We start with spoilers, right off the top: Back in 1979′s Alien, Lambert, Kane, and Dallas passed through a big spooky chamber— the Devil’s own rib cage — en route to cinematic immortality. The fossilized remains of an alien creature rested at its center like a great stone heart, embedded in organic machinery: mysterious, vaguely pachydermal, lonely somehow. We never learned what that creature was, where it came from, how it ended up fused to the bottom end of an alien telescope with its ribs shattered. We didn’t have to. The mystery was what gripped us: this evidence of things beyond the firelight we couldn’t see and, oh please God, might never see: because the infinitesimal sliver of the Unknown that did leak into view was enough to make us crap our pants before it ripped us limb from limb.
Thirty-three years later, Ridley Scott shone a light into the darkness. He peeled away that skeletal shroud and showed us what lurked underneath: just a regular dude with big muscles and albinism, as it turned out. Mr. Clean without the earring. And with that one reveal, Scott took all that was mysterious and compelling and fearful about the monster under the bed, and reduced it to utter banality.
The scene itself is almost meta— because when you scale it up, that’s pretty much what Prometheus does to the entire Alien franchise.
If you haven’t checked out Caitlin’s review yet, you should: it’s concise and thoughtful and right on the money in terms of the broad missteps that make Prometheus sputter on its narrative cylinders. But perhaps the one grand achievement that this movie might lay claim to is, its failings are too vast and too numerous to be contained within the limits of any one review. It will take squads, entire platoons of reviewers to properly pick apart these bones. I only hope that I, along with the half of the Internet that also happens to be weighing in, am up to the task.
Where to begin?
How about at the very first shot, where a naked alabaster oxygen-breathing humanoid strolls about on a planet that doesn’t have any oxygen in its atmosphere (i.e. prebiotic Earth). He drinks of a literal Cup of Life; dissolves; topples into Earth’s water cycle, where the soup of his dissolution forms the basis of all life on the planet. We know this, jumping ahead a few billion years, because we humans turn out to be an exact genetic match with said alabaster dude. Meaning that
- Every earthly life form from the Archaea on down has exactly the same genotype — has had the same genotype for 4.5 billion years, in fact — and everything anybody ever discovered about genes from Mendel on down was wrong; or
- Different earthly clades do have divergent genotypes, but our particular twig on the tree (and none other) just happened to end up converging back to an exact match on the primordial soup after four and a half billion years of independent mutation, divergence and reticulation on its own (oh, and everything anybody ever discovered about genes from Mendel on down was wrong); or
- Everybody who ever had a hand in developing the screenplay for Prometheus dropped out of school after Grade Three, never watched a single episode of Animal Planet or CSI, and stuck their fingers in their ears and hummed real loud whenever anyone at a cocktail party talked about science. And everything Damon Lindelhof thinks he might have overheard somewhere about genes is wrong.
These are pretty big lapses to encounter in the first ten minutes of any so-called “science fiction” film — much less from the hands of someone as genre-defining as Ridley Scott — and yet I feel a little silly even bringing them up, because so many of the broader storytelling elements are such a mess. When the Challenger blows up, you don’t waste your time complaining about its paint job. But beyond Sweet et al.‘s observations about the lack of dramatic tension, the lack of mystery, the lack of story, science does play a disproportionate role here. Alien was about a bunch of truckers on a lonely monster-haunted highway; Aliens, about a bunch of jarheads rediscovering, to their shock and awe, the nastier lessons of Viet Nam. Prometheus is about a scientific expedition, for fuckssake— and while Cameron cared enough about verisimilitude to put his actors through a couple weeks’ basic military training, it’s blindingly obvious that Scott couldn’t be bothered to ensure that his “scientists” knew the difference between a gene and a bad joke. Much less anything about science as a profession.
So nobody thinks it remarkable when an archaeologist performs micro-necro-neurosurgery or runs a genetic analysis — anybody with an ologist on their resumé has gotta be a whizz at everything from microbiology to global general relativity, right? We’re shown a biologist who uses the word “Darwinism” as though it were a legitimate scientific term and not a dig invented by creationists: the same biologist who, in the penultimate act of a profoundly undistinguished career, runs with his tail between his legs at the sight of the first actual alien the Human race has ever encountered, even though it’s been dead for thousands of years. Then, a few hours later, watches a live serpentine alien perform what’s pretty obviously a threat display — and tries to pet it.
And yet, idiotic though that biologist may be, the scientist in me can’t really take personal offense because nobody in this shiny train wreck has a clue, from the pilot to the aliens to an on-board medical pod that, honest-to-God, is Not Configured for Females (unless that was supposed to be some kind of ham-fisted comment on gender politics?). Nobody bothers with any kind of orbital survey prior to landing (blind luck is always the best way to locate artefacts that could be anywhere on the surface of a whole bloody planet — although that’s downright plausible next to being able to find a multi-mooned gas giant from 34 lightyears away, based on a prehistoric game of tic-tac-toe someone scratched into a cave wall during the last ice age). A survey team goes charging into an unexplored alien structure and takes off their helmets the moment someone says “oxygen”. Their captain leaves the bridge unattended for a quick fuck, right after informing two crew members stranded in the bowels of said structure that some kind of unknown life-form reading is popping in and out of sensor range just down the hall from them. The lead’s love interest notices an alien worm doing a quick tap-dance on his own cornea, then suits up for EVA without telling anyone. David the android does a pretty good pre-enactment of Ash’s later subterfuge in Alien by using his flesh-and-blood crewmates as incubators for this week’s infestation — for no reason I could see, since the standing orders that motivate Ash can’t possibly have been coded yet (nobody even knows about these aliens, or any others, prior to planetfall). And the “Engineers” — ancient godlike beings who act across billion-year timescales and give life to worlds — have yet to figure out how to make biohazard Tupperware that doesn’t breach whenever someone comes through the front door.
Not, granted, that all that black goo really can be contained, not by any plausible bioware facility (although you do have to wonder why, if the stuff really was such a handful, the Engineers didn’t just take off and nuke the site from orbit). The stuff seems to spin a roulette wheel to decide what it’s going to be at any given time: kraken, mealworm, biologist-eating cobra. At one point it acts as some kind of zombifying-and-reprogramming agent, reanimating the corpse of a dead geologist and sending him back to the mothership to flail around like Jason Voorhees on So You Think You Can Dance. Biological containment measures are doomed to fail because this McGuffin is not limited by any plausible biological constraints.
I see that over on io9, my buddy Dave Williams describes the Engineer’s goo as a “DNA accelerant”. I don’t know what that is; maybe it’s a product of “Darwinism”. I’d be more inclined to suggest that it simply exhibits whatever arbitrary characteristics the plot requires at any given moment, except for the fact that Prometheus doesn’t seem to have a plot. None of those iterations seem to tie into a coherent biological model; none of those incidents seem to connect narratively to any other. It’s as if some lazy Dungeon Master showed up for a night of Dungeons & Dragons without having actually planned a campaign, and just threw a bunch of random encounters at the players hoping they wouldn’t notice.
Of course, those who champion the film don’t do so on the basis of its science. It’s not about the science, they would say, it’s about the Big Questions. (I wonder how such folks would react if the producers of Master & Commander had followed the same logic, decided that since the heart of the story was the human relationships, why not just let Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany bob around the tropics in Water Wings and not worry about all that nineteenth-century nautical trivia?) I admit to half the point; I admit that Prometheus is not a movie especially interested in science. I do not concede, however, that it is a movie about Big Questions: that would put it into the realm of philosophy, and the script lacks anywhere near sufficient rigor to qualify on that score. Philosophy does more than throw a bunch of what-ifs at the wall and leave them sticking there like overcooked pasta. It doesn’t just raise questions, it engages them. It grapples. Prometheus just takes its what-ifs and stuffs them into a hundred-million-dollar fortune cookie.
Which makes it not a work of science or of philosophy, but of religion. It may mouth the Big Questions, but the answers it provides are downright inane. And you have to take everything else on faith.
 Granted, this is an all-too-common failing even of SF shows that I like.
 I won’t complain — just this once — about the biophysics model that allows a larvae the size of a banana to grow into an adult Kraken in the space of a few hours, without eating anything. That’s been a perennial problem even for the good installments of the franchise. (It’d make a great basis for a Gator-Ade commercial, though.)