Prometheus: A biologist’s review (Spoilers aplenty)

Spoilers. Lots of them. If you plan to see this movie don’t read this post. Really. This is a movie worth seening if you like riotous movies and are willing to forgive of lots of trip-ups that really don’t make sense. I’m a fan of lots of Scifi TV and have grown tolerant of wacky writers running roughshod over both commonsense and basic science. The film is stunningly filmed, exciting, and wonderfully acted. In particular, Noomi Rapace, even without her Dragon Tattoos, was nearly perfect. So worth seeing, if you are willing to set aside much.

So to my analysis.

The aliens, called by the Earthlings ‘Engineers,’ are gorgeous, comic book hero physiqued, olmec faced, and very colorless pale. In the opening scene an alien opens a jar of wiggling caviar looking stuff, eats it ritualistically and then he sort of dissolves and falls off a waterfall. His DNA then floats wily-nilly in the stream water and soon cells show up and start dividing. It’s actually quite an affective scene. I have no idea what it means or where this alien was (Earth or his planet)? But it was lovely. Of course DNA floating in the water would not have made a cell, you sort of need all kinds of cellular machinery to construct something from DNA, which in general is just not floating around in water.

Then they are on Skye Island and find a cave with 35,000 year old paintings of big aliens pointing to a star system. Only thing was the painting is identical to the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave paintings of about 31,000 years ago. So the Irish people living 35,000 years ago provided the inspiration of the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave paintings of about 31,000 (and while around 4000 years might not seem that long for what’s happened recently–not much having happened between the Pharaohs and now, back in the day that was a long time). I think the idea of a 4000 year old art school in Scotland that the French studied at in 29,000 BC very realistic and cleaver.

So you find art all over the primitive world with big guys pointing at stars the natural thing to do is build a trillion dollar (the cost was explicitly stated, but keep in mind that in 2089 dollars that might be quite a bargin) space ship and travel there.

Now, I’ve been kind so far, forgiving all of the above, but here let me offer a bit of advice to film makers, if you are ever in need some science consultation I work for cheap and would be thrilled to go over your script. But as a rule of thumb, don’t have people do what you would not do yourself. The scientists arrive on a new planet and they stick their instruments in the air of an alien building and say the chemistry looks breathable, you know the right mix of O2, Nitrogen and all that, and just like you would (not) they take off their helmets. NO. NO. NO. You don’t take off your helmet just because the air has the right mix us stuff we can breath. Hello, what about germs? You know, things that could make you very sick? This is like me arriving in Senegal to study tsetse flies and finding a puddle of water in back of the Zoo in Dakar and saying, look H2O, in just the right chemical combination to drink. Glub, Glub. No. See the danger is that it might have some pathogens that could be very unhealthy. I would not drink it. I just wouldn’t. And every one with a lick of sense would not pop off their helmet on a new planet. Worse, then they find dead aliens and still don’t put on their helmets! I mean every human has some cultural reluctance about breathing dead-body air. No, not these scientists, they even kneel down and start playing with the corpse.

Now, onward. Their android was my favoriate part of the movie as I consider myself a bit of an android aficionado. It had a very creepy, 2001 A Space Odyssey’s Hal vibe. Well done. He grabs some black goo that turns into worms somehow and slips it to one of the scientists. I’m not sure why. I think he was curious what the black goo would do. Of course, this broke Asimov’s First Law of Robotics. While highly bad form for a robot, especially as he seems to do this without any motivation, I’ll allow it. When you’ve travelled two years alone with all the humans asleep I’m sure that would make me space happy. Plus, he had to learn the languages of 3500 BC so he could speak to the aliens, speaking to humans in 35,000. It just makes sense that languages would not start changing until 3500 BC (Tower of Babel anyone?).

Anyway, in the guy who drinks the black goo from the android slipped micky, an alien grows. He has an intimate moment with his wife and she gets infected too. He has to be flame thrown but she finds another really really cool way to get rid of hers (perhaps worth the price of the ticket). Now, I’m a little confused about this. Presumably the worms need to go through some sort of reproductive cycle to reproduce, and we learn from what grows in the woman that there is some sort of adult stage, which in Earth animals is the reproductive state, so I’m not sure how the worm reproduced itself in the man so it could infect the woman, but as we’ve got alien biology going on I’ll allow it. Multi lifestage reproductive programs are common on Earth (think malaria) too, just nothing that grows to macro scales. Still, it is plausible.

So for my last bit of advice, two guys are stuck in the alien building. They are scared to death. A giant snakish thing comes out. The dudes don’t flee. This was disappointing behavior for our two red shirts, because the creature is obviously dangerous, and the frightened men, who have been afraid of noises and spooky sounds suddenly get very brave at exactly the wrong moment. Snake avoidance neurons should have been firing through the roof, but no, one guy starts cooing at it and wants to tame and pet it. As a rule of thumb, if you meet a new form of life on a planet, and you know nothing about it, let alone its defenses, poisons, teeth, etc. just run. Really. Run. It’s your best move. Unless its a chase/pursuit predator then it might go after you, so even better, back off slowly, looking as large as possible, until you are far away. Then run. Trying to sweet talk an alien life form is just a bad idea.

There is more I could comment on: The possibility of getting a mummified head to open its still glassy eyes, having enough stomach contents after a two-year sleep to heave something up, having a 100% DNA match with humans, etc. but I just want to hone in on one more thing. First Contact. Has Star Trek taught us nothing about the fragility and care that must go into first contact? This is a critical moment. Every Starfleet Cadet knows you come to this with some preparation and care. Do they take any precautions or approach with some sense that they should be careful? No they march in and wake up the alien expecting him to be all happy to see them. A little aside here: Carl Sagan believed that aliens would be benevolent teachers, helping other cultures to achieve higher levels of technology and thought. This, because to survive the aliens would have had to overcome war and learned the way of peace or the creatures would have self-annihilated. Hawking thinks any advanced race will be the winner in a fierce competition for limited resources and will have been the victor in a cage death match winner takes all battle with only one alien race left standing. Who is right? Anyway, Hawkings seems to win the argument here, or maybe the alien wakes up on the wrong side of the bed and goes on a rampage. Again, please. First Contact needs some finesse. Caution is warranted.

The movie had some interesting ideas about life death and such and it would have been so easy to get things right. The scientists just leaving their helmets on and following some basic biohazard protocols would have made the film ten times better. But we take what we can get. Not a classic, but a pop-corn muncher (except in some parts) as long as you don’t think too hard.

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14 comments to Prometheus: A biologist’s review (Spoilers aplenty)

  • [...] So the director of the mission is forced to use a flame thrower, a fairly gruesome procedure.  But Steven Peck describes the biological problems with the movie much better than I [...]

  • Biobrit

    All those same things drove me crazy! Couldn’t they try to get the characters to behave like a real scientist would? Star Trek has really spoiled me. But the scifi lover in me won out and I still really enjoyed the movie.

  • I agree. I kept thinking “these must the the stupidest, most foolish scientists to ever live”. Who tries to pet a hissing alien serpent/worm?

  • Ivan

    That alien fetus that was extracted from Elizabeth’s body… It developed into a giant octopus in a _sealed sterile medical room_. Not sure what’s going on here and what did it EAT to grow to that size. Unless of course it’s a hulk-like creature that can instantly change it’s mass

  • dug

    “what did it EAT to grow to that size”

    that’s a fundamental problem with all of the alien movies–where did all that size/growth come from?

    on the other hand, taking helmets off, etc? only scientists would say that fixing that would make the movie ten times better. it’s no different than a jamie lee curtis going alone into a dark basement.

    so really, if these are the plot holes and character pitfalls, then they did a pretty good job. i loved it. just like i loved the hurt locker, even though they sat like lone snipers in the desert all day and didn’t call in air support, or when they ran off into the dark baghdad night all alone. mistakes, but not movie ruiners.

  • Allystair

    I wanted to take issue with your comment on the biologist that wanted to pet the alien life form. You made the claim that this is not normal human behavior. While I agree with that statement I would like to add that wanting to pet an alien life form is, none the less, human behavior. Example: I was hiking a few weeks ago with my children and came across a 1.5m (4 and 1/2 feet for those behind the rest of the world) snake. My 3 year old daughters first reaction was…awwe cute! and proceeded to catch the snake. I have picture for verification. Just last week, we were at lake Powell, and one of the group members that, male, mid thirties, encountered a “huge” crawdad. I told him to grab it, to which he scoffed at me, “I am not grabbing it, you grab it”! So I picked it up. Once again, my three year old having witnessed my actions proceeded to look for another and immediately captured a crawdad right in front of this “grown man”. Personally I needed a grin-ectomy because of this, but I think these examples go a long way to prove the point I am going to make.

    Our fears of “alien lifeforms” may be more environmental than genetic for some people. Meaning, we are taught to be afraid. Having worked with reptiles I can tell you that if you take a snake to a group of young females (generally <8 years old) they will be fascinated and approach it without hesitation most of the time. Take that same group of females 10 years later and all you get are eeekkkks and gasps of horror. As youth we are natural born climbers and climb everything. As someone who once provided for my wellbeing as a climbing guide I have repeatedly told my clients that all we need to do is remember what we knew as children. I must admit, there are some people who genetically are afraid of alien life forms, and no amount of environmental change will fix it, but it is entirely plausible to have a Biologist who isn't naturally afraid. In fact, by the fact that he is a biologist, that would tilt the odds in favor of no fear.

    My biggest issue with this biologist is the way he decided to describe the life form. The first thing he stated was that it was reptilian like. Any good biologist would look for radial versus bilateral symmetry first, then cephalization, then sensory. Couple that with the fact that it was chilling in ooze and I would have said amphibian like only after those before mentions items.

    I would like to see it again in light of many of the ideas presented here. Any takers?

  • Oximoron

    Allystair I partially disagree with you. I’m a Biologist and while it is true some people are more curios than others. The point here is that they are not 3 year olds, this kind of things make sense when you are talking about people without science science or technical training/education. The saying “curiosity killed the cat” has been proven true many times in history; Nobel, Curie, Small Pox in America, the plague, AIDS, and a long etcetera; that had led scientist (specially biologists) to think in every known scenario and even posible ones to avoid danger to themselves, the rest their research team and the world. These “scientists” removed their helmets without testing for bacteria, virus or fungus; touched the phosilized corpse of an alien without any decontamination procedure (maybe that’s why the DNA match was 100%, have you seen how they unearth mammonth phossils from the ice to avoid contamination?!); the “biologist” ran away from an humanoid corpse, but not from an obviusly treathening unknown alien form that crawled out of some organical substance, The geologist in charge of mapping got lost? People running, falling, lifting after an abdominal insicion. In Alien these folly made sense beacuse they were workes or soldiers and their reactions were more instictive. In prometheus we have lazy writing.

  • Clark

    The worst part definitely was that the scientists didn’t act like scientists.

    The second worst part was where the aliens got the food to grow. Like the one growing in the female scientist. She was pretty thin and this thing grew out of a tiny worm presumably in semen. How on earth did it get that big in a day? Without making her ridiculously sick? Ditto after it was pulled out (why on earth did it survive after its embryonic stage was interrupted like that?) Folks come back only a few hours later and suddenly it’s the size of a giant squid? As you say, what did it eat?

    It was visually stunning completely undermined by a horribly lazy script.

  • Clark

    Oh one point I’ll grant Scott. I think the stuff they spit up when they come out of hibernation was the liquid they were immersed in. I think it was a fluid to help with the hibernation and not food.

    Also growing aliens isn’t a problem in all films. In the first Alien the small alien that erupts from William Hurt clearly is going around scrounging food from various storage as well as rats or the like. In Aliens the creatures raid the human colony for food.

    While scientists do sometimes do stupid things they don’t behave like those scientists did. The worst being the two who are portrayed as terrified of aliens (why then are they on the team?) who then inexplicably find the alien snake cute.

  • Allystair

    The point I was trying to make, albeit poorly, was not about age, it was about the G*E interaction creating novel phenotypes. Lets look at a huge assumption we are making by calling his behavior “not normal”.

    The year in which the are investigating the planet is many generations away. We know predation and density have a huge impact on the R=hS equation. (R being the phenotypic change from 1 generation to another, h being the heredity of the traits, and S being the selective force). Humans are not usually under the selective force of predation but density is a massive force affecting the evolution of humans. We can assume that the population has grown from now until the day that biologist left for his space trip. We can assume that density has increase in most, if not all, metropolitan areas. That means that we cannot assume that those future humans did not evolve. We are basing the normality of his behavior based on our perspective now when we should really be looking at the selective forces these characters experienced.

    Now, we know that there are 72 trillion different possibilities that may occur when a female gamete joins with a male gamete. With this knowledge and the idea that humans may have had different allele frequencies than we do now, we have to agree that some genetic * environmental interaction may have lead this guy to do exactly what he did. Be terrified of ghost, decide to hold up in a room with containers that were oozing, then see an alien life form and want to pet it. This behavior completely exist in the realm of possibility.

    I also wanted to agree with Clark. The life cycle of the alien of face-hugger, chest buster, drone has always shown that the alien can grow enormously fast with little to feed off of. In Alien 3 I think all he ate was a dog. The video game Alien versus predator also confirms this. The first levels as an alien you are a face hugger and have to find someone to implant. The next level all you can see is a human heart and you have to eat your way out. Then you have to find food and all you need to advance to the next level is to find a cat and eat it.

  • Allystair. You are a HUGE nerd. Kudos. Stop showing off :) Couldn’t we have had ONE good scientist represented in the film?

  • CEF

    There are many gaps in the film, most have been mentioned, but here is another one. I work inside containment buldings on nuclear projects. We call them BRT’s. Big round things. We are a very close group of guys, we trust our lives with each other every day. For them to send a bunch of people up in space like that, that did not know each other, would (in my mind)never happen. But, I still enjoyed the movie.

  • dug

    i saw the film again last night with my teenage kids, and while we still very much enjoyed the movie, a few things continue to bother us (apart from the “grow to incredible size in hours with almost no caloric intake” which i’ve already complained about).

    first, why the cave paintings? if the engineers created us, but then changed their minds, why have us/them draw cave paintings to get us to come to their weapons planet? i mean, if they were coming to earth to kill us, they certainly didn’t need us to go there. and if they only decided to kill us AFTER they had already done the cave drawings, then why entice us to the weapons planet and not to their home planet? (i guess there’s the possibility that the engineers didn’t all agree on whether to a) create us, and b) kill us, but they still don’t need anybody coming to the weapons planet)

    and second, this seems like a pretty rag tag crew. i get in the first Alien, that they are miners in the future, and not really scientists. but they spent a trillion dollars to get to this planet–couldn’t they get the best of the best scientists to go to space? really, these are the best available? or did they spend all their money on a special hospital pod that only treats men, and decide to scrimp and save a bit on the personnel?

    and yet. we were enthralled. saw it in imax 3d. the 3d seemed wasted. the imax was amazing.

  • Oximoron

    I feel like I’m beating a dead horse, but I will not shy away from a good discussion anyway. Alystair, since the movie supposedly happens in 2093, 80 years account to roughly one generation of humans, may be one of us will be alive for that year. As you may know not even 500 years are enough to see a shift in allelic frequencies not even with genetic drift and all his power and that is much more less probable with natural selection. Besides I don’t think “fear for alien snakes” is a phenotypic trait that’s subject of evololutionary forces in a cramped metropolis, hell I think its not even a genetical trait. It actually was when were hunters and preys, that’s why if you put a 3 year old in fron of a snarling wolf or a hissing cobra they would probably run, hell I would.

    What I’m trying to say is that for much genetically coded instinct for reaching and grab an threatening alien, a scientist is suposed to be trained to put away instinct and use reason. But as everyone here says you don’t have to be a scientinst to know that what the character did was stupid and turned more stupid the moment you realize that he’s suposed to be a rational man trained in biology.

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