One of the drawbacks to being a scientist is that science fiction becomes harder to enjoy. Storytelling requires a certain suspension of disbelief to work. But when your day-to-day job involves asking questions about how the natural world works, sci-fi movies are full of things that take you out of the story and leave you saying “Oh, come on“. I’ve been reminded of this after seeing Ridley Scott’s film Prometheus, a prequel to his deservedly classic Alien. Some of the things I found myself thinking during the movie:
- If the aliens seeded life on earth with DNA oligomers (PCR primers, basically) like this computer animation is showing us, why did they have to sacrifice one of themselves to do it? Wouldn’t it be easier to just chemically synthesize them the way we do?
- If this is supposed to be the origins of life on earth, then why is it showing us metazoan zygotes? And didn’t they just show us a landscape full of plants, anyway?
- Why aren’t any of these characters saying anything about how wierd it is for a rocky moon to have an atmosphere full of oxygen?
- If this is a barren moon, then why are there earthworms? And why are the earthworms sometimes meal worms (plant-eating insect larvae)?
- Why don’t any of these people act like real scientists, or at least like professionals?
- Why is this movie rehashing trite 1950′s cliches about the difference between humans and robots being emotion and curiosity after just showing us the android character having feelings and being curious?
- If the aliens engineered life on earth, then doesn’t making it look like a species of primate evolved to have the same genome as them seem wierdly narcissistic?
- How did that alien get so big so fast without eating anything?
It’s okay for movies to leave things unexplained. I’m cool with that. Scientists live in a world full of unexplained things. I’d even prefer that movies to leave things unexplained and just chalk it up to alien technology or whatever. Their explanations are usually boring and stupid, anyway. But when the plot revolves around events that any undergrad biology major could poke holes in, well, it’s hard to get past that. Prometheus apparently did have a science consultant, though his involvement seems to have been limited a single conversation. Film makers hire people whose whole job it is to make sure that continuity of appearance is maintained from shot to shot. Can’t they hire someone to make sure the science makes sense, too? Or at least isn’t unnecessarily egregious? Please?
The worst part of Prometheus for me, though, is that the movie is anti-science without even realizing it. Like, for example, the part where the main protagonist couple (archaeologists) claim that aliens engineered life on earth. One of the other characters reasonably asks what evidence they have for this, and the main protagonist says “It’s what I choose to believe”. Ugh. The movie presents this as a heroic act rather than, you know, pants-on-head retarded. To be clear here, this is the equivalent of a professional archaeologist saying that aliens built the pyramids of Egypt. The only response other characters have to this conspiracy idiocy is to whine that it goes against “Darwinism”—as if evolutionary biology were a philosophical belief rather than, you know, science supported by observable facts. In spite of this, the filmmakers inexplicably believe that one of their protagonists is a skeptic.
Dear Mr. Scott: Richard Feynman was right when he said “Science is a long history of learning how not to fool ourselves.” What you show us is self-deception of the worst kind.