Technofiction review of

Prometheus (2012)

by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright June 2012


Prometheus is Ridley Scott's homage to his earlier hit Alien. This one is positioned as a prequel. This iteration of theme has classic Ridley Scott visuals, characterizations and mood. These are good parts. The story, sadly, channels Ed Wood's version of science fiction, not Scott's. It is inconsistent and poor Technofiction. I was face palming and chuckling in disbelief as soon as their starcraft lands on this alien planet's surface.


This story has some fun visuals and characterizations. The people of this tale are numerous and distinctly different -- I was able to keep track of who was who fairly easily. The settings looked good and were visually believable ... as long as the story inconsistencies didn't get in the way.

Which brings us to the story problems. Here we go:

o A small point first: When the starship arrives at the new star system the engines are pushing it forward, not breaking its speed so it will come to a stop here. This is a classic cinematic mistake, but a tiresome one. Making it signals that the film makers figure their viewers still don't know diddly about space flight.

o Half of the crew finds out what they are up to after they wake up two years into this journey, when they arrive at the faraway moon with Earth-like conditions. Their finding out is a neatly impressive virtual reality scene... but... Eh? Some job recruiter comes up to you and says, "Son, I want you to go on a four or five year cryosleep space ride and I'm not giving you any more details than that. Wait! I'll give you one detail: I read your resume and I'm offering this to you because something on it says you're an expert. Are you ready to go?"

o This journey is a billionaire's hobby trip, but he's not there at first. If this is his hobby, where is the rest of humanity sending their other starships? If this is a hobby, interstellar space travel is commonplace.

o This starship lands on the surface of a planet with full Earth gravity and full Earth atmosphere -- it doesn't send down a shuttle. Whew! Straight out of the fifties! These days we have lots of real world experience that the ship traveling through space and the ship landing in a deep gravity well with a thick atmosphere are completely different designs, and thus completely different ships.

o The actions of the people are pure forties and fifties sci-fi/horror. By modern standards they are Keystone Kops scientists. Specifically:

oo They don't scout ahead. With one exception they don't send probes or robots first. They don't have a weather satellite. They don't spot their signs of civilization while still in orbit. They don't have backup for any surprises they may encounter.

oo They discover the air is breathable and poof! off come the helmets within seconds. First problem is the risk -- apparently no War of the Worlds readers in this group. But second, the suits of that technology era will be smart -- they will be "the outer me". Taking helmets off will cut down on sensory capability.

oo They have probes map out the place, the explorers are monitored back at the ship and in communication with it, but some get lost anyway. Worse, they are surprised by a vigorous storm. The rescuing from that makes for some neat action scenes, but...

oo Various members of the crew have secret agendas. That's not so unbelievable except that they are far, far away from any help and they aren't teaming up well.

oo They start encountering some really strange, really surprising stuff, and they don't go slow in response. They start hasty, they stay hasty, and make many silly mistakes that bite them.

All-in-all, very fifties in its handling of people and technology, and very silly by modern expectations.

o There is no explanation of how the ancient human people found out about this star system and drew it on cave and temple walls. We see one alien visitor, depicted as the first and only visitor, who deliberately dies after he is left on the surface, and is ripped into a hundred pieces by a potion he deliberately drinks. He's not going to be drawing any pictures! How did any figure-drawing humans find out about this?

o They find an alien, get his DNA, and discover it's identical to human DNA! Wow! ...except the alien doesn't look human, isn't the same size as a human, doesn't have human performance... did he have something beside DNA to help him become what he was? Some Sixty-four Loco? If so, I want some of that!

o It's not clear the DNA relation between the creepy chest-burster aliens and the human-god-like aliens.

o This is a prequel to Alien, but David, the helpful humanoid robot in this movie, has much, much more performance capability than the robot of Alien, who was state-of-the-art in his day, and a secret to the crew.

o The use of medical technology is spotty. Elizabeth Shaw can get it to pull a fast-growing alien out of her, but it can't keep Charlie Halloway from binge drinking after just one day of disappointment, and it doesn't warn when he starts getting a bit strange. Even though they are here looking for life forms, the scientists can't characterize the organics leaking from the alien canisters as lifeforms within seconds of discovering the leaks.

In sum, this is a movie that makes an effort at exploring deep relations -- those between man and god, and man and intelligent machines. But the people in the movie don't use their technology or their common sense well, so we end up with something that is spectacular looking, has interesting action and characterization, but is very silly at the internal consistency level. Instead of being impressed by the theme, the audience is either distracted by the neat action sequences, or face palming and headscratching. For good Technofiction the best in the series remains #2, Aliens.

This movie follows the strong 21st century cinematic tradition of having the story provide a venue for the special effects, rather than vice versa. The result is neat stuff for kids, but way too much, "I've seen that before." when viewed by us older movie enthusiasts.

Note: if you would like to see a more internally consistent treatment of immortal god-like beings visiting earth in our pre-history, try reading my story The Immortals in Tips for Tailoring Spacetime Fabric Vol. 2, and for a better treatment of how to visit an alien planet with advanced civilization on it, try my story Where Does the 500lb Alien Sleep? in Tips for Tailoring Spacetime Fabric Vol. 1.

Update: Thanks to D. Michael Martindale for locating this 16 Nov 12 Film School Rejects article, The 8 worst parts of Prometheus made sense in the original script by J.F. Sargent, which talks about how the script got modified as it moved into production. This is a typical case of internal consistency being sacrificed to enhance other issues which are seen as being more important, such as neat special effects or plot devices.

-- The End --