Ridley Scott’s Prometheus and anti-science

I am a big fan of science fiction with a few caveats. Make it fun or horrifying, preferably both, and scientifically plausible. Science fiction by its very nature is fiction and should stretch the bounds of human imagination, but it should, at least, follow the basic principles of physics. For example, many science fiction movies require faster than light (FTL) travel, which is right at the edge of impossibility unless we are able to harness massive amounts of energy, suspend some of our current laws and understandings of physics, and adjustments for substantial time-effect conundrums, where someone traveling faster than light will be much younger than those who do not. But at least the writers of those shows make up terminology and gadgets that deal with it. Warp drives. Subspace communications. They try.

One of the best science fiction shows (though it only lasted half a season) was Firefly, a TV series (and one feature length movie, Serenity that more or less wrapped up the story) that is quite popular with a certain group of SciFi nerds (like me). Joss Whedon, the creator of Firefly, decided to not suspend science; thus, the civilizations that populate the series left Earth long ago and inhabit a new star system. What’s unique is that the story only exists in this one star system that seems to have literally dozens of planets and moons that are inhabitable. That’s plausible. And space ships in that series are messy and beat-up. There are prostitutes, criminals and gunfights with reasonable weapons. It is a set of worlds that humans could have found and colonized.

The highly anticipated movie, Prometheus by renowned science fiction director Ridley Scott, is a prequel of the Alien universe of movies, which range in quality from outstanding to absolute junk (my opinion, of course). The first two movies in the series, Alien and Aliens, were the best, maybe two of the best science fiction movies ever. Alien and Aliens were terrifying movies, but at least were reasonably scientific.  The space ships did not travel faster than light (crew members were put into stasis during travel, though constant mistakes were made that confused the issue of how fast the ships were traveling), a fairly human-like android was one of the crew members, and the alien itself was an advanced form of parasite with several life stages: an endoparasite, receiving nourishment from a host, while egg and adult stages were free-living organisms. It’s actually a very credible life form, quite different than your average space alien.

The premise of Prometheus is that humans find encoded pictographs that point to the location of another race of beings. They go to this planet, find the race of space giants (whose fossilized remains were discovered in the early scenes of Alien), then find the alien. I’m not a movie reviewer, so I’m not here to talk about the acting (OK), the quality of special effects (pretty good), plot (below average) or dialogue (about what you expect with a typical science fiction movie). Without giving anything away about the movie, I wanted to critique the science basis of the movie.

The problem with the movie wasn’t so much that it messed up science (most SF movies do), but it seem to actually have an attitude of being anti-science. In some parts of the movie, it tried to be stupid about the basics of science, which is often one of the signs of being anti-science. Given that Ridley Scott did the original Alien, which some consider a masterpiece, it’s hard to understand why he moved so far away from somewhat plausible science.

Here are the most annoying scientific problems with the movie:

  • At the beginning of the movie, a humanoid alien (eventually called Engineers by the visitors from Earth) is standing near a waterfall, drinks some water then sort of dissolves into water, presumably seeding the planet with DNA. OK, that’s not bad, except the planet (Earth we are to assume) has trees and plants. Did the writers flunk biology in high school? All organisms on earth share the same DNA and are all descended from the same common ancestor  (if you go far enough back). So if there are already plants (land plants at that, which evolved about 450 million years ago, or around 3 billion years after abiogenesis). So, this dumb alien decides to put DNA on a planet that had DNA 3 billion years previously. This is either stupidity of the writers, or, worse yet, they are denying the vast wealth of evidence that supports the fact of common descent. This is no different than creationism or intelligent design that some god (or god-like alien) created organisms. 
  • But it’s worse than that. According to the movie, the aliens race’s DNA is exactly like human DNA. What? Yes, human and alien DNA is basically the same despite 3 billion years of divergent evolution (or whenever the melting alien showed up on earth). This is ridiculous, and, once again, shows either completely ignorance on the part of the writers, or an intentional decision to be anti-evolution. Now if they only meant the DNA molecule, sure that’s plausible. But that’s not what they were saying.
  • Archeologists discover some sort of star pattern scribbled on walls and other stuff in disparate and unconnected human cultures, from which they deduce that it’s a map to a another inhabited planet. It is a rather dubious leap from a bunch of dots on various walls to assuming it’s a map somewhere. Wouldn’t a reasonable archeologist just assume that a bunch of different human cultures would would draw a common constellation? We got no explanation why they leaped to considering it a star map, but maybe the dialogue was unclear.
  • Every scientist is shown to be either religious (Dr. Elizabeth Shaw, as the archeologist, who thinks that religion answers all questions) or complete fools. One of the characters, Fifield, is a geologist who seems totally disinterested in the moon on the other side of the universe. In fact, he mostly acts like someone who watched too many movies, by saying “don’t go down that tunnel.” These aren’t real scientists. They show no intense curiosity about anything around them. What kind of scientists are these?
  • Milburn, the botanist, seems to be scared of everything he sees. Most biologists who would be lucky enough to end up on another planet with biological organisms, would be fascinated by everything they see. Again, scientists are intensely curious about the natural world. These scientists were like bad actors who hadn’t a clue what a real biologist is like. 
  • Not so much an overt anti-science issue, but the android David, seemed more advanced than the androids, Ash and Bishop, in Alien and Aliens, respectively. Since Prometheus is supposedly set well before the time of the other movies, then we’d expect a version 1.0, but we seem to have gotten a version 10.0, an improved version. I don’t mind mistakes, but in this case, the writers forget how technology evolves.

I must have been at a movie filled with science geeks and skeptics, because I kept hearing “bullshit” to a lot of plot points. I hadn’t even noticed the plant life when the alien disintegrated, but someone next to me pointed it out. I was flabbergasted by the inattention to real scientific detail. 

I hate to be such a skeptic that I can’t enjoy good science fiction, but the fact is there was just too much suspension of reality. With all of the religious undertones, I could only conclude that the writers were pushing a creationist point of view with the Engineers being a proxy for a creator.

The anti-science of the movie drove me crazy. There is no way I could recommend this movie, and I’m going to stick with science fiction that is plausible and well done. Like Firefly

The Original Skeptical Raptor
Chief Executive Officer at SkepticalRaptor
Lifetime lover of science, especially biomedical research. Spent years in academics, business development, research, and traveling the world shilling for Big Pharma. I love sports, mostly college basketball and football, hockey, and baseball. I enjoy great food and intelligent conversation. And a delicious morning coffee!
  • Lowell Isaac

    Thank you! I also found the anti-evolution themes pretty shocking, and I’m surprised we didn’t hear more about that. Yeah, scientists acting dumb in order to push the plot along was annoying, and hurt the film, but schlock sci-fi can be tolerated (although many of us were expecting a lot more). However, the basic premise of the film itself was offensive to biology. Even if there were no trees in that first scene– what is the point? Either that engineer’s cells turned directly into humans (which means we are not actually apes i. e. evolution didn’t happen), or maybe we’re supposed to think those were the first cells on earth, in which case the engineers would have no way of knowing where it would lead. It would have to be a coincidence that after billions of years of dinosaurs, etc. we would emerge, and look somewhat like the engineers. If it wasn’t a coincidence, evolution didn’t happen. There is no way to begin to square this movie with what we know about biology.

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  • I’ve been pissed off ever since I watched this last night.

    Some other items that struck a nerve with me:

    1. A character commenting that they’ve traveled “half a billion miles” to their destination.
    2. Carbon-14 dating of an alien creature of unknown biology, from an unknown planet of unknown atmospheric composition.
    3. An atmosphere that is more or less identical to Earth’s, yet is somehow rendered “toxic” by a mere 3% CO2.
    4. Moronic scientists that remove their helmets without concern of biohazards.
    5. Scientists that behave, as you’ve mentioned, like disinterested idiots.

    • I was considering typing in notes while watching the movie, but that might have annoyed everyone around me.

      The C14 issue was funny, for the reasons you state. What if this planet had more or less naturally occurring C-14 (which depends on several factors for its occurrence). It’s not an absolute timing device. However, in Prometheus’ world it was.

      I am so disappointed in the movie.

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