Jun 12 2012 12:01pm

Prometheus: Science Fiction or Religious Fiction?

Dr. Elizabeth Shaw, the hero of the new epic Prometheus wears a crucifix and believes in a higher power. She’s a great, likable character who I enjoyed seeing wield an ax. But she didn’t feel like a scientist to me, at least not in a science fictional kind of way. To say that the search for a higher power occupies the majority of the Prometheus’s narrative is no spoiler, as the promotional tagline for the film is “the search for our beginning could lead to our end.” And in that search for our beginning, Prometheus pulls a few revelatory punches, and in doing so makes aspects of film’s thematic noise feel, at least on the surface, to be more religious fiction than science fiction.

Tons of spoilers for Prometheus below.

Now, screenwriter Damon Lindelof has recently gone on record saying Prometheus is not anti-science, and I found all of his reasons to be mostly valid. I also liked the film he co-wrote very much, and wouldn’t be getting into all of this if I didn’t enjoy the hell out of it. However, I think this is a situation where the intent of the screenwriter and director ended up not totally coming through in the final film or at the very least, didn’t fit the genre people thought it was in.

Science fiction, and science fiction films in particularly tend to be lousy with protagonists who are scientists. This seems obvious, natural and good, but when you consider the challenges of a fairly straightforward, big mainstream sci-fi film, having characters who are scientists might be problematic. That is, from the perspective of the screenwriter—who is likely not a scientist—writing about realistic scientists would probably make said screenwriter very nervous. 

For one thing, my feeling is a lot of audience members might not be able relate to scientist characters, particularly ones who come from a future time and know about science that hasn’t been invented. Further, scientists are perceived as inherently geeky; meaning aspects of conventionally “heroic” qualities can sometimes get bogged down or confused in the technicalities. Ideally, this wouldn’t matter to most people, and in prose science fiction, it frequently doesn’t. (It also worked just fine in Contact.)

But films are a different animal, all full of aesthetics and sensory emotional manipulation, which work completely different than prose. Also, whether it’s right or wrong, certain kinds of movies cultivate audiences who expect certain things from their protagonists, and reliability to the main characters is fairly integral for the movie to work. So, I would venture to guess many big-budget, hot-shot screenwriters (like Damon Lindelof) would be loathe to have astronauts or scientists do dull science stuff like research and paperwork.

To put it another way: if you’re writing a movie about James Joyce, you can’t have tons of scenes with Joyce just sitting in a room, alone, writing silently. Sure, it would realistically depict what it’s like to be a writer, but no one would sit for it. So, if you’ve got scientist characters, you’ve got to render them larger-than-life but somehow retain their scientific cred. You’ve got to show the scientific process as an active, exciting thing. This is probably very hard to do, particularly if you’re going to fictionalize the science.

But, in Prometheus we get not one, but two scientists who don’t even vaguely feel like real scientists. Shaw and her husband Charlie come across more as hobbyist UFO watchers than people who actually engage in scientific pursuits for a living. When they discover curiously similar pictograms all over the world, they conclude (somehow) that this means the origins of human life come from another planet, and those alien creators have “invited” us to come hang out with them. When a skeptical character wonders aloud if they can back up this stuff, they just sort of look at the guy like “I know you are but what am I?” We’re not offered a clear reason as to why Charlie and Elizabeth think this is true.

Instead, it’s heavily implied that it has to do with Shaw’s religious inclinations, which lead her to want to, in essence, talk to God. This faith seems to come from the fact that her father died when she was young, which is okay, but it’s as though the screenwriters decided you can’t possibly have a scientist who believes in religion without giving them a tragedy to explain their faith away. Isn’t this a bit insulting to both scientists and people of faith?

Also, it seems to me that the movie is about determining the shape of God, not determing if God exists or not. Doesn’t Prometheus already conflate the two ideas from the outset? I feel like Natalie Portman quoting Arthur C. Clarke in Thor more elegantly weaves the God/science thing into its narrative than anything in this film. In Prometheus, instead of trying to make scientists into interesting, dynamic people, they’re just portrayed as religious, non-science people. And here’s where I start wondering if this is truly science fiction, or instead, religious fiction.

If it’s science fiction, then the theme of Prometheus shouldn’t be faith versus science. Instead, it should be about coming up with a scientific explanation for God. And, the movie in a way, tries to do that. But it sends a mixed message by having these characters act like such bad scientists. It’s as though the screenwriters couldn’t decide where to fall on explaining any of the cool science fiction stuff, so they just decided to explain almost none of it. Part of not giving us answers migtht be because in real life, there aren’t answers to everything either. And  I totally get the motivation to write the movie like that because in a sense, it seems more honest. But, it’s still a fairly unsatisfying narrative choice, particularly in a movie which raises so many specific questions.

When they gang discovers that the Engineers appear to be dead, Charlie freaks out and goes on an overnight drunk, because he “really wanted to talk to them.” Never mind that these people have just made the biggest discovery in the history of everything (human life came from outer space)—but because he can’t talk to them, he’s pissed. Both Charlie and Shaw are searching for “answers,” seemingly at any cost, behaving almost like religious zealots.

Should we listen to the captain of the spaceship? Hell no. Stick some crazy needle in this decapitated head without really knowing what we’re doing? Sure. Take off our helmets on an alien planet because it seems like the air is breathable? Why not. Do these people seem like scientists to you?

Further, though Shaw ends the film by continuing to search for answers, no one, not even the super intelligent robot David tries to put two and two together about what the hell is even happening on the planet in the here and now. In fact, the only character who actually SAYS OUT LOUD WHAT IS HAPPENING is not a scientist! When Captain Janek tells Shaw that the planet is a weapons depot and all these creepy organisms were manufactured to be weapons of mass destruction, it makes a lot of sense. How did he figure this out? Well, he gathered some evidence, he observed, and he asserted a hypothesis. He doesn’t really need to test the hypothesis here too much, because he’s not concerned with being right.

The threat that his idea could be correct is enough to freak out about. It’s way better than Shaw just shouting “we were so wrong!” Wrong about what?  You thought beings from another world made humans. You were right about that. Boom. Scientific fact, the DNA matched. Good job! But then Shaw and David find out the Engineers wanted to destroy humanity, and she wants to know why.

Well, there are some possible answers, just none that are given in the movie itself. I’m just a guy who watches a lot of science fiction movies and reads novels. I’m no rocket scientist, just like Captain Janek is just a good guy who flies a spaceship, but I can give it a go for you, Dr. Shaw. Here goes:

The Engineers made humans as a necessary host for the proto-chest bursting Aliens. Maybe the humans are one half of the weapon, and the creepy squid things are the other half. That seems like a reasonable explanation, right? I mean, I have the same information these characters do, and that makes sense to me. We’re one half of a weapon, like a fail-safe. The Engineers got freaked out about this and decided to destroy both parts, but failed. Explaining this wouldn’t ruin a thing. It would make cool stuff already in the movie much cooler. Also, thematically, the fact that these terrible Aliens have to come from inside of us could also be a cool metaphor about sin or whatever. See, they could get their religious themes in there and explain stuff at the same time.

(Note: as far as I know, this notion of humans being one part of a weapon is just my theory and the first thing that entered my mind when I left the theater. All the Q&As with the filmmakers seem to give different answers.)

But my theory is just as good as any other, because the film itself never gets specific. It never actually answers its own questions in a concrete way. Instead, Shaw make assertions about how “there are no answers,” while inhabiting a film that is about a search for answers. I suppose this is part of the “point” of the film, but paradoxically, though we’re told there are no answers, the film casually gives us visual evidence that seems to supply us with possible answers. This seems to me not dissimilar from a certain brand of fundamentalist creationist randomly that claims the Earth is, like, 5 minutes old, despite all the evidence to the contrary.

Shaw is given a little material to work with, but refuses to form any theories, because, from what we can see, she’s not a good scientist. If there were a bunch of scientists in this movie, you can imagine a scene in which they throw out theories as what is going on. That could actually be cool, and not make the movie any less weighty or philosphical. But it would certainly change the tone.

Shaw is a good person, and pretty heroic, and occupies a fun, beautiful, scary movie. But in the reality of the movie, her half-assed research combined with faith approach is responsible for getting all of these people killed, by bringing them to the planet in the first place.

Is this the point of the movie? Quack scientists will lead us to our doom? Or more disturbingly, that if we search for answers about the very nature of existence, we will be destroyed by creepy creatures. This, in the end seems like a message that science is scary, rather than an awesome investigative tool. Which in a science fiction movie, sort of makes you bummed out. To make matter worse, director Ridley Scott has recently said that the Engineers were going to destroy us because humanity killed Jesus (who was an Engineer.) Personally, I find this overly simplistic explanation to be trite. It’s as though Ridley Scott’s movie is smarter than he is, if just barely. Or, again, maybe this movie is religious fiction and not science fiction.

Prometheus is by no means a bad film, and the fact that there is so much to talk about is totally to its credit. If it is indeed a science fiction movie, then I can’t shake the feeling that it either needed to jettison the idea of having scientist characters altogether (as the previous Alien films largely do) or make Charlie and Elizabeth show us the some movie-version of the research.

Because this is a big movie, and I’m just a dumb moviegoer, I want someone to root for. And if the film is not a comedy, and certainly a science fiction movie, then I should not be rooting for crackpot scientists with research that seems at least on par with (pun intended) Ripley’s Believe It or Not!

But if it’s as I suspect, actually religious fiction, then I suppose I’ll root for Shaw for what she is: a Pilgrim in an unholy land.

Ryan Britt is the staff writer for Tor.com. 

Countdown to Prometheus: ‹ previous | index
1. sabbx
The biggest flaw in "Prometheus" is that Scott plays off the Greek myth without ever overtly establishing his terms. If we subsitute the theme of myth into the plot, the Engineers want mankind eliminated because our mysterious "creator" was, in their eyes, a bad actor who did what he (I assume a male figure here) did on his own. Therefore, they unleash the "Pandora's Box" of their biological super weapons but, as in the myth, opening it has dire consequences.

The leap that the Captain makes to decribe what's going on with the cavern full of beasties is the only deductive reasoning anybody does in the film. Including the gaggle of scientists. Perhaps Scott is setting up the survivors to discover the irony of their situtation for a sequel... (I mean, you named the ship "Prometheus," right?)

The commentary Scott may be making that in a rationalistic (read perhaps athetistic as well) future, hubris and pride may lead humanity to make mistakes that a tradtional "the-gods-should-be-feared" society wouldn't do. However, in the wake of the questions about the film, I think we might need a few more lit. classes that teach classical Greek legends and myths.
2. Jose Pardo
I think the reason the engineers want to destroy us is because they saw in us the potential to become their equals or (gasp) surpass them. Isn't that the whole point of the myth, Prometheus wanted to give fire to humans but the Gods didn't want us to have it because it would make us their equals? We were probably an experiment gone wrong, time to clean it up.
As for the bad science, these scientists are apparently field archeologists who probably dont spend a lot of time in a lab, so while they know all the safety rules they have dig a little deeper (no pun intended) to find their answers. Besides if they followed all the safety protocols the movie would be boring.
I dont mind making some leaps of faith with some of the science, what bothers me is when a new born creature is left on it's own without food and the next time we see it, it's fully grown and a totally matured. What did it eat how did it grow? This same basic flaw bothers me about the original Alien, but I still love both films.
John Pigott
3. AbEnd
The Reddit Prometheus thread gives more details on the "Jesus as Engineer" theme. Lots of spoilers.

4. wiredog
There's no reason a story can't be religious science fiction. A Canticle For Leibowitz comes to mind. That would make a nice mini-series, BTW.

Prometheus? It all hung together for me. I liked it. Was worth the $18 to see it in imax 3d.
5. images8dream
What about the idiot "biologist" who discovers the first live alien organism and tries to TOUCH IT! That scene was so monumently stupid that it momentarily shattered my disbelief. I really enjoyed aspects of Prometheus, but the scientists just did not act like real people at all.
Ryan Britt
6. ryancbritt

Totally agree! And it would make a nice mini-series. Though, I think it explains its logistics a bit better than Prometheus.

The best blending of religion and sci-fi I've seen on screen that didn't manage to offend anyone, or stop feeling realistic was Babylon 5, particularly "The Deconstruction of Falling Stars." (Total shades of Canticle for Leibowitz in that one)

Though of course, Prometheus is a lot prettier to look at that Babylon 5. :-)
Ryan Britt
7. ryancbritt
That scene is a great example of what I mean. Yes. You are correct.
Robert Evans
8. bobsandiego
Oh, it is a very pretty movie but too damn silly for my tastes. A prime example of not understanding scientists is with the biologis Millburn, and I'm taking about before he goes all gooey eyes at the snake/penis.
You are on an alien world, you and your team have found the remains of an intelligent alient lifeform, and you decide to walk back to the ship because it is dark and spooky. The biologist I know you couldn't have pried out of there with tatical nukes.
Fake Name
9. ThePendragon
I have to admit that while I really enjoyed the movie, that scene really bugged me. It just seemed like no one could possibly that stupid. I mean, they were just scared out of their wits by a "lifeform" reading, and not the first thing he does is try to play with an alien Snake thing? Patently absurd.
10. seth e.
I've already said elsewhere on tor.com that I disliked Prometheus, and part of why is directly related to this essay; it's not just terrible science fiction, it's terrible religious fiction. Shaw's religious convictions are just as amorphous as her application of the scientific method, with just as little real, specific conviction. It's a trivial, self-serving, narratively convenient form of "belief" that doesn't go any deeper than "I believe this traffic light will turn green soon." Scott is so enamored of making shallow Von Daniken-like connections across cultures that he doesn't give any of his ideas, scientific or mythic, any cultural or religious depth whatsoever.

Pilgrims generally know exactly where they're going and why; pilgrimages are ritual voyages not just to, but through a sacred landscape, each phase of which is often following a prescribed pattern, whether it's the hajj or el Camino de Santiago. There are very specific, deep reasons, in religious context, for all of it. But there's no context in Prometheus for the scientists' thought processes, for why they chose to believe as they did. "I guess I'll go in this direction and choose to believe it's a good idea" is just as dumb and formless in religious thought as it is in scientific thought.

Thomas Aquinas said that faith isn't bound by reason, but it can't contradict reason. Prometheus contradicts reason all over the place.
11. a1ay
You are on an alien world, you and your team have found the remains of an intelligent alient lifeform, and you decide to walk back to the ship because it is dark and spooky. The biologist I know you couldn't have pried out of there with tatical nukes.

I just thought he was obviously the only one who'd ever seen Alien. When you're in the big ominous structure surrounded by the alien corpses and it gets all dark and spooky, RUN AWAY.
Mike Conley
12. NomadUK
Prometheus is by no means a bad film

Well, no, it is, in fact, a bad film. It's an awful film. That's been fairly well established already.

Far too much time above is spent explaining why it's hard to write screenplays with scientists in them. This is rubbish. It's hard for an incompetent writer to write a screenplay with scientists in it; it's just work for a good writer. And clearly, Lindelof is incompetent.

Cinema is full of examples of heroic or interesting scientist types, in which the science does not have to get in the way of a good story. If you want a recent example, just look at Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which is hardly Citizen Kane, but does a creditable job of portraying a scientist in an exciting story. For that matter, almost any SF B-movie from the 1950s does a better job of portraying scientists than does Prometheus.

And, as has been pointed out elsewhere, the 'big ideas' are not very big at all. So the only thing I can assume is that all of this is people who really want to like this film digging for ponies: with all this shiny crap around here, there must be a pony in here somewhere.
Ryan Britt
13. ryancbritt
I like Rise of the Planet of the Apes too! I mean, it's tricky to compare it to this movie, but yeah. It certainly makes a bit more sense than this one.
14. ChrisG
Nice analysis, Ryan.

It's interesting that you mention Contact (the movie). It has a lot in common with Prometheus in terms of themes (searching for the creator/engineer, science and faith, a protagonist driven by the loss of her father), and I think it is similarly quite bad at depicting science. Although Jodie Foster's character has several clever ideas, most of the "scientific" part of the movie comes down to"proof, proof, proof" and "see, science is just like faith." I don't think Carl would have really been happy with that. (The book, on the other hand, takes a different tack and has several interesting ideas.)
15. ChrisG
@5. I agree completely. For me, it was more than suspension of disbelief; that scene was insulting. Moreover, as Ryan points out, throughout the movie the characters, scientists or not, acted like total idiots.
Ryan Britt
16. ryancbritt
Well, you've got me on some of that there. But in terms of a movie scientist, Ellie seems way more willing to be patient and put in the work than Charlie and Elizabeth. Which I suppose is the "boring" stuff I was talking about.

To put it another way, we might have similar philosophical problems with Ellie as we have with Shaw, but at least Ellie FELT like a scientist from the start of the film.
Mike Conley
17. NomadUK
at least Ellie FELT like a scientist from the start of the film.

This. And that's what you get when you have a writer who knows what he's doing.

(Addendum, because I can't just let it sit.)

The difference between Ellie and the 'scientists' in Prometheus is that she acts like a scientist. She's passionate about her work. She thinks rationally. She's curious. She has opinions. She is willing to listen to arguments. She's a fully-fleshed-out character, with a past that's interesting and a present that's engaging. Whereas the -- I hesitate to call them 'characters', but I suppose the word will do -- characters in Prometheus are cardboard cutouts, stereotypes, placeholders, uninteresting.

Not entirely: Shaw, for one, is mildly interesting; she has a background and is a flawed human being, and she has a brain, and she's the second-closest thing to a real character in the whole film -- she's eclipsed by the bleeding android.

The science is secondary, really. The science in Contact (the film, not the novel) is not terribly accurate, but is enough so to allow us to suspend disbelief. It's secondary to the story, which is as it should be. And it's a great story, and it does have big ideas, where Prometheus really has none -- at least, none that it expresses coherently.

Want another cinematic scientist that's actually interesting even if not really all that accurate? Jurassic Park's paleontologists. Wonderful characters, passionate about their work, caught up in the mundane details of getting research grants, utterly spellbound by coming into contact with the creatures they've been studying all their lives -- there's a sense of wonder in that film that Prometheus wishes it could emulate. And it's a fun action film. (Jeff Goldblum's mathematician is a bit too much -- it's even harder, apparently, to write a good mathematician than it is to write a scientist -- but he's mostly comic relief anyway.)

Okay, enough. What's the point? The horse is dead.
18. ChrisG
I agree with you about Ellie (and about Charlie and Elizabeth).

I was following up on your original point in that it's not just scientists as characters that are often poorly written, but science as an enterprise, what it's about, what it's for. I think this conceptual failure by many screen writers trickles down to the characters (and plot) and contributes to the problems you were raising. (That is, it's not just that it's hard to show scientists doing something exciting but also that they don't really appreciate what scientists should be doing.)

The example you gave of Elizabeth's response to "how do you know?" is an example of this. Slightly less apt but interesting, contrast the biologist in Prometheus cooing pet-owner-like at the snake creature versus Bishop in Aliens 2 enthralled by the elegance of the creature.
19. Jonellin StoneBreaker

As for the bad science, these scientists are apparently field archeologists who probably dont spend a lot of time in a lab, so while they know all the safety rules they have dig a little deeper (no pun intended) to find their answers. Besides if they followed all the safety protocols the movie would be boring.

The maddening thing about this abomination of a movie is the constant, almost willful way in which it impedes your suspension of disbelief by the inane way these so-called scientists behave.

Any kind of natural scientist engaged in fieldwork has as their basic core belief DO NOT CONTAMINATE THE SITE!! OBSERVE IN THE LEAST INVASIVE MANNER POSSIBLE!!


Taking off your helmet and exposing yourself to an alien biosphere compatible with earth life beyond stupid; exposing said biosphere to your own microbes is a crime of the highest magnitude.

The fact that they had those wonderful little floating mapping robots made the team's decision to enter the structure even more idiotic because it was completely unnecessary.

Shaw performing the acrobatics she did after jury rigging a Caesarian of the proto-alien growing in her previously barren womb was another ridiculous action that makes this film the Plan from Outer Space for the 21st century.
20. politeruin
Damon Lindelof is just a bad writer though isn't he? Vastly overrated, was it someone on here who wondered how that guy still gets work? I agree. He might fully believe prometheus is not anti-science but all evidence points to the contrary unfortunately, it's both an insult to science and scientists. I can fully cope with a film exploring questions of faith and belief but not a mess like this masquerading as pseudo scientific nonsense. I mentioned this on boing boing but you could probably recut this film so it plays like a group of priests on a pilgrimage to find their maker, think of bradbury's the fire balloons.
Ryan Britt
21. ryancbritt

Right! And I think that if it were like Bradbury's "Fire Balloons" that would be okay. But it's really not! Of course science fiction can have religious people as characters, but I suppose it becomes religious fiction for me when the quasi-religion stuff is what REALLY drives the plot. (Particularly now that Ridley Scott is publicly saying humans killed space Jesus and that's why the Engineers are mad at us!)
Ryan Britt
22. ryancbritt
Agreed, and nice nuance there. It does trickle down.
Soon Lee
23. SoonLee
My problem is that I like my movies is to be internally consistent, which "Prometheus" is not.

"For one thing, my feeling is a lot of audience members might not be able relate to scientist characters, particularly ones who come from a future time and know about science that hasn’t been invented."

I disagree. The scientific disciplines (supposedly) on display were, geology, biology, and archeology; not exactly new sciences. Some of the technology was new (androids & spaceships), but they are not things new to a movie-going audience.

Religious fiction may fit, if it explains the weird behaviour of the characters - making suppositions based on little or no evidence. Even the name of the aliens, "Engineers", doesn't make sense. What evidence was provided that the aliens had ever 'engineered' anything to merit the name? On what basis is that name given? Wouldn't it be more apt to call them "Visitors" based on what was known at the time?

There was a lot of wish fulfillment going on (not only by the characters but also by the movie-makers); the characters saying & doing things that only make sense if the movie-makers were trying to shoe-horn the characters to fit their thematic ideas. It was all very deus ex machina & made for bad story-telling.
Max Espensen
24. Andvari
Once I realised it wasn't a good film and treated it more as a surrealist comedy it became very enjoyable but it ws an awful awful film.

As a scientist myself, I feel insulted by this vaguest of acknowldegements of the scientific method. As others have mentioned the biologist's interaction with the mutated worm was the most ridiculous. It was at precisely that moment when I had to re-assess what type of film it was to protect my level of enjoyment.

The fact, as pointed out by the author and others is that they didn't feel like scientists in any way, is actualy only really part of the story, they didn't feel like convincing people at all, just very bland archetypes, including all the laziest ones of the Hollywood tropes. By far and away the most interesting and personality-laden character was Fassbender's android. Was it intentional? I hope so.
Soon Lee
25. SoonLee

Worse, they were Non-Player Characters in a computer game designed to connect up the plot, each sequence being a different game area.

When Shaw beats up the crew & escapes to another part of Prometheus, she must have crossed into a new game area, which explains why the crew members she escaped from didn't chase her into the new area.

As for the scientist not behaving like scientist thing, I was ripped out of suspension of disbelief when Holloway first took his helmet off, AND the others did the same. It was like they were trying to out-stupid each other.
26. lorq
If the film doesn't care about representing scientists in an even remotely credible way, any argument is has to make about science and scientists is botched from the start.

I'm starting to suspect that the film's lack of understanding of or appreciation for science is completely connected to its constant resorting to vague hand-waving in relation to plot and character logic. It's like the film is trying to make a virtue out of not thinking things through.

The whole thing is unhooked from the real world -- of science, of people.

Creepy. And not in the way Scott intended.
27. kinksville
My impression of the whole expedition is that it wasn't really a scientific expedition and the majority of the crew weren't truely scientists. Except perhaps in the sense that a tomb robber might call himself an archaeologist.

You can see this in the briefing room when you look at the assembled crew, most of whom have no idea why they're there or what they're doing. This is not a scientific expedition. It's a corporate grab for resources (what resource you don't find out until the surprise twist) driven by the eccentricities of Peter Weyland.

All of the actual scientists were way out of their depth, it was a scratch team, not a carefully thought out and well planned selection of people. The guy who released the drone's said it himself, that he is a geologist, that he likes rocks, and he's not going to be able to contribute.

The biologist is just a run of the mill biologist who doesn't have any experience with first contact type situations. The two doctors (Shaw and Charlie) are idealistic dreamers who managed to get Peter Weyland to fund their pie in the sky (that sort of proves to be right) theory.
28. nomuse
Err...excusing the sorry team because Weyland is both insane and rich enough to get away with it is just another version of "A wizard did it." How about a screenplay that gives a logical reason for the kind of characters you want to put in it? (Not to blow a horn for Chricton -- he's got his own problems -- but "Sphere" has a fun version of this. "I wrote it up for the paycheck! I never thought it would actually happen! I don't even know half the people I named!")

Or, if you are a really GOOD screenwriter, you come up with a rational reason for your people to do the stupid things you need them to do. Almost every single action taken in Prometheus could have had a justified reason, or be a simple accident, instead of being the result of idiots let loose in a billion-dollar starship.
29. John R. Ellis
I look at it this way: If these characters weren't such poor scientists and didn't have such a juvenile, Even-Children's-Sunday-School-Would-Teachers-Reject-It system of faith, then -none- of the things in the plot allowing for humans to stuidly expose themself to death by ooey gooey alien mutations would occur. At all.

It's not science fiction or religious fiction, it's "We couldn't think of a justfied way to get to the monster deaths" fiction. :P
31. John R. Ellis
Man, I was so mad, I mangled my anti-Prometheus insults. Please excuse my errors. :D
32. dissembly
" I have the same information these characters do, and that makes sense to me. We’re one half of a weapon, like a fail-safe. The Engineers got freaked out about this and decided to destroy both parts, but failed. Explaining this wouldn’t ruin a thing. It would make cool stuff already in the movie much cooler"

Eh, I think thats an unsatisfyingly mechanistic theory, and explaining it would have detracted from the experience quite a lot for me. What is this desire to overexplain in movies? The lack of hollywoods usual ridiculous levels of exposition is part of what makes this movie so good.

The substance in the temple was a generative stuff. It was evolution/life in a jar. When it first spilled, it was so potent that worms appeared and came to life. Within hours, higher grades of organism had appeared - 'snakes'.

David, whose boss is looking for the fountain of youth, recognised this property and fed it to Charles to see what it would do. This ended with Shaw becoming impregnated with the squid. (or was it sperm, altered by this bottled evolution?) This was an accident. It makes no sense as a normal part of the aliens life cycle as a biological weapon. It was an unexpected effect.

This throws some light on sabbx's *terrible* interpretation of the meaning of the Greek myth. Rather than some contorted allusion to the guy at the start of the movie being Prometheus somehow, Weyland/David is Prometheus - as Weyland explicitly identifies himself. The 'fire' is this generative substance, which neither understands has been weaponised. The visual effects almost literally spell it out for us: it is liquid fire. David plays with it, Weyland wants salvation from it, neither really knows what it is. The gods use it for their own purposes, just another profane tool, while to us it is a miracle.

The weapon was produced from this, and this part must have been engineered in some way as the ultimate goal of the substance; this stuff is weaponised evolution in a jar. It produces ever higher grades of organism at ranfom, but it trends toward acid blood, and culminates in a 'xenomorph'.

Now think about the beginning of the movie. The engineer drinks something related to this substance, and it produces life on earth. Were made with the same technology as the weapon, but we dont have acid blood and we make no sense as bioweapons. Its tje same tool put to a different use, much earlier.

Exactly how would the movie have been improved by having any of this - or any much less interesting and far less thematically potent fan theory - spelt out?

I feel like we have a great piece of cinema here, and its getting panned by people who want to mould it into their second rate fan fiction. Just let it be what it actually is, a movie with ambiguity and mystery, and stop trying to force it into your particular sociopolitical/comic book theme, and maybe youll enjoy it more. It just requires you to abandon the ego for a second and let it be something with more than one possible interpretation.
33. Earl Rogers
It also requires you to accept that this crew of yahoos and clowns are professional scientists and that believing in God is just mindless conclusion jumping caused by parental death!


Great piece of cinema? No. Beautifully filmed, talented actors, but the story is complete and total garbage.
34. dissembly
The irony is that the characters behaved very much like a real group of scientists, as anyone who has been to a scientific conference could tell you. They just don't behave the way a bunch of sf fans imagine scientists to behave.

Particularly the geologist, who's there because he's being paid well and doesn't particularly care about it if its not a rock. Sure, hes not a Kim Stanley Robinson geologist, interested in everything, but most of them aren't.

The other three experts act like many normal scientists act toward each other. They go off independantly, they sneer at each other, two of them may well be Erik von Daniken-esque kooks. Hell, i met three published professionals like that at one conference.

Face it guys, its not that these guys dont act like scientists. Its that they don't act like the cast of CSI.
35. Stormweld
Out of a piece I largely agreed with, my only objection was to this:

"If it’s science fiction, then the theme of Prometheus shouldn’t be faith versus science. Instead, it should be about coming up with a scientific explanation for God."

A reviewer doesn't get to decide what a movie "should" have been. (And to this reader, at least, it is vastly irritating when one tries to.) A reviewer's job is to discuss whether the movie did what it set out to do, not whether it did what the reviewer thinks it should have set out to do. To the reviewer's credit, that's what most of the rest of this piece does, quite well.
36. LyndonApGwynfryn
"The irony is that the characters behaved very much like a real group of
scientists, as anyone who has been to a scientific conference could tell
you. They just don't behave the way a bunch of sf fans imagine
scientists to behave."

Er, I went to see the film with five friends from my lab, and we could barely contain our hilarity and contempt at how mind-numbingly bad the depiction of scientists was. For starters, Shaw concludes the least convincing science seminar in history with the genius comment "It's what I choose to believe!" Not only is this a career-ending statement for any scientist, in one or two university departments I know of it would have been likely to result in actual physical violence.

That's before we even get onto their field work, let's just say that standards of Biohazard handling and COSHH seem to have slipped alarmingly by the late 21st century. And who describes themselves as a "biologist" even these days? What's his specialty? Why was the geologist an expert on mapping? Shouldn't that have been a geographer?

Honestly, I could go on all day. Very, very poor film.
37. etv13
To me, the more interesting "religious" question raised by the film centers around David, and it's "What is a soul, and what does it mean to have (or lack) one?" How does David have favorite movies? What does it mean that Lawrence of Arabia is one of them? What does the scene the movie shows, centering on Lawrence saying "The trick is not minding that it hurts," mean to David? David changes his hairstyle to copy Peter O'Toole's -- why? Does he want to emulate Lawrence?

Then there's all the other stuff he does, some of which may or may not be programmed by Weyland. Riding the bike and spinning the basketball and listening in on Shaw's dreams and spiking Charlie's drink with the black stuff. To what extent does David have free will? To what extent is he a person? He sure seems to have a hell of a lot of personality.

I don't really care much about "answers about where we came from," and I don't think the endeavor the Prometheus is well-calculated to get those answers; if the Engineers made us (and how then do we account for three-hundred-plus years of Darwinism, or more exactly, the fossil record), who made the Engineers? It can be turtles all the way down, as far as I'm concerned; for me, the interesting questions are the ones about personhood and free will.
David Elliott
38. dissembly

"For starters, Shaw concludes the least convincing science seminar in
history with the genius comment "It's what I choose to believe!" Not
only is this a career-ending statement for any scientist,"

That's simply not true. We could go into a list of professional scientists who hold similar attitudes, and promulgate wacky beleifs as a result. I peer reviewed a paper for one two weeks ago, and like I said, have met a few at conferences. I would venture to suggest that you're describing something you want to be true, something we "choose to believe" because, as the movie accurately protrayed (better than any other Hollywood portrayal of scientists), scientists are not objective robots, but have both a psychology and a sociology.

"in one or two university departments I know of it would have been likely to result in actual physical violence."

Hyperbole aside, Shaw's presentation did garner sneers and disbelief from her audience. Something I found really interesting, again, because of how much it was a truthful depiction of the way scientists actually behave, rather than the idealised CSI-type evidence-gatherers we normally see on TV/in movies.

"That's before we even get onto their field work, let's just say that
standards of Biohazard handling and COSHH seem to have slipped
alarmingly by the late 21st century."

Biohazard handling? What's that? I've been on several fieldtrips as a palaeontologist, along with geologists and biologists (who call themselves geologists and biologists), and never seen much hesitation in the willingness of scientists to collect roadkill or examine every interesting little spiny/thorny plant or arthropod they come across. I assume you're thinking of labwork; the one genetics lab i've worked in has had much more stringent rules about what you do and do not touch, sure. But it's not an accurate gauge of how "science", as a whole, is done. (It's not even a universal indicator of how labwork is done, either historically or in different places, when you think about it. I wouldn't necessarily expect OH&S to be a hot issue in the vaguely dystopic corporate world of the Alien series.)

"And who describes themselves as a "biologist" even these days?"

Plenty of people. It's quite common for biologists to describe themselves as biologists. The generic term is quite widely used in casual conversation. Again, I suspect that in order to be shocked by this, you must be thinking of one particular subculture or lab(s) that you have experience in, but it's not necessarily representative.

"Why was the geologist an expert on mapping? Shouldn't that have been a geographer?"

No, geologists are experts on mapping. They'd also be extremely useful on an alien world, and in an archaeological expedition. I've yet to meet a geographer, and I have little idea of who they are or what they do, but trust me, as a geologist (my specialty is 'late Neoproterozoic palaeontology', but I am quite happy to describe myself casually with egeneric terms like geologist, or evolutionary biologist, by the way... and that's not unusual), I can tell you that mapping or understanding an unfamiliar terrain is a basic field skill.
David Elliott
39. dissembly
Again to LyndonApGwynfryn's comment: "For starters, Shaw concludes the least convincing science seminar in history with the genius comment "It's what I choose to believe!"" - I just wanted to revisit this because it reminded me of a nuance that I thought was quite clever.

The little interaction between her and the boyfriend in that scene that you describe, when they are concluding their talk. Didn't you notice how uncomfortable he was with what she was saying? In fact, IIRC, he began saying something else, and she interrupted him, and then they both went to talk again, interrupting each other, and finally he yields, with a slightly miffed expression on his face.

Such a lovely little human interaction between two scientists, who may well both be kooks in the eyes of the biol and geo in the audience, but who clearly have different fundamental approaches to what they're doing.

I don't understand how you can lambast the movie for having a scientist say "It's what I choose to believe", when the conflict between her and her partner over this exact sentiment, and the conflict between them both and their audience over the plausibility of their entire theory, is actually such a core part of the film.
David Elliott
40. dissembly

I really agree about the importance of David, besides the fact that Micheal Fassbender steals every scene that he's in (as others have noted), he is a really potent film character.

You mentioned: "I don't really care much about "answers about where we came from," and I don't think the endeavor the Prometheus is well-calculated to get those answers"

And it is interesting to note that the Prometheus expedition ultimately isn't designed to get the answers the scientists want at all, as Charlize Theron's character says quite openly. It's the whim of a old man with more money than sense, while everyone else is just along to get paid. (Note the elements of class conflict in there as well, in the tradition of the original Alien movie.)

"if the Engineers made us (and how then do we account for three-hundred-plus years of Darwinism, or more exactly, the fossil record), who made the Engineers? It can be turtles all the way down, as far as I'm concerned; for me, the interesting questions are the ones about personhood and free will."

I agree that "where do we come from?" isn't the main point of the movie (and isn't ultimately addressed at all, except in the Lovecraftian sense that we're subordinate to flawed, Manichean powers), and there are more interesting questions, but I think Shaw's fate at the end of the film shows that it's not so much a religious "Who made us?" that the movie as a whole is getting at, it's more like an atheist or lapsed-Catholic sort of "Why did you make us to suffer?" that Shaw is ultimately trying to get an answer to.

The backstory references to her dad's death and third world poverty/disease sort of support this.

Also interesting in this light is David's conversation with what's-his-name, about the motives of the Engineers. And this ties into the development of David's character, and the sort of questions you were raising. Does David care that his creators, standing in for the Engineers, think of him so callously? Shaw certainly ends up caring.
41. etv13
@dissembly: I think David's response to Charlie's callous "They made you because they could" -- which arguably motivates David to spike his drink with the infectious agent (although maybe he was already committed to that) -- shows that David does care. But, you know, "They made you because they could," might well be the factual answer, but it's really not the determinant of David's worth -- or ours. What does it really matter whether the Engineers created us, or God, or random chance? We are what we are, and it's what we do, what we make of ourselves, that matters. Any realistic, factual answers about why the Engineers made humans, why they decided to kill them, and why they changed their minds, are likely to be accidental and trivial. As somebody pointed out upthread, those reasons are likely to be political and factional. You know, like "We invaded because the Republicans won the 2000 election, and we pulled out because the Democrats won the 2008 one." The Engineers are flawed and contingent beings, like ourselves, and in the end it's up to us to make our own meaning and find our own answers.

I don't know how much of the foregoing is really in the movie, and how much is just me reading things into it. On the whole, I thought the movie was okay, but not great; it had some beautiful images in it, and some scenes I shut my eyes through (the whole c-section in the pod, for example), and while I didn't exactly want it to be longer, I think it needed to be to flesh out the Vickers-Weyland-David relationships, and to show us what makes the Captain and the two guys who deliberately sacrifice their lives along with him tick. I also think some background about the outfitting of the expedition, and how exactly Elizabeth and Charlie persuaded Weyland to fund their dream quest -- or at least, how they thought they had persuaded him to fund their quest -- would be nice. Also, I walked out of Star Wars back in 1977 humming its themes (those first notes made me think "Wow! This is a movie!"), while I don't think I could pick the music from this movie out of a lineup that was otherwise nothing but Beatles tunes.
And why was the surgical pod only set for males? Is it because Weyland was onboard?
Steven Halter
42. stevenhalter
David was really the only interesting character in the movie to me. The "humans" were all kind of cardboard cut-outs--and fairly stupid ones at that. Not opening your helmet on a totally alien world or petting wierd snake things seem like some pretty simple rules.
Weyland's dismissal of David as not having a "soul", is a fairly typical religious/human centric point of view. Not warranted by any evidence. Even if we ditch the nebulous "soul" concept, it is wildly unclear that he doesn't have at least as much "free will" as the rest of the "humans" (if any of them have it either).
Charlize Theron's character seems set up as some sort of pseudo bad person, but she seems quite reasonable. Don't contact the non-usnderstood aliens. Don't let potential plague carriers onto the ship, ...
The visuals of the movie were fantastic. The characters, not so much.
David Elliott
43. dissembly
@etv13 "And why was the surgical pod only set for males? Is it because Weyland was onboard?"

I think that's the implication. When Shaw first sees it, her comments imply that it's a particularly rare/expensive piece of technology. We initially believe it belongs to Vickers, who seems to be in charge, but it turns out she's just an unwanted daughter and all the fancy luxuries are for her father. It also makes sense with Weyland's infirmity and desire to live forever.

It plays multiple metaphorical sorts of roles. It turns into a nice metaphor for what Ripley did in the first film (when even the scriptwriters didn't initially think of having a female hero... i remember my dad saying that was a big shock when people saw it in the theatres, and that everyone thought Captain Dallas was going to reappear at the end and save the day), with Shaw using it despite it telling her she can't because of her gender. But it also sort of underlines the lack of interest Weyland has in his daughter (he prefers a robot son (who he doesn't even beleive has a soul) to a real daughter), in that it's not even "calibrated" to help out a woman in an emergency. And finally it feeds into the hints of class conflict in the background of the film; it's an incredibly useful piece of technology that's only calibrated for use by a man rich enough to buy one - immortality and cutting-edge medical technology are for the rich industrialist.

About the music, it was understated, but i liked it. I couldn't pick it out of a line-up either, but that doesn't bother me. Sometimes that's not the point. Star Wars was big and dramatic, Ridley Scott's kind of sci-fi is lingering and contemplative. Both are good. I can only bring the music in the original Alien to mind because i've seen it so many times, but i wouldn't change a note of it.
44. etv13
@dissembly: "it turns out she's just an unwanted daughter" -- yes, and this is where I think the movie actually needed to be longer, to give you time to notice what an absolutely crappy father Weyland is, which thematically goes with how the Engineers and Weyland treat their creations. He's a crappy father to his biological daughter, and he's a crappy father to his metaphorical "son"; he treats them both with an equal disdain for their feelings, ambitions, personhood. And overall, I thought the script treated Vickers horribly. There was the potential for her to be a complex individual that came really close to being realized, but they sacrifice that in favor of letting her be the fairly standard corporate bad guy.

I have never seen Alien. I have only seen so much of Aliens as my husband happened to be watching while I happened to be in the room. I generally avoid scary movies and only went to see Prometheus because it was Father's Day and my husband wanted to see it. So all of it was new to me. And I think it's a serious flaw that there's so much of the movie that doesn't make intellectual or emotional sense unless you've seen the other ones.
45. dissembly
I'm sorry you didn't enjoy it, I may have gotten much more out of it being such a fan of the other movies, but i felt like it was a good film as a standalone as well. I'll just have to agree to disagree ultimately.

I didn't take Vickers as a standard bad guy... she was a bad guy in terms of her wealth and entitlement, but i saw her with a lot of humanity. I guess I agree in that when the ship rolled over her, it seemed a bit pointless and almost like the film was being vindictive toward her in some respect. But she was right about many things, and i thought she was portrayed as conflicted yet strong-willed sort of character. She had too many virtues for me to agree that the movie was showing her to be a flat-out villain.
46. xaviersx
The movie was beautiful in looks, but not so in construction, and I agree with the authors assessments. I see this film as so close to being something worth watching again and again, but its flaws, it's cutting room edits for flow and mystery, leave me cold. It's not breathable, I can't take off my helmet for its atmosphere.

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