June 14th, 2012
It’s too late now, but it was possible, so let me explain how.
Before I do that, let me note that some people loved Prometheus, like Roger Ebert, even though he takes issue with Creationist commenters who think the movie is pro Intelligent Design. There are some who are willing to ignore the bad science, plot holes, and inconsistent characterization in service to deep allegory. I don’t care if a story is an allegory or not — it has to make sense on its own surface level, and as quite a few others have pointed out, it doesn’t. The more you think about it — and it’s clearly a movie made for people who like to think about movies — the less well it fares. Here are some problems I’ve been thinking about, and how to fix them.
I’m going to go more or less chronologically through the movie and point out various issues and discuss how they could have been fixed. I’ll try to play fair and give the movie makers the benefit of the doubt in some cases, but even in those cases, it hurts the viewing experience to sit there thinking, “That doesn’t make sense.” Mostly I’ll discuss science and logic issues, sometimes characterization issues, and not try to remake the story. It’s clear that film makers do get science advisers, including Prometheus, which probably helped, but they didn’t get enough help.
The first scene, like the first line in a book, is important. It sets the stage for what follows and is really there to tell you what the movie is all about. The first scene of Prometheus should have been cut. That’s the only way to improve it, in my opinion. Here the spoilers begin. The first scene shows an engineer purposely drinking black goo (borrowed from the X-Files, it seemed at times) to destroy himself and seed a planet with life. This planet may or may not be Earth, but it’s clearly a tip of the hat to the myth of Prometheus giving humans life. Except that we know from the fossil record that life has been around a long, long time. Billions of years. We also know evolution works. We also see the Engineers DNA being snipped apart. If this is the origin of life on Earth, that works. Except it’s ludicrous to believe in the Engineers keeping the same form and same technology over the course of billions of years. As we learn later, human DNA is a “perfect match” to that of the Engineers. That is ludicrous. Humans are not 12 feet tall and hairless. We’re also only a few percent different from other great apes.
Let this be the first lesson about writing science fiction. You don’t get to throw out existing science. New speculative elements still have to adhere to what we know about fossils, evolution, DNA, and timescales. I didn’t know enough of the story to immediately be bothered by the opening, but as events unfold and more information became available, the less reasonable I found it. It literally doesn’t make sense to me now. Just cut it and leave the origin to be a much more plausible tinkering with ape DNA, splicing in Engineer DNA, that I’ll infer given enough hints.
Our second opening scene is with our archeologists finding new cave paintings dating to 35,000 years ago, more or less. As in others spanning from a couple of thousand years ago to then, there is a depiction of giants pointing to a star pattern, “the invitation” of the movie. As find out very quickly, this star pattern is matched by only one direction in the sky, and is not an obvious set of stars to pick out by eye. We also find out that the key planet we’re being directed to is some 35 light-years from Earth. Here’s something too many viewers like myself know: over the course of thousands of years stars this close move realtive to each other and to the Earth. The constellations 35,000 years ago were different than a few thousand years ago. What they could have done, which would have been cool, was to have an evolution in the star patterns indicating the proper motions of those stars relative to us, and us requiring a lot of computations to extrapolate back in time to reconstruct the star pattern which no longer exists today. Already I hear someone complaining that this is a complicated idea and too difficult to convey to a movie audience. I disagree. I think it would have been cool and made our scientist couple out to be super clever.
Then let me comment on that 35 light-years figure. On screen it was shown as 3.something x 10^14 kilometers. That’s stupid. That’s someone wanting to use scientific notation to indicate the place is a gazillion miles away (not “half a billion miles from Earth” as Charlize Theron’s character says at one point, which I give a pass since the character probably doesn’t know herself). There’s another instance of unnecessary scientific notation, so this was a clear decision to set the story as scientific, as science fiction, not a fantasy horror story with the trappings of science fiction. With the third opening, the ship, we enter hard science territory.
Obviously the Prometheus has faster-than-light (FTL) capabilities, even though we only hear about ion engines. It does 35 light-years in two years, and there’s no mention of relativity. Furthermore, there are indications that the same amount of time will pass on Earth, so definitely no relativity. This would take a lot to fix, actually, without resorting to wormholes. It seems FTL is part of the Alien franchise universe, and I’d accept it as a viewer. Not hard science fiction, but an accepted trope of the genre.
We have awkwardness on board the ship. Apparently a lot of the crew are not only ignorant of the point of the mission, finding the ancient astronauts/creators, they haven’t even met each other before. That seems unbelievable, and smacks of lazy writing, not wanting to start too slowly but also wanting to make introductions easier. Revise it! Tossed me out of the story thinking it was ridiculous the different people had boarded and got into their sleep chambers on a 4+ year journey without actually having lots of meetings and orientations. Just bad writing.
Now, I’m actually ok with the idea of ancient astronauts and alien creators as the basis for a science fiction story. It just has to fit within known science, which includes evolution and the vast evidence for it. The briefing on the ship makes it sound like it’s an either/or. It isn’t. It has to be an “and.” Newtonian gravity didn’t stop working when Einstein developed relativity. Evolution doesn’t stop working just because someone seeded a planet with their DNA pieces…actually that’s when it starts.
Next issue is finding the alien base. They just go down to the moon and fly around until someone says, “Turn here! Nature doesn’t make straight lines!” Or something like that. Why not send out some orbiting satellites and let your smart computers find the alien base? Could be done in a single scene, adding an extra minute. Maybe. And it would remove a bit of stupid luck.
Want to talk stupid? The couple of guys who opt out of alien invasion get lost. One of them is the guy responsible for the lidar probes mapping the place. The fucking mapper gets lost?! Really?! I need to punch the person who made that decision. Give them a reasonable excuse to get side-tracked. Something interesting to investigate. Anything other than “We got fucking lost because we’re the fucking idiots you hired for the most important mission in the history of mankind!”
Now, the group that finds itself in the alien room with the murals and pots of black goo…and worms that have survived millenia…they touch stuff. Real archeologists don’t touch anything. And why is the black goo there? And activated when they go in? I understand the allegorical explanation, but when you have bioweapons you don’t do it like this. Or your species goes extinct, which the Engineers should have done billenia ago if they’re this dumb. To be fair, so are the humans…
What follows are artificial plot problems, too common in Hollywood movies and a product of weak writing, stuff like when the woman is running from the killer and falls down. We have the super storm, which they could have waited out. They didn’t, and we have the dropped head. And then, we apparently have no safety protocols on the ship because we bring the head on board and pump it full of electricity.
Oh man, was that dumb.
As soon as we have an infected human wanting to come on board, we kill him with fire. The head goes in the lab and explodes, the crew member gets killed with few repercussions. Shaw never confronts Vickers about killing her lover — because we get distracted by immaculate alien conception. But I’m jumping ahead of myself…back to the exploding head.
And WTF fuck does the head explode? This was where I was starting to think we have a dumb, dumb movie. Imagine taking a mummy head, or any part of a mummy, and adding electricity. What does it do? NOTHING! Except maybe smolder. And why hadn’t it been eaten by the worms or whatever kind of living critters are in that room already? What have they been eating for 2000 years?
David the enigmatic android steals a sample of the black goo and gives it to our male scientist, who will do “anything” to meet the Engineers. We have a repetition of duplicitous androids here, from HAL to every other android in every other aliens movie, more or less. David did not follow orders on the spot. Bad David. But WTF would he give the black goo to a human? If I were kind, I’d say he learned something from the hieroglyphics, but that information should have been shared somehow. Too many question marks.
And when he’s killed, instead of quarantined off ship, or in a room designed for that…which everyone should fucking know about!!!…we conveniently have the impregnation. If you’re going to impregnate a sterile woman, let us know more than 5 minutes before you do it that she’s sterile, otherwise it rings false. Really bad timing.
I honestly thought that pregnancy thing was a dream sequence, because otherwise it was too stupid.
Not stupid in principle, just as shot. Alien reproduction as pregnancy is a staple I can take. The way it was done was dumb in Prometheus.
When she extracts her alien kid, we’re told the autodoc is for men only. WTF? Now, there’s an obvious fix to this: the autodoc is for the old guy, not his daughter. But I really don’t see with the tech available why anyone would build such a machine for one sex only. It’s ridiculous. It’s a software issue, not a hardware issue. It’s another artificial problem that this society would not have. It’s just adding a little gratuitous tension in a scene that doesn’t need it.
And, as we see later, the alien baby grows really fast. It’s not a problem inside the womb — there’s food there to grow on. It’s a problem inside the ship. All we need to see, during the tour of the facilities, is that the room with autodoc also has extensive food stores. I assumed that the baby monster in the original Alien grew so fast in part because it found food somewhere. If Ridley Scott doesn’t understand the conservation of mass, he’s not allowed to bite me. He just need to avoid science fiction in the future.
OK, lots more happens, some of which doesn’t make sense. Aliens waking up after thousands of years, intelligent ones, might want to scope out their situation before pulling a “Hulk smash,” allegorical explanation or no. If they’re really that uptight, I say we go after them and remove them from the game of life, because they’re too inflexible to take seriously. And while the other alien movies established that bodiless androids need an electric jumpstart, not so David. I’ll accept this because he’s a special case.
But when the Engineer ship goes down, after the Captain and pilots of Prometheus are a little too accepting of someone’s word and display a weird easiness about accepting their own deaths, the alien ship crashes. We learn that there are other ships. And the Engineer COULD HAVE RAN FOR ONE. He’s already capable of long runs in the poison atmosphere with his 100% human DNA. But no…he has to go after our heroine to kill her. Why? I don’t have the slightest clue except he’s an alien and it’s scary. And he gets his just desserts running into her giant face-hugging baby.
I think that’s enough stuff to fix. Some of my fixes are obvious and easy, but some of them require extensive rewrites since they drop the tension level in some cases.
Some final thoughts and issues.
David the android is not supposed to be able to feel, but it’s strongly suggested that he does. He acts like he does, “liking” Lawrence of Arabia, and saying it’s natural to “hate your parents.” I’m tired of the error of the android being simultaneously human and not human (Mr. Data!). Just be consistent.
At least one of the script writers has a background writing for Lost, which was about the mystery, not the answer. While I’m fine with aliens acting alien and everything not being explained (except perhaps by a forced metaphor/allegory), too many inexplicable things makes for a dissatisfying viewing experience.
I’m sure there are other problems I’ve missed, or failed to discuss. Already afraid I’m in the “too long, didn’t read” category. Other suggested fixes?
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