Bad Science in Prometheus

By: Myles Power Edited by: Hannah

In my opinion, Prometheus (Ridley Scott's highly anticipated prequel to Alien) was one of the most disappointing movies I have seen since the Phantom Menace. Now, I know what you are all thinking: “Myles, let's not say anything we can’t take back”, but it's true. Only once before have I had my hopes lifted so high, only to have them come crashing down at warp speed by a film that failed to deliver. Only once before have I ran into the cinema giggling like a school girl, only to come out hardened by yet another betrayal from Hollywood.

Before I get into why this film is so bad, I feel I have to talk about the positives. Visually, the film is stunning (unlike the badly ageing Phantom Menace),  the cinematography is flawless, and the first 30 minutes were very immersive. Soon after however, the plot holes, lack of explanations and lapses in common sense and logic from the characters begin to compound on the movie and 45 minutes in, it was broken. I still have no clue why the android would poison the scientist! I still have no clue why face-melting acid turned the ginger into a monster! I don’t know why they did not cast a old man to play Peter Weyland and what his caricature hoped to achieve by meeting one of the aliens. As well as nothing making any sense, it was not scary in the slightest. In fact, it was quite the opposite. I found myself bursting with laughter at the death of Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), which she could easily have prevented by walking two metres to her left.

Sat there in the cinema I  could not believe I was bored watching a movie that I had been waiting for, for over four months. When I got home I wanted to vent my rage on the internet by writing a review, but I knew that every critic and reviewer around the world was foaming at the mouth with anger after watching this movie. So I thought I would do what I do best, and discuss some of the unforgivable scientific mistakes this movie made.

DNA does not look like that!

The first scene in the movie – a pale humanoid alien drinks a dark liquid in front of a spaceship taking off. His body then disintegrates, before falling into a waterfall, and you see what appears to be a short double stranded DNA duplex floating off.

Now, I work with DNA and if there is one thing that really winds me up, it’s when TV shows and movies show the cartoon version of DNA instead of the actual structure. Usually the camera will zoom in, showing everything else relatively accurately and then BANG! you have a stick and ball double helix. DNA consist of three components: a nitrogen heterocyclic base; a pentose sugar; and a phosphate residue. Not sticks and balls. This is the equivalent for me of watching a episode of House (who, in the past, have also shown the cartoon helix) in which they are performing open heart surgery on a patient, only instead of having a human heart, the patient has a cartoon love heart. I know some people reading will be saying to themselves, “It’s not human DNA, it’s a form of alien DNA” and you’d be wrong. The film clearly suggests that the pale aliens seeded human life on Earth and that they are a ‘DNA match’ to humans. This was clearly meant to be regular old deoxyribonucleic acid you are seeing here.

Carbon Dating

Whilst exploring the alien building, the crew see what I presume are holograms of the former alien crew. They see one of the aliens being decapitated as he is trying to run through a air lock. They then somehow open the airlock and find that unlike the rest of the body, the head has been well-preserved.

They decide to carbon date the head and discover that the alien had been dead for over 2000 years. Carbon dating is a radiometric dating method that can be used to estimate the age of organic remains. Scientists know that plants take up a small amount of the naturally occuring radioisotope carbon-14 from the Earth’s atmosphere, to synthesise organic compounds via photosynthesis. The quantity of carbon-14 in a plant roughly matches the levels of this isotope in the atmosphere. When the plant is eaten by other organisms, the carbon-14 is passed on and starts to decay at a fixed exponential rate. By knowing the rate of decay, and comparing the remaining carbon-14 in a organic sample to that expected from the atmosphere, scientists can estimate the age of the organic remains. If you don’t know the atmospheric levels of carbon-14 on the alien’s planet, then you can’t carbon date him. Heck, you don’t even know if they have plants on his world, or at this point in the movie if he even contains any carbon.

Creation Science and “DNA match”

Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) takes the decapitated alien’s head to Prometheus medical bay to run tests. She removes the alien’s helmet and reveals it as being from the same humanoid species that we saw seeding life on earth in the past. She then for some unknown reason makes the head explode and takes a DNA sample.

The computer tells Elizabeth that there is a ‘DNA match’ between the aliens and humans. It should be mentioned at this point that both archaeologists, Elizabeth and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) call the aliens “engineers”, as they believe that they engineered mankind. I know ‘DNA match’ is open to interpretation, but I think it’s obvious that the movie is now saying that these engineers created man in their image. And how does this movie try and explain away every piece of evidence for evolution?

Elizabeth Shaw: We call them engineers.
Fifield: Engineers? You mind telling us what they engineered?
Elizabeth Shaw: They engineered us.
Fifield: Bullshit.
Millburn: OK so do you have anything to back that up? I mean look, how do you discount three centuries of Darwinism? How do you know?
Elizabeth Shaw: I don’t but it’s what I choose to believe.

And that’s the last we hear about it. I find it hard to believe that on a ship full of scientists, medics and robots, no one had any follow-up questions or could see any problems with their theory. I am also curious to know exactly what is meant by “three centuries of Darwinism”. To my knowledge there is no such thing as Darwinism, just as there is no such thing as Einsteinism, Newtonism, Watson and Crick-ism, etc.

In closing, watching this movie was a waste of time and £10. The lack of cohesive storyline, combined with the lazy writing and a sprinkling of bacon bits of bad science on top, makes this almost unwatchable.

About Myles Power (748 Articles)
My name is Myles Power, and I run the educational YouTube channel, powerm1985. I spend what little free time I have sharing my love of SCIENCE! through home experiments, visiting sites of scientific interest, and angrily ranting at pseudoscience proponents. I am also one of the founding members of the podcast 'The League of Nerds' - which I co-host with James from 'The History of Infection'.

21 Comments on Bad Science in Prometheus

  1. Spiny Norman // June 7, 2012 at 11:36 pm // Reply

    I was really worried when I heard that the film deals with the “creation” of man. I can’t believ my fears are being realized with shitty science fiction. Thanks for the review bro, saved me lots of time.


  2. The second paragraph was almost completely plagiarized from RedLetterMedia’s review of the Phantom Menace. Was this intentional?


    • Most of that paragraph was about details that were entirely specific to Prometheus, did you mean a different paragraph? I can’t see how listing details from a movie that just came out could be seen as plagiarising a review that was published over a year ago and was about an entirely different movie.


    • I honestly thought I came up with that line but as soon as you said RedLetterMedia I knew exactly what you meant. I must have had the Phantom Menace on the brain and now I feel silly :(


  3. ClickAndBuzz // June 8, 2012 at 7:47 pm // Reply

    I’m just back from seeing this. I didn’t expect it to be hard science but I was regularly bugged by the cringeworthy lazy ‘science stuff’. For example in the explanation about the pictograms they discover a set of four ‘galactic systems’ that match – what’s a ‘galactic system’ exactly? It’s not a constellation because it apparently has ‘one star in it’. The aforementioned dodgy DNA has what looks like air bubbles on it as it dissolves in water, as if it’s the size and texture of cotton thread. Why are the crew taking their helmets off even if the atmosphere is breathable when they don’t know what alien microbes/viruses/spores they might be inhaling? That said, the science isn’t half as annoying as the one dimensional characters and nonsensical decisions they make, the stupid little nods to other sci-fi films and the lazy repetitions of scenes from Alien (reanimating the detached head, engineer rather than rogue android, by ‘fooling the nervous system’ with a zap from an electrode – what???). Still, beautiful looking film.


  4. Rob Huber // June 9, 2012 at 5:42 am // Reply

    In addition to the above cited errors:

    1. The alien world was “half a billion miles” from Earth, which would put it in the neighborhood of the asteroid belt.

    2. The atmosphere was “toxic” because of a measly 3% CO2. That is perfectly breathable.


  5. Additionally, before they had even discovered the alien species had matching human DNA, they decided that it had a locus coeruleus. Like wtf? How can they even make such judgments (brain scan or not)?! There was no way of telling whether our brains are functionally analogous at all!


  6. Although I agree with all of the above “bad science” criticisms for sure (the “ancient alien” seeded DNA premise being a complete violation of mountains of DNA evidence included, but you kind of had to expect it going into the film)–and even my little brother took issue with the carbon dating mishap–I take issue with some of the general film criticisms.

    First, I got the impression that all of the crew members–not least of which were the other scientists– thought the “because I choose to believe” response was so plainly a poor excuse that they didn’t even bother replying. Considering Scott’s religious beliefs (or lack of commitment to any particular perspective) and the quasi-religious setting of the face/death/liquid room, I think his response to the religious absurdity might have been a bit more open-ended, despite his misstep with the “Darwinism” comment. I took it as something of a mildly satirical (but fair?) commentary on what religion might look like in several decades.

    Second, the acid wasn’t what turned geologist-man into a zombie; it was the black liquid. How that differed so drastically from the Engineer’s dissolving DNA-seeding despite their similarity was a bit curious, though. Maybe the “raw liquid” form of it is supposed to differ from the “used tip tinner” solid form… however lame of an excuse that might be.

    So yeah, definitely cringe-worthy moments aside, I walked into the film expecting Scott to have filled it with social/science commentary (I believe I’d heard something to the effect that he initially posed the question of whether there are limits to what we should and shouldn’t mess with– most obviously in Pearce’s cheap and shallow quest for immortality and the Engineer’s hazardous pseudo-magical weaponized bioengineering), which is what I got. At least that seemed less heavy-handed than Avatar’s wholehearted theft of Pocahontas (and thus its jab at national and natural imperialism), even if the science was as bad as Avatar’s Hollywood-typical spiritual dualism as a central plot piece.

    Then again, I saw this movie for half of the price you did, so I can understand the amplified frustration.


  7. dude, why do you freeking care? its a fictional movie. you however are a scientist. i guess. do what you used to do so well. make science fun. dont make fiction lame because youre too ‘great’. chillax man and do what you do.

    i went to school for creative pursuits. you didnt. you are a scientist…do science. dont kill the fiction for us. get a beer and shut up. :D


    • It’s a fiction,but it is a science-fiction. People with little scientific understanding would not know the difference if there was real science in the movie or not. But for those who can differentiate stupid shit from reality, it freaking bugs us when we are trying to enjoy the movie. When I watch a sci-fi, I don’t want to actively shut up my brain shouting “WTF? This is bullshit” all the time while watching the stupid movie. How about the movies in Sci-fi genre spend some money on science, so they can sell the idea to everyone. It is not like the story would suffer if they sprinkled more reality in there. The fiction part was awful too. Full of plot holes and contradictions. I had a headache getting out of the theater.


      • I’m not a scientist but Carbon dating is basic high school stuff and so are the basics of DNA and it doesn’t work like that. Suggesting that adding weird DNA (Even alien) to another host can change it in hours is like suggesting that you can change a building by posting different blueprints through it’s door.


    • *Sigh* I knew somewhere someone was going to essentially say “a story doesn’t have to make sense”. How about the fact that you could extremely easily make these movies 100% accurate and be not just equally interesting but actually more interesting. Every movie like this could be fixed in literally a day by someone who… 1.actually understands science and 2. cares. The reviewer didn’t “make the fiction lame” the writer made it lame… he only pointed out the lameness. It takes no more effort to be accurate than it does to be inaccurate… so serious question… why intentionally be wrong?


    • Even if we argue on purely artistic grounds Prometheus was still very poorly written. However, that said, getting butt-hurt at scientists and science geeks for disliking the film and giving bad reviews, and the sad attempt of Scott to reconcile religion and science, only spells the dire state of North American education.

      I still tried to be entertained. It was the running directly down the path of a massive rolling object, and not perpendicular to it, that pissed me off most. One would think that by now film makers would drop that age old lame attempt at suspense filler. I felt insulted that, again, a film pulled that dead rabbit out of the hat and expected me to accept it.


  8. “I still have no clue why the android would poison the scientist!”
    Weyland corp and androids are already shady as hell in the Alien story, he probably poisoned him to see what would happen. Just like Ian Holm was told to kill the Alien crew to save the monster, and Paul Reiser would sacrifice everybody to bring a specimen home. That is not a mysterious moment, I expected it actually.

    “I still have no clue why face-melting acid turned the ginger into a monster!”
    His shield melted and he fell into black goop like what was changing Holloway.

    “I don’t know why they did not cast a old man to play Peter Weyland.”
    They already had Guy Pearce in the teaser playing Weyland, and if any sequels are made he could conceivably be in a flashback or 5.


    • I also awaited the android betrail, the question is still why? It was completely illogical and not a scientiffic experiment in any way. He infected him with a (most likely hazardous) alien goop and then let him wander off and do his own thing. If it was some sort of experiment he could af least kept an eye on him. I also don’t see how alien DNA can not only re-write human DNA into pointless rage monsters but also re-animate dead bodies (assuming that the acid blood can melt through toughened plexi glass and spaceship hulls) that have little to no head left. I do agree about the last point but it still seemed unnneccisary and a little cheap.


  9. The Scientist said “300 years of Darwinism”, but it was the year 2093, only 234 years past since “On the Origin of Species” was written(1859), Also we could simply be cousins with the Spacejockey. They could be from Earth but have advanced faster, kinda of like the “Ancients” in Stargate


  10. You are right that there is no such thing as Einsteinism, Newtonism, and Watson and Crick-ism but actually there is a such thing as Darwinism or also known as the Darwinian theory which is the whole theory of natural selection, evolution, adaptation, etc. Basically it is another name for all of Darwin’s ideas. Interesting enough Darwinism was used in the Victorian Age and transformed into Social Darwinism which states that the fittest and strongest country will survive. Same concept but different environment.


    • The term “Darwinism” is used by creationists to try and compate the Theory of Evolution with Christianity.


    • “Darwinism” is generally considered to be a pejorative label for Evolutionary Theory. (In its time, the label “Darwinism” would be used to differentiate it from “Lamarckism”, an alternate, and generally incorrect, attempt at explaining differentiation and speciation). Considering this is supposed to be in the future and that these people were scientists, it’s ridiculous that any one of them would say “Darwinism”.

      It’s not so ridiculous to think that the line was the result of a very lazy screenwriter, however. (And yes, the date is wrong – if the movie is in 2093, the writers ALSO got that part wrong;If you had $234, you wouldn’t say “I have $300”, right?)

      There are a multitude of other examples of gross ignorance of biology in this movie, so it’s not that far-fetched to think the writer(s) had little to no science consultation (or just DIDN’T CARE) when writing this movie that’s billed as “Science Fiction”.


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