Prometheus Bungled

[NB: It’s Saturday morning, and I’m at the tail end of a week’s vacation, so I’m digressing from the usual fare to write about a movie. Apologies for the distraction.]

The “science” part of science fiction is important. Good science fiction employs a reality we recognize, but with specific things tweaked or altered. These alterations serve as a way to explore how those things shape our present reality, and how the future—or some counterfactual past or present—might differ. As Philip K. Dick suggests, good science fiction isn’t fantasy, it’s futurism.

For this to work, the alterations have to be scientifically plausible. Fusion reactors are interesting, because they connect to rules and theories we know and are therefore imaginable. Magic energy cubes, on the other hand—things like the Tesseract in the ho-hum Avengers franchise—are frustrating, because they aren’t connected to our lived existence. (Equally important from a narrative perspective, magic energy cubes don’t impose any constraints on the action that we can recognize ahead of time and therefore can’t serve as sources of tension and suspense.)

The elegance of science lies in its simplicity. The basic components and rules are simple; the complexity we inhabit emerges from their interaction and combination. All the things we see around us are composed of few dozen elements, which are, in turn, composed of a handful of subatomic particles. Combinations of simple geometric elements produce dazzling fractal forms that appear over and over again in nature, often in very different contexts. Sentience emerges from clusterings of relatively simple cells—or, perhaps, circuits.

Starting from these premises, I was frustrated and disappointed by Prometheus, the recently released prequel to Ridley Scott’s 1979 science-fiction masterpiece, Alien. I was only nine years old when Alien first came to theaters, so I didn’t much appreciate it at the time. As a Star Wars fan, I was happy to go to any movie set on a spaceship, but I had to head for the lobby after the “indigestion” scene in the galley and only saw bits of the rest of the film through the doors at the back of the theater.

Going back to Alien as an adult, though, I’ve become a big admirer. I don’t much like horror films. What makes Alien so appealing to me now is its smart application of one of one of science’s most elegant theories—evolution—to answer a profound philosophical question. On Earth, humans seem (to ourselves, anyway) to stand at the top of the pyramid, so powerful that we can build ships to expand our reach into space to scavenge and prey elsewhere. As soon as we do that, though, we also expand the circle of our existence into a wider universe in which other creatures might occupy similar niches on other planets. In this wider circle, predator can become prey, parasite can become host, and natural selection can take new turns. Humans become more evidently animal and are clearly maladapted to many of the new environments in which they might land. The stories we tell about our special place in the universe crumble in our first encounters with species from its other corners. The common denominator for life in this wider perspective is the urge to survive and reproduce, and on this larger scale, we may not be so great at it after all. If the question is “What makes us humans special?”, Scott’s answer is a resounding “Not much.”

And then we get Prometheus. Where Alien relied on the elegance of a simple scientific idea, Prometheus injects narrative complexity and scientific ambiguity in a plot that grabs from biology and evolution but ultimately rejects them. The long evolutionary line connecting humans to primordial goo on Earth is cut, replaced with the quasi-mystical idea of a process begun much more recently by Engineers whose own origins are left unexplained. The simple biological imperative of survival through predation is supplanted by a worn and ambiguous political story about warring societies and weapons of mass destruction.

Good science fiction is really hard to write. Most attempts I’ve seen or read have foundered or failed because they have interwoven so many inventions and ideas that we can’t follow the threads back to our lived existence. The core of science is the experimental method, and one of the guiding principles of that method is control. To answer questions about cause and effect, you focus your gaze by varying the hypothesized cause while holding confounding factors constant.

Good science fiction often does the same. Alien puts humans in deep space, hypothesizes about what might have evolved in those strange (to us) environments, and runs one trial of an experiment to see which species would survive by dominating those encounters. (In repeated iterations of this experiment, my money’s on the aliens, the lazy digressions of the sequels notwithstanding.) Prometheus replaces this elegant design with mysticism and hand-waving more characteristic of religion than science, and it’s a much poorer film for it.

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  1. Rex Brynen

     /  July 14, 2012

    Prometheus does, however, raise some fascinating questions about the relationship between excellence and the market. How was it that Weyland–with so much money at his command–not able to hire a more competent crew for what was the most important mission of his life? They were all idiots (and considerably stupider than the much more mundane crew of the Nostromo).

    While at first glance the movie seemed a tangled mess that was hardly in the league of Alien or Aliens, perhaps it should somehow been seen as an oblique commentary on financial compensation in the contemporary financial services sector…

    • Interesting angle I hadn’t considered. Still, I wonder if the original wasn’t better on this score, too. Some of the early dialogue between the captain and the hired labor about bonus pay and contract requirements was great. It sounded a lot like a real workplace.

    • Grant

       /  July 14, 2012

      Considering the horrendous lack of things like proper medical services, lack of support staff* and lack of proper planning for what to do in the event of an emergency it’s not surprising that the movie didn’t work. What appealed to me in Alien (besides the excellent use of horror) was that there weren’t any wasted scenes** and that everything had a proper place and reason to exist. I’ve often expressed my doubts about human intelligence, particularly in debates with libertarians, but I believe that humans will generally take what appear to be reasonable steps to deal with imminent threats. Every decision made in Alien was correct, and when the data available changed their plans changed.

      Moving towards political science, I’m personally not a fan of the ‘corporations take over and the world goes into ruin’ theme. It’s true that there are places where some rich businesses (Shell and Exxon-Mobil in Nigeria) have incredible influence but it rarely extends to these levels and usually there will be nations that feel sufficiently threatened by something to demand a strong state. Have there been any examples over the past century of a business taking over the responsibilities of the local state? If so, what was the outcome?

      *They can put a single android on a mission that require complex knowledge and action but they can’t send a few more along to take care of the humans?
      ** Except possibly for Ripley’s ridiculous decision to run back for her cat at the end.

  1. Prometheus Bungled « Dart-Throwing Chimp | Science Fiction Research | Resources |
  2. Prometheus Bungled « Dart-Throwing Chimp : sideeffacts

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