Prometheus, Ridley Scott’s new sci-fi thriller since Blade Runner in 1982, was met with a lukewarm reception from most critics.
While the movie is well acted and visually magnificent, its thinly written characters, unexplained plot points and lack of suspense are too much for most critics to handle. But there is another flaw which is getting nerdier viewers (like me) rightly riled up: the film’s shoddy portrayal of science and scientists.
When you start to think about how the events in Prometheus work, the film’s universe quickly falls apart. Take the film’s opening, which is begging for deconstruction.
A grey-skinned humanoid (named an Engineer) lands near a waterfall in Earth’s distant past. He drinks an anomalous brown liquid that causes him to disintegrate and release his DNA into the water, creating a literal gene pool for life on Earth.
This concept of seeding life from space is called panspermia. It was first proposed by Anaxagoras, a fifth-century BC Greek philosopher, and was later developed by Jöns Jacob Berzelius, Lord Kelvin, Hermann von Helmholtz and other scientists in the 19th century.
Toward the middle of the film, Prometheus’s scientists find long-dead Engineers in an ancient alien temple and determine, to their amazement, that they’re genetically identical to humans.
Having the benevolent Engineer’s DNA as the starting point for life on Earth is, in itself, a clever idea, and does answer the chicken-and-egg question of which came first: genes or proteins?
But this Engineer DNA would have presumably undergone over three billion years of mutation, reshuffling and natural selection within the evolving lifeforms of Earth. After all those aeons of cumulative change and evolutionary overhaul, the likelihood of this DNA ending up as human again is way too farfetched to accept.
Here’s another subtle yet important oversight in the admittedly compelling opening sequence: why is the sky blue? (A pale, greyish blue, but blue nonetheless.)
Earth’s sky didn’t assume its familiar blue colour until the Oxygen Catastrophe of around 2.4 billion years ago, when photosynthetic bacteria and early plants started releasing large amounts of oxygen into the atmosphere. The air in this scene of early Earth should be a choking miasma of hydrogen, carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulphide (which the genetically human Engineer should quickly succumb to without breathing equipment), not a calm blue indicative of oxygen.
And there’s a swathe of what looks suspiciously like grass (which only evolved in the late Cretaceous period) in one shot. Even if we give Scott the benefit of the doubt and assume it’s algae, this is still a continuity error. If the Engineer is only now seeding the Earth with life, how can there be algae (or any life) at all?
And I haven’t even gotten to the plot yet.
An archaeologist couple (played by Noomi Rapace and Logan Marshall-Green) discover a star map in the artwork of several unconnected ancient cultures, and believe that it may point to humanity’s origins in space. The Weyland Corporation sends them on a landmark mission to the star system in the map to search for our creators (or God, as they insinuate).
Scott is known for his impressive attention to detail in his films. His elaborate sets and costumes, realistic characters and dialogue, and the uniquely slow, brooding atmospheres of his films create plausible worlds to immerse the viewer.
Scott’s own 1979 film Alien (for which Prometheus is ostensibly a prequel) featured blue-collar workers in a functional-looking spaceship setting. The believable, mundane foundation amplified the tension and made the shift in tone all the more shocking when the monster arrived.
In Prometheus, an early scene of the ship’s crew awakening from stasis depicts the nausea, weakness and disorientation you’d expect from being in suspended animation for over two years.
To know that Scott can get icky cryosleep and outer-space truckies right makes it even more disappointing to see him portray scientists so poorly.
Would a good scientist really helm a risky mission to deep space with nothing but her personal faith and some cave paintings to go on? For that matter, would a big corporation waste a trillion dollars on a religious mission with no guarantee of results? Not even the Catholic Church has that kind of dough.
The characters are pretty careless as they touch and disrupt a priceless alien archaeological site. A bumbling biologist even tries to pat an alien snake hissing at him (though we could just put that down to a common-sense fail). And, I mean really – what signs of life could anyone hope to get out of a 2000-year-old mummified alien head … which the crew then accidentally explode?
The explosion-fetishist Mythbusters are still far more competent than these guys.
You’d expect better from a film-maker known for his organic, believable films. The glaring science errors and the portrayal of its scientist characters as careless and irresponsible all serve to strip the film of credibility.
As it stands, the poor science permeating Prometheus is an irksome cherry topping a disappointing movie.