Space Archaeology

"our future is in ruins"

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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