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Review: Prometheus

Space archaeology movies don’t come along often, so I’ve been looking forward to this for a long time. This review is basically me venting my deep disappointment. There are spoilers.

Two archaeologists – the believer ‘Shaw’ and the skeptic ‘Holloway’ – are excavating on the Isle of Skye, Scotland (I just had the awful thought that the site was chosen because it’s a homophone of ‘sky’.) In a cave they discover paleolithic art depicting an ancient alien and a star map. It’s clear that this painting is what the archaeologists were searching for.

Think about how they designed that expedition: “Let’s dig randomly all over the world until we find examples of this design to support the ancient astronaut hypothesis.” That is a terrible plan.

It wouldn’t take much to fix this scene even! The archaeologists discover the art, do a pattern-recognition search of images from other sites and discover global evidence of palaeocontact. Easy! In fact, they used just that kind of search on a star map to find where in the galaxy the aliens came from! They dub the aliens Engineers for no reason that makes sense based on their knowledge to this point

The Prometheus, a well-equipped research vessel, is sent to the planet, transmitting a Voyager golden record-style message ahead of itself. The ship is travelling faster than the speed of light, so it’s probably not a surprise that they don’t receive a response before they arrive.

When they reach the planet, they immediately enter the atmosphere at a randomly-chosen point and fly around for a few minutes until they discover the alien base and land on top of it. I’ll go through the issues in this short sequence one at a time:

1) it strains credulity that they would choose exactly the right place to start searching, a problem that could have been solved by following the standard xenoarchaeological procedure of:
2) beginning with orbital reconnaissance of the planet and using pattern recognition (again!) to look for evidence of artificial structures, and then moving on to a landed mission. This is Xenoarchaeology 101, people!
3) Landing a ship with ‘nuclear powered plasma engines’ on top of an archaeological site is not best practice. Even if you are landing on what appears to be merely roads. There’s plenty of room to land to one side without damaging any structures at all!

Even though there are only hours until the sun goes down, the archaeologists want to investigate the main structure immediately. This is human nature and understandable. Unfortunately, the Prometheus is a ship of fools, and everyone who goes with them is an irredeemable idiot. Here is a list of things they do right:

1) deploy awesome autonomous mapping probes. These are the best things in the movie.

Here are some things they do wrong:

1) Reject the assistance of armed security personnel.
2) Immediately take off their helmets when they detect a breathable atmosphere inside the structure, without scanning even for biohazards.
3) Touch unidentified alien technology and objects.
4) Open sealed pressure doors without considering the climatic impact on artefacts within.
5) Try and carbon date something! We only know how to do this for material on earth! To carbon date alien material you would need to know the proportion of the carbon 14 isotope in the atmosphere of its planet of origin, and that’s just the beginning of the process!

I should mention here that the expedition planners kept the mission details a secret until after everyone awoke from cryogenic suspension. Probably because that’s what they did in 2001: A Space Odyssey. The planners also seemed to lack the ability to choose competent scientists, particularly the geologist, who is devoid of sense of wonder, intellectual curiosity and social skills, and only came along to make money. The biologist has a sense of wonder, but no instinct for self-preservation. They wander off for a stupid reason and come to bad ends.

David the android does a few things that would seem unwise but I’m fine with: he’s not a scientist, he’s a company man working to a different agenda.

To add some arbitrary action to the movie, a sudden sandstorm comes along and they have to evacuate the site in a hurry. For no good reason, Shaw drops a priceless specimen (a perfectly preserved alien head) that was improperly stowed, and she and it have to be rescued.

They get aboard the ship and do an absolutely terrible analysis of the alien head. I can’t even talk about how stupid it is, but it ends up with the head exploding.

Meanwhile, David is off working to his own agenda. He’s examining an artefact he brought back surreptitiously but he shouldn’t be touching it with his bare hands, even if he is an android. It also makes no sense for him to start dosing people with alien substances for no reason. This isn’t like the Alien films – it’s first contact, there’s no secret knowledge known only to the corporation! David should be more circumspect.

So Holloway is infected, and transmits it to Shaw sexually. There’s some trite characterisation in this scene: Shaw, apparently, is infertile. She gets infected. It’s discovered she’s pregnant! It’s an alien! The corporation want to keep the specimen! Remember what happened to Ripley in Alien3? This is totally different, somehow.

There is one difference, actually: she is able to surgically remove the squidlike alien. She thinks it’s dead, but it survives and either inflates like a balloon or somehow gains half a tonne of mass locked in an empty room so the grown-up version can provide one of two (or three?) “surprise” twists at the end.

Anyway, it turns out that one of the Engineers has survived in cryogenic suspension. They wake him up so that old Mr Weyland (who let everyone think he was dead, for no good reason except to provide a twist, but was frozen on board the ship the whole time), can meet his maker.

The Engineer is implacably hostile for some reason, and is going to wipe out all life on Earth, for some reason. We don’t find out why, because why give any answers if you can set the stage for a sequel instead? The Prometheus is crashed into the Engineer ship, saving Earth, and Shaw flies off with a last transmission, just like Ripley would, except with the knowledge that she was personally responsible for everyone’s deaths by being the worst xenoarchaeologist ever.

It would not have been difficult to make a movie where the scientists did everything right and things still went terribly wrong! A movie where the plot is driven by people making stupid choices – if they aren’t supposed to be stupid characters – is a badly-written movie. Prometheus could have explored profound issues in an mind-expanding way. It should have been filled with science fictional sense of wonder. Instead it was a stylish, mindless action movie.

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16 Responses to "Review: Prometheus"

  1. @Jammyhorse says:

    I think you’ll find this movie was a fixed set of scenes with no discernible ‘hero’ or plot to maximise revenue from the post cinema release gaming business.
    The cynically named project ‘Prometheus’ gives the game away in that Ridley Scott will be feasting on the re-growing livers of insatiable gamers for some considerable time to come….

    personally, I’m sorry I bothered to go see it and spent the 2 hours re-writing the plot in my head, which was much better and for which I’m looking forward to the sequel! :)

  2. Steve Wilson says:

    I often wonder how much movies are manipulated to provide a certain number of scenes that can be converted into game levels.

    As an aside, I figured the ‘Prometheus’ reference was to the alien at the start of the movie who maybe have stolen the seeds of life from his fellows … this being the motive for them to eliminate life on earth.

    This doesn’t completely gel with the facts in the movie, but why would that stop the writers? I’m sure the sequel will go into more detail, if one is planned.

  3. Greg Fewer says:

    I commented on the Facebook link but I thought I might as well add my comment here too.

    Bloody hell! I just saw the movie a few hours ago and I’d have to agree with just about everything you say, Steve! Style over substance. The special effects and the set were marvellous but the plot was weak and the xenoarchaeological dimension very disappointing. I also thought it was strange to send the entire ship down to the surface when you consider the way the Moon landings and the rescue mission in Aliens were conducted – with a mother ship kept in orbit and a lander used to bring astronauts to the surface. And why weren’t the metallic shields closed to protect the bridge area during the sandstorm? One could go on and on…. Is there another sci-fi film with more science that we could look forward to this year I wonder?

  4. Steve Wilson says:

    I didn’t think it was unreasonable to have a single ship … it was a compact science vessel sent on a rather speculative mission, which already cost a trillion dollars, apparently! The point about the shields is a good one, though!

    I just thought of a completely superior ending to the movie: the alien ship crushes Shaw and Vickers is the one who survives and flies off with David. Vickers basically did everything right, and certainly didn’t deserve to die in that way.

  5. [...] with the moral horizon of a very bad accountant. For this latest mogul’s investment, this is what we have to endure: The Prometheus, a well-equipped research vessel, is sent to the planet, transmitting a Voyager [...]

  6. [...] Space Archaeology’s Prometheus Review: I totally agree with this; a lot of what was wrong with Prometheus comes from having stupid scientists. [...]

  7. Andy Sewell says:

    All this, and note that the date of the cave art at the Isle of Skye dig site places it’s creation while the Isle of Skye was under a glacier…

  8. Simon Clement says:

    “Let’s put this alien head in a plastic bag and pump out the air that’s kept it perfectly preserved for 2000 years!”

  9. Julian says:

    You missed one glaring mistake 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.

  10. Brian Wohlgemuth says:

    You touched on the biology part as well…if something grew to about two kilos in size in ten hours inside of a human host…I think the human would probably feel pretty drained. Or dead. Even with magical “Engineers” biology, you can’t get past the basic chemistry of “sucking two kilos of living juices from anything in a short timeframe is going to have ill effects on the host”. Or that in a day timeframe that it grew from two kilos to over 100 kilos without any living matter to ingest.

    Now yes, the engineers could have created some sort of magical DNA growth (which is ironic since they are 100% compliant with human DNA…who wants to screw an Engineer and make Engineer/Human hybrids?) But the mass just can’t/won’t make sense. The only way to add that much mass is through consumption or strapping it on.

    What would have made more sense? Finding a few things. Trinkets. Ride home. Wake up and bad things happen. Biology doesn’t have to be monstrously huge to be scary. Heck, the most suspenseful part of the movie was David dangling his finger with the black goo over the drink (which ironically would have probably sterilized within a few seconds of hitting the booze).

    Wait, time to play off the movie…I have a grand piano in the escape craft!

  11. Kate says:

    Given the general lack of foresight and planning on the part of the hapless adventurers, it really ought to have been called “Epimetheus”.

  12. Tucci78 says:

    Congratulations. This is “skiffy” (the way science fiction trufen pronounce the term “sci-fi” when denoting bletcherous media presentations of scientifictional tropes in ways that defile the concept of science itself as well as the usages of the genre meticulously crafted by editors and writers over the generations since John W. Campbell kicked it up out of the “gadget stories” level in the late 1930s).

    It’s something like Internet Rule 34 (“If it exists, there’s porn of it. No exceptions.”) that every goddam time the illiterate, arrogant, corrupt and plagiarist Hollywood sphincters churn out anything that they think will appeal to the popular taste for fantascienza, they deliberately strip it of intelligence, innovation, integrity, and thought.

    Plenty of eye-candy, but an absolute libido for the idiotic.

  13. Anne says:

    As an archaeologists and a science fiction fan, I have to say this is the best review of the movie so far. I just have to add, Archaeologists looking for Upper Palaeolithic rock art in Scotland!!!! 35.000 years old paintings in the Isle of Skye? Humans were not living there during the upper Palaeolithic, it was all cover with permanent ice! Moreover, there are only such kind of wall paintings in Southern France and Northern Spain, and the few anthropomorphic depictions are quite different from the ones shown! A little research would have made the movie so much better!

  14. Anne says:

    Plus, the best parts were incredibly similar to the Mass Effect games…

  15. FlatusMcToot says:

    Hey, DORKS, did you forget it’s a movie and not a Discovery doco?

    Suspend your disbelief for a minute.

    I watched the original Alien movie the night after seeing Prometheus and I thought it was SHITHOUSE. Plot holes and revealing mistakes galore not to mention the lousy mechanical puppets and props.

  16. Senua says:

    Yes it may be just a film but there is a good part of the public who have trouble telling the difference between real science and what passes for science in these films. I’ve met some of them. It doesn’t help when promoters of these films go on about scientific accuracy in their films thus misleading the public. It doesn’t take a genius to get some basic science right. It wont harm the film. Film producers dumb down everything they get their hands on and then claim scientific accuracy. 2012 was claimed as a scientificaly accurate film when it blatantly wasn’t. When Prometheus came out there were people who actually believed that the premise behind it was true. The same with Apollo 18. Some thought it ws a docu drama. Getting the science right is important. Films would be better for it.

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