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.

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About Myles Power (553 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'.

10 Comments on Bad Science in Prometheus

  1. thultner10 // June 12, 2012 at 2:13 pm // Reply

    I liked Prometheus for one reason and one reason only: I got to see it for free, early and as part of a double feature with Alien. That being said, I was still annoyed by a couple of issues with the film (like most of the movie where they weren’t running in terror) but still managed to have a good time.

    I agree with most of everything Mr. Power had to say above, but Prometheus was still the best Alien-related movie to come out in a couple of decades.

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  2. Just have faith that this mOvie was perfect and don’t question it or the aliens will come to kill you!! Then you will see it really is perfect!

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  3. Not since inception have i been so t’eed off with a movie that thinks it is cleverer than it realky is. However i rewatched inception and i do enjoy it despite the simple but overly stated premise. However prometheus bugs me more than any other film i have seen as it looks great, uses its budget well to get a great line up but… Then it throws ideas at the screen like lost did, going from intrigue to utter nonsense, has some of the most glaring errors on film to insult the aidience and have the characters act even dumber than a bunch of college graduates near a crazed serial killer. ii guess prometheus just veers from sf to fantasy with magic carbon dating, cartoon escapes from spaceships and aliens that chase our heroine just because the plot says so rather than say flying off to invade earth in one of the other spaceships that jyst hsppen to be lying around but noone could be bothered to look at for the whole movie! Argh! dumb dumb dumb. So ill watch it again but its enjoyable hokum. Ridley and the writers need to try hsrder.

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  4. Why does the android poison Holloway? It is very clear that the android has an hidden agenda which remains hidden in the movie.
    The only explanation in my opinion can be that the financer of this trillion dollar operation: Wayland, who can only live for a few days is looking for a cure for himself. There is not much time, so the android does a quick win or lose experiment which seems to fail. Also the movies watched and knowledge databases viewed by the android during the years of traveling may have played a role in this.

    The Carbon test made me thinking as well but why should this not be possible? The planet’s atmosphere and planet itself is scanned before they use the dating method so the current concentration may be known. They could have measured the half-life of Carbon14 as well? So why couldn’t the equipment not have been calibrated /adapted before used the first time?

    Furthermore, in my opinion Science Fiction should be something that is at least theoretically possible. For example extrapolated Science of what is currently possible. But if you take Science Fiction literally then you can take it as Fictional Science, so Science that is not theoretically possible at all and is totally fiction.

    I like the movie because of the visualization of an Engineer (God) that plants the seeds for life. All Life as we know it has or comes from DNA (or maybe also RNA). Special effects are great, and it was fun because I first did not know it was a sort of prequel to the much older movie “Alien” but during the movie I came to that insight because of the multiple similarities with it.

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  5. The android poisons Holloway, and this scene is such a non sequitur, because it was pilfered from a defunct script for a different movie (Alejandro Jodorowski’s Dune). Basically, in the original script, the hero has been castrated in a ritual bullfight (sic), and therefore conceives a son by a creepistani method – a drop of his blood (in Promethus the goo) travels through the woman’s body till it reaches ovary… no octopuses involved, though. An earlier version of the script once did the rounds, but everyone thought cannot be the script, because if it were, then Ridley would have beaten them to death with it. Unfortunately, it was spot-on – from the excessively humanoid-looking evil Space Imhoteps with dead eyes, to a scene where the Space Imhotep…ooops, Engineer… notices Shaw and puts it into some kind of horrifying machine; it is this machine that impregnates her with Alien baby. Keeping this scene would have meant an NC-17 rating, so they tossed in that David-poisons-Holloway bit, even though it makes no logical sense whatsoever..

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  6. To be fair, it was a good film. First of all it’s science-fiction. The emphasis being on the … ‘fiction’ part of the genre. And I also appreciate that having scientific flaws can be somewhat irritating, but pointing out that it’s a bad film because it doesn’t answer questions is not right imo – plot holes are not the same as unanswered questions.

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  7. What’s a galactic system ?

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  8. also 3% carbon di-oxide along with 20% oxygen and the rest nitrogeon in the atmosphere wont kill you at all,

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  9. Dude! Thank you! Im not alone on this planet! People been laughing at me for pointing out the DNA looks stupid and the fact that there is no good way(shown in the movie) to reconstruct it back in order if it separated in bases and not in the strands…
    Ridley could make some crazy cool virus machinery mRNA process that would look super creepy, super scientific and alien as hell and he totally missed this opportunity.

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  10. bubbabooey // July 18, 2014 at 10:26 am // Reply

    David Lindelof is the fucking moron scriptwriter who sabotaged this movie. He also collaborated on the shitty script for last year’s shitty Star Trek movie. I’m going to make certain that I keep track of every project this idiot works on. I must ensure that I never again have to endure the malignant cloud of incoherent idiocy that surrounds everything this ignorant cretin touches. Fuck you David Lindelof, you illiterate, talent-less, mediocre hack.

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