less anti-science than the current movie.
Considering that Scott is currently planning a sequel to ‘Blade Runner,’ it is probably a good idea for fans like myself, who valued his previous work, to let it be known that we prefer our sci-fi to be at least remotely scientifically plausible.