Spoiler Alert! They say a zebra is a horse designed by a committee…

It’s got to be black…
No, white…
Are you crazy, black is the safe option…
I can’t believe you guys, white is the new black, make it white…

And that, unfortunately, is all you need to know about the script for Prometheus, it is a story line crafted by a committee. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the movie, it is a visual spectacular. The special effects and cinematography are epic. It’s a keep-your-arms-and-legs-inside-the-cage-at-all-times kind of movie, and Ridley Scott is masterful as a director, but the script is convoluted, contrived and confused, focusing on plot over character.

If you’re interested, here’s the tortured history of the zebra-development committee. If you don’t feel like wading through these dot points as they highlight the tennis match being played with the script, feel free to jump ahead, you already get the gist of what happened.

  • In 2009, Spaihts met Scott to discuss a “bridge” Alien saga.
  • Spaihts writes a 20-page outline, and submits to the producers on Christmas Day, 2009.
  • Within 12 hours, Scott returned the script with notes for changes.
  • Spaihts finds translating Scott’s stylistic visual concepts “difficult.”
  • By April 2010, the script was on its fourth draft.
  • In June 2010, Scott stated that the script was complete and ready for filming.
  • However, Scott changes his mind, contacts Lindelof and requested that he review Spaihts’ script.
  • Unaware of what the producers liked about the existing script, Lindelof informs Scott he found the general concept appealing, but said the story relied too heavily on elements of the Alien films.
  • Scott is adamant he wants he avoid repeating previous accomplishments.
  • Lindelof said, “A true prequel should essentially proceed the events of the original film, but be about something entirely different, feature different characters, have an entirely different theme, although it takes place in that same world.”
  • Lindelof is hired to rewrite Jon Spaihts’s original script, which has already been ravaged on at least five separate occasions.
  • Lindelof suggested that the film could instead run parallel to Aliens, that a sequel would be Prometheus 2 and not Alien, and submitted an idea for how such a sequel could work.
  • Scott and Lindelof worked together five days a week between July and August 2010, trying to piece together exactly what vision Scott was trying to convey and how the script needed to change, including scaling back the Alien symbology and tropes.
  • Beginning in August, Lindelof spent four to five weeks writing his first draft before submitting it mid-September 2010. The final draft was finished in March 2011 as filming began.

The zebra analogy may seem a bit harsh, but the script suffers from being pieced together time and time again. I really wanted this movie to be epic. It could have been, should have been, but without consistency any semblance of plausibility was lost. Consider the following…

  • Our intrepid explorers land on an alien world, without a breathable atmosphere, only to take off their helmets as soon as there’s a whiff of fresh air in some dark, dingy tomb. From that point in the movie, the helmets are on-again, off-again, on-again with a regularity that is dizzy
  • Elizabeth Shaw has sex with her beau, only he’s been surreptitiously infected with some alien goo by the resident android. Within a day she’s the equivalent of three months pregnant with an alien fetus. The android makes the decision to freeze her for the trip home (sound familiar). Only he leaves and she assaults the two hapless guys sent to carry out his orders (what is this, James Bond?). With a few fleeting blows, she escapes. Thankfully, there’s no one else around, and she can run to a “special” medical machine for a caesarian.
  • Sorry, Elizabeth, although the special medical machine is housed in the escape pod/quarters of the only other female in the story, it is only calibrated for men (WTF?)
  • Elizabeth, still on the run but without any pursuers, gets the machine to perform abdominal surgery on her, and we see a wonderful squdigy alien plucked from her womb. A row of staples across her stomach, and she’s ready to run around again, with the odd cramp for good measure (honestly, who thinks of this stuff?)
  • Elizabeth rejoins our android and the rest of the crew who don’t seem phased in the slightest by the fact she escaped and she’s covered in blood with a row of staples running across her stomach. It seems no one is interested in whatever was cut out of her (WTF?)
  • By the way, apparently bras are no longer in vogue in 2093, women simply wrap their breasts in compression bandages (seriously?)
  • During the climatic finale, the captain tells the only other woman in the crew she has just a couple of minutes to get to her escape pod. So what does she do? She doesn’t go to the nice roomy escape pod with the mysterious medical machine, she finds some other, single-person escape pod and suits up? It’s at about this point in the movie you start to realize everything’s a contrivance, a plot device, a macguffin, something that’s only there to progress the story a little later.
  • Sure enough, later our squidgy little alien, the one everyone ignored, including Elizabeth Shaw, becomes her get-out-of-jail-free card.

Sorry, I really hate pointing all this out so I won’t go on. As a writer, I’ve been subject to similar criticisms, but nothing on this scale.

How did this happen? How did a film with so much potential end up in such a mess? I think there’s a temptation for scriptwriters to rush concepts in movies. It seems the scriptwriters felt compelled to compete with the visual spectacular unfolding on the screen, and so interesting characters are lost in the sheer pace of Prometheus. There are so many subtle nuances and intriguing threads I’d like to have seen explored further, but they’re blurted out and then glossed over. The format of a movie simply does not allow for any depth of consideration as before we know it, WHAM, we find ourselves screaming down the other side of the roller-coaster with our hands raised in the air.

Although Prometheus starts out asking profound questions about our origins, by the end of the film the only question in anyone’s mind is just how bad can things get? And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, as it strikes at the heart of all our fears, and that is the uncertainty of the unknown. These other lofty concepts, though, are lost. The characters are dwarfed by the action.

The movie starts by considering our aspirations and our desire for knowledge, which is a wonderful trait, although you wouldn’t think so in the Prometheus universe. There is a yearning to understand our origin and our place in the universe, although unfortunately it’s Eric Von Daniken’s Chariot of the Gods and not Charles Darwin’s Descent of Man that gets the place of prominence. The movie has the excitement of adventure, questions about existence, etc, but by the end, there’s only a sense of relief someone survived the ordeal.

This is where I think books excel over movies. In a well-written book, the plot is subservient to the characters. Ideally, the plot is simply the characters in action within that fictional universe, and the two blend seamlessly into a coherent story. With the release of my latest novella, WAR, I’ve tried to give readers both a story-arc and a character-arc, so that by the end of the book you feel you know and understand them both.

With its mind-blowing vistas, Prometheus should have been a classic, but the script let it down. Prometheus is a patchwork quilt of ideas. It tried to be too much, and so never really settled on anything of substance.

For me, Prometheus demonstrates that books have more latitude than a movie, more time to craft the desired result. Books can provide greater consistency, more depth and satisfaction by stimulating our intellects, and not just catering to our craving for a thrill ride. Movies, as wonderful as they are, all too often put sensationalism over substance. For me, Prometheus is 6/10.

8 thoughts on “Prometheus

  1. I’d give it an 8 out of 10, but that doesn’t mean I don’t agree with everything you said. I just try to push it out of my mind. The MediPod designed by old rich white dudes was way off the charts, however. And who gets run over by a slow-moving steamroller? Step to the side next time, why don’t you.

    If anyone’s interested, here are some science gaffes that shouldn’t have been there:

    1. The world the Prometheus visited was a moon of a gas giant. However, when the sky was shown on the alien world, the rings around the gas giant were shown at an angle. This being a planet-sized (at least large enough to hold an atmosphere) moon of a gas giant, it would necessarily have been formed during accretion of the gas giant host and therefore be in the exact same plane as the rings. So the rings should have been shown only edge-on, not at the angle shown in the movie. Gas giants are capable of having moons that don’t orbit in the equatorial plane (Jupiter even has retrograde moons), but such moons are always captured asteroids — objects that are magnitudes of order too light to form habitable worlds.

    2. Why are space ships (almost) always shown burning their engines to accelerate as they approach an object for rendezvous? Prometheus should have had its engines in reverse as it approached the alien world. Indeed, it should have had the engines in reverse during the entire second half of the trip.

    3. Again with the creatures gaining biomass in violation of mass conservation laws. That’s just silly.

    4. What was the deal with that super-strong hairy guy?

    One gaffe that Dr. Tyson pointed out involved a character saying they were “half a billion miles from Earth”, which would put them just outside the orbit of Jupiter instead of 35 light years away. However, I respectfully disagree that they got this wrong. Not only was the dialog (which is privileged anyway) spoken by a non-scientist in a casual context, but a computer display as they approached the alien world showed the odometer reading as 3.3×10^14 kilometers, which is 35 light years. So they actually got this right.

    Now for your homework assignment: Two years passed on the ship as they crossed 35 light years of space. Assuming constant speed (let’s make this easy), how fast would they have to bee going to cross 35 light years in only two years of ship time? Answers should be provides as a percentage of c. Bonus question: How many years passed on Earth during the transit of Prometheus to the alien world?

    • Relativistic calculations are not my forte, so I used an online calculator and came up with…

      * 35 light years distance
      * Requires a constant acceleration/deceleration of 5 G
      * 2 yrs will elapse on-board
      * 35 yrs will elapse on Earth
      * Their speed would have been 0.9999400151641125 of C and would have made for quite a sight

      Although given how easily the billiard balls were perturbed and, as you point out, they defy orbital mechanics and accelerate into orbit, so it’s hard to see Prometheus moving at 5Gs. And what is with bringing a starship down to the surface of the moon? That’s a big no-no. Anyone that thinks about it would use a shuttle, as uneven stress on the structural frame, corrosion, any damage from that silica storm, etc, could mean this was a one-way trip.

    • Oh, and on point #3, when her baby grew up into a giant face hugger (???) in less than a day, my reaction was, what the f*** has it been eating? The furniture?

      As for #4, the super-strong hairy guy who crosses vast stretches of rocky terrain by dragging his ass along the ground (only to then figure out what feet are for and leap around killing everyone), that seems to be yet another artefact of the tortured script being passed around one too many times. And yet, I loved the movie for its grand vistas and sci-fi intrigue. To a starving man, anything is a banquet.

      Come on, Hollywood, give us some decent sci-fi movies…

  2. I remember another science gaffe that made me roll my eyes during the movie:

    The scientists from the Prometheus used carbon dating to determine the age of the corpse in the alien ship.

    That’s entirely bogus.

    The reason carbon dating works on organic life on Earth is because cosmic rays striking Earth’s upper atmosphere produces C14 — a radio isotope of carbon — at a rate that has kept the ratio of C14 to C12 dependably constant for the past 60,000 years. (Before that, volcanoes introduced copius amounts of old carbon into the atmosphere, ruining everything. Stupid volcanoes.) Organisms living in that atmosphere ingest the carbon, maintaining that same ratio in their tissue until they die. Then, after death, the C14 is no longer replaced through digestion or respiration, and the C14 to C12 ratio changes as the C14 decays. Measuring this ratio in long-dead tissue lets us calculate how long ago the organism died and stopped ingesting carbon.

    But different planets have different carbon cycles, different atmospheres, different stars, different geological histories — all of which mean that you can’t just assume an alien world would have the same C14/C12 ratio in its atmosphere as Earth, or that the ratio has been unchanged for thousands of years. Even Mars doesn’t have the same isotope ratios as Earth, and it’s right next door.

    Moreover, even if you could study an alien planet long enough to create a carbon dating system that would work, only indigenous life can be dated. Since the muscle-bound aliens almost certainly originated from a different planet with a completely unknown carbon cycle, all bets are off.

    Oh, well. At least they didn’t carbon-date something inorganic, like a rock.

    The movie was still a lot of fun, though.

    • Well spotted… I had a good laugh at their quarantine procedures, which was to slide things back and forth into a clear plastic box. There was no regard for any pathogens it might carry, or for preventing contamination with bacteria from Earth. Now, cross-contamination from a true alien lifeform with a different biological basis would probably be impossible, but this was supposed to be an exact match. Oh, and on the subject of exact matches, how could our eight-foot blue buddies have an “exact match” with human DNA? And an “exact match” with what? The average DNA profile of mankind? Europeans and Africans don’t have an “exact match,” let alone say Asians and space jockeys.

      They’re supposed to have scientific advisors on these movies.

      Apparently Ridley Scott has the movie rights for WOOL, which has some great characters and some good intrigue that would suit the silver screen. I’m sure he’ll do better with that.

  3. I think the only way to determine how hackneyed the screen version of “Prometheus” really is would be to read Spaiht’s original final draft of the script. That sounds like it might have been a very good movie, but Ridley Scott, not actually having any story ideas himself, reneged on doing an Alien prequel brought in another writer, resulting in a mish-mosh of story elements and action movie clichés. A shame, really.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s