Monday, June 11, 2012

Bad science: Prometheus (SPOILERS!)

Like a lot of science fiction fans, Alien and Blade Runner are two of my favorite movies of all time.  The wonderful atmosphere, the deep characters, the timeless themes, they are head and shoulders above most movies in the genre.

So naturally, I was looking forward to Ridley Scott's third science fiction film:  Prometheus, a prequel to Alien.  What I was not expecting was some of the worst science fiction that I have ever seen.  There are major plot holes in character development and motivation, but even worse for me was the incredible disregard for basic science.

I'm the kind of guy who goes out of his way to give folks the benefit of the doubt.  But it is clear that whoever wrote this dreck would not have passed high school science.


Here I'll list a few of the reasons why I think this movie is an affront to physics, medicine, computer science, biology, and cartography.

1) Astronomy/Archeology:  At the beginning of the movie, we are treated to a wonderful scene of a single member of the species later referred to as "The Engineers" putting his DNA into the water supply.  Cut to modern times, where our hero archaeologist couple finds a cave painting of a giant being pointing to five stars.

Where to start?  First, why would this alien being give us a direct clue about where he/she came from?  Second, memory isn't passed through DNA, so how would anyone know to draw this?  Third, if ancient peoples had the memory passed through the magic DNA, why would no one now have it?  I never thought I would utter these words:  How they found the pyramid in Alien v. Predator was more realistic than how they found the pyramid in this film. (Shudder.)

2) Biology:  The biologist refers to evolutionary theory as "Darwinism", a term used almost exclusively today by creationists trying to paint evolution as a faith rather than science, and rarely used by real scientists.  Moreover, he says "300 years of Darwinism" a mere 230 years after the publication of "The Origin of Species".

3) Biology:  The DNA of the Engineers is a match with human DNA.  This simply makes no sense from a biological perspective.  A few million years of evolution and our DNA will be very different simply through random drift and mutation than that of the Engineers.  And if the Engineer DNA dump happened more recently, then why do we share 99% of our DNA with chimpanzees again?

4) Linguistics:  David speaks the Alien language by studying all of Earth's languages.  Again, memory isn't passed through DNA.  Moreover, he reads and writes it as well.  Now, in the opening scene we do see writing on the lid of the container the Engineer opens at the beginning.  But even if someone stumbled across this *single lid in the entire world*, why would that person think that represented writing *before writing was invented*.  Any human writing would be independently created, as would our speech.  Again, this is just bad writing by someone who wants to ignore what we do know about the evolution of human language.

5) Cartography:  The only character who gets lost in the entire film is *the geologist who is specifically mapping the cave system*.  He's leading the group in the first part of the story!  Heck, I can read an automap, and I don't exactly have a PhD in cartography.

6) Biology:  I’ve got a drop of unknown alien substance. Do I a) put it on a slide and stick it under the microscope? b) infect one of the many lab animals brought along for the purpose of testing biological material, c) put it in a Petri dish with Agar nutrient d) attempt to infect one of the two “leaders” of the expedition by *dipping the material first in alcohol* and then tricking the hapless test subject into drinking it, after which lose interest and do not observe the person for the next twelve hours.

7) Medicine:  The magic medical machine is a wonderful advance of future technology.  It is also utterly ridiculous.  Once you have the hardware to preform automated surgery, the rest is simple software.  But when Shaw tries to use the machine for an abortion, she is coldly informed that the machine is only set up for male patients.  What?  My camera card has a 128 gig card in it, and this giant machine only has the procedures for the menfolk downloaded?  (This scene was intended as foreshadowing for the return of a character that only people who don't know who Guy Pearce is thought was dead, but it comes across as a pointless restriction on future tech.)

8) Medicine:  The self automated surgery is the coolest scene in the film.  It is also an affront to human physiology.  It occurs too early in the film.  After a cut across the abdomen of that length (about 15 inches from what I saw), Shaw could not even stand up without "passing out" levels of pain.  But not only does she stand, she walks, and she outruns CGI explosions!

9) Physics:  The Engineers space ship is heading away from the pyramid.  The Prometheus is heading away from the pyramid.  So when they collide, why does the Engineers ship drop straight down right on top of the landing site.  Conservation of momentum?  Not on this planet!

10) Cybernetics:  It's 2012, and we're still not past this "robots have no souls" nonsense.  I would think after Bishop, T2, Data, and Scott's own Blade Runner, we'd have moved past this crazy notion that robots can't be moral.  (See also, everything Asimov ever wrote about robots.)  David is a sentient being who passes the Turing test with flying colors.  He's also an amoral jackass.  Being a robot doesn't excuse that.

Okay enough ranting.  Go see Prometheus for the spectacle of Michael Fassbender and Charlize Theron having a contest to see who can act more inhuman, but when they try to do science, please, don't let your children watch.

Prometheus:  2 out of 5 stars