So a lot of you have, by now, probably seen Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, the highly anticipated “prequel” to his 1979 classic Alien. (Its actual goal seems more about hitting the reset button on the whole franchise.) And so I suspect a good many of you are seething about it in the way I and many of the people I’ve been discussing it with have been.
It’s a staggering disappointment, but I think those of us in the skeptical/atheist/pro-science community will find its script — co-written by Damon Lindelof, best known for the TV series Lost — especially insulting. This is a story that just plain shits on science, and how science works, in ways that openly pander to and reinforce American attitudes of religiosity, anti-science and all-around scientific illiteracy. And its sins go beyond the ludicrous dialogue mistake — called out by Neil de Grasse Tyson — where Charlize Theron’s character describes a voyage of 35 light years as “half a billion miles” from Earth, something the writers could have fixed had they not been too goddamn lazy to use Google.
Of course, the movie looks dazzling, because Ridley Scott made it, and nothing he makes looks less than dazzling. And it has a number of small virtues, not the least of which is Michael Fassbender’s devilishly charming performance as the android David, who patterns himself after Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia but actually comes across as more of a walking, talking HAL 9000. His character is the one truly likable one in the whole movie, and you wish he had a better movie to appear in.
Throughout the story, characters act without discernible motivation (David at one point deliberately infects one of the scientists with alien goop without the man’s knowledge, with no clear explanation why). They behave in such stupid and illogical ways you wonder how they qualified for the job of traveling to an uncharted world on a voyage funded by the biggest corporation on Earth in the first place.
Of all the available geologists, the best guy they could get was an emotionally unstable headcase with scalp tattoos and a glassy stare who practically has “I Am Totally Going to Lose It and Then Be Horribly Killed” written on his forehead from the moment you first see him? And I think it would occur to most of us that when you’re exploring an ancient alien ruin, in which you’ve already found a pile of horribly mutilated bodies, and a freaky snake-like alien critter pops its head out of a pool of green slime and hisses at you menacingly, reaching out to touch it is probably not the smartest idea.
Also, here’s a thought. When the wreckage of a horseshoe-shaped spacecraft is rolling towards you, and you do not wish to be crushed to death, why not run to one side rather than in a straight line directly in its path?
But what is most irritating is the movie’s conflation of science with religious faith. Lindelof takes a postmodern approach in which all ideas are equally likely to be true, and gives Noomi Rapace’s character the most infuriating line any “scientist” in a science fiction movie has ever uttered. When asked to defend her thesis that aliens genetically engineered the human race, which defies the evidence of evolution (here called by the creationist term “Darwinism”), she admits she can’t, “but that’s what I choose to believe.”
Scientists aren’t free of beliefs. But the good ones know that whatever belief or idea you go into an experiment with, you have to be prepared to overthrow it should the evidence you uncover fail to support it. But audiences don’t get this message in the story. In fact, what they get is wafer-thin at best, superficial dialogue exchanges designed to make you think Big Ideas are on the table when they’re really not. “I believe this,” “Well, I believe that” is as deep as science-vs-belief discussions get between the characters.
We eventually learn that tycoon Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce, in the worst old-age makeup I’ve set eyes on) has gotten it into his head that the alien Engineers know something about either immortality, or life after death, or something. But you’re never sure why he thinks this, to the degree of funding a trillion-dollar mission into deep space. Possibly, if Noomi is right and we were engineered, we have no souls, which Weyland wants to believe we do have. But why does he think he’ll get the answers he seeks by barking questions at the first engineer they awaken from cryogenic sleep? (Which proves to be a remarkably bad idea. He should have at least let the guy fix a cup of coffee first.) Again, whatever profundities the movie is after just get bulldozed by bad writing on all fronts.
Also, Noomi’s character wears a cross throughout the movie, a little prop that is often front-and-center in most of her scenes. The clear intent here, I think, is pandering to Christian audiences, who are simply asked to think of her as a Good Person by mere possession of this cross, and aren’t expected to realize (which indeed they may not) that if she’s right about humanity’s alien origins, that defies not only evolution but Biblical teachings too.
In the end, Lindelof’s script really does its utmost to avoid taking any kind of clear philosophical or epistemic stand on the whole origins question. I think he’s leaning far more on the side of woo than of science, if not in as headache-inducingly stupid a way as, say, M. Night Shyamalan. The movie wants to be seen as a religious allegory, in the end: we have done something to displease our “gods,” but we know not what. But what we’re left with is a story that does what no well-written science fiction should do: pretend to introduce Big Ideas, then, in a misguided effort to please all and offend none, back away from any intriguing insights or speculation regarding those ideas, so that what remains is gorgeous sound and fury, signifying nothing.
Addendum: Well, it only took four comments for someone to invoke Moff’s Law. But if you think I’m being too anally nitpicky about the bad science and bad writing in the movie, my analysis is nothing. Check out this archaeological take on it all, with truly epic snark levels.