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.