Repairing Prometheus: Part 2 - Physics!
A few simple fixes could have gone a long way in making Prometheus the film it was meant to be.
Prometheus was supposed to be one of the best genre movies ever. Everything about the project indicated it would be a new classic of modern filmmaking: A talented director, with a great reputation for compelling science fiction films, a cast full of young and skilled actors, and a gigantic budget to allow for production values that skyrocket.
When the film hit the theaters though, there was nothing of substance to be found. The film was great visually, that effects budget was surely not wasted, but pretty much everything else about the film was painfully bad. This series of four articles looks into what could have been done to make the film work for a discerning sci-fi audience. Of course, expect lots of spoilers.
I know well that there is a difference between 'realistic' and 'believable'. I know that no work must be entirely realistic in order to allow the audience to suspend its disbelief. Some aspects of realism, especially pacing, must be pushed aside for the sake of the narrative's ability to interest and compel. I get that. There is a line however, and that line must be drawn at obvious deviations from physics. A bit of Phlebotinum is fine, as a representation of future science, but there were many inconsistencies and nonsenses that are simply too hard to overlook, even if everything you know about space and physics comes from other television shows and films.
For example, the ship's speed. The Prometheus reaches its destination in 2.4 years. A high-school level of astronomical knowledge will tell you that without breaking the speed of light barrier, it's impossible to even get to Sol's closest neighbors in only a couple of years.
The characters don't make a big deal about going 14 times the speed of light (what it comes out to if you actually do the math), or anything, so I guess one is supposed to believe that in only a few years, mankind will already be blasé about physically impossible speeds in privately owned space vessels. It would be one thing to fudge fuel ratios, or imply special futuristic engines, audiences can deal with that, but one cannot simply throw the laws of physics out the window, and expect an intelligent audience to just let it go, especially that close to the beginning of the film. (note: the writers are not intending this to be a display of 'special relativity' since the same amount of time passes on earth. See the comments below for more details.)
What could they have done instead: Just make the mission take longer. There was no plot reason for the mission to only take 2.4 years, unless it's needed to tie into the future film, but even that's not a good enough reason. Audiences are much more forgiving of allowing the canon of a film to be changed by the prequel than they are of shoddy science. If the trip had taken 50 years instead of less than three, problem solved, and the audience wouldn't have lost faith in the film's verisimilitude in the first ten minutes.
When the characters manage to take the dangerous alien ship out, it falls directly down toward the ground, ignoring momentum and gravity. If a ship is accelerating to escape velocity, and another ship - by necessity moving faster) crashes into it, it will not stop and drop straight down, the debris will likely be spread out over miles of landscape, with the bulk of it coming down far from the launchpad.
What could they have done instead: Honestly, this whole sequence should just have been left out. It was entirely an excuse to create drama and special effects gratuitously. It kills off three of the characters for no real reason (one was actually a noble sacrifice), one of them actually geting hit with the falling ship in what is likely the most criticized scene in the entire film. "Just run to the side!" the audience screams at the screen over and over. If that character had to die right then, I can think of a dozen other ways to do it without breaking the laws of physics. For example, a stray bit of debris (it would make sense for a few pieces to come back down here) could have simply struck her randomly and unexpectedly. That may not have been as visually spectacular or intense, but it could have been done with more emotional power, and would actually have fit the themes of destiny much better than the gratuitously spectacular way she dies in the film.
One of the most glaring scientific issues, however, is right in the most basic premise of the film. The inciting event of the entire journey is the discovery of a 2-dimensional map which can point to a location in a 3 dimensional universe. If it had been a lot more detailed, perhaps it would have worked, but their entire map is just five points with the resolution of a finger-painting. Going on just those five points alone, especially with no key of any kind, there would be no way to find a point in the vastness of space that you can be certain it's pointing at. This is not to mention that the simple unguided existence of the points leads an archaeologist to even think that they might be a star-travel map, which is ridiculous all by itself.
What could they have done instead: Again, I can think of about a dozen different ways to do this without making it stupid, but here's just one: In the opening scenes, the archaeologist finds a bit of debris from what seems to be an ancient ship. She's confused at first by the holographic display it shows, as is the rest of the scientific community, but then she figures it out. It's not whole. It's only the key to something else: This series of five dots she's seen all over the world from different time periods, another mystery that no one can solve. When she plots the dots on the holographic key, it points to a specific place in a specific star cluster. She keeps the information secret in an effort to lead the mission herself. This change wouldn't have altered anything else in the film, and would make no changes thematically, it would simply have made more sense. Really, almost anything would have made more sense that the way they did it in the final film.
There are other issues of course, but there is no need to go into every single one of them. These are the big three totally obvious errors in the simple science of the film, and how they could have very easily been fixed. Most of the rest of the errors are in the motivations of the characters, and the misuses thereof, which I'll cover in parts 3 and 4 of this series.
As I said, a good sci-fi film doesn't have to be realistic to be believable, but these issues are simply too glaring to ignore, and combined with the characterization issues, make one wonder if anyone involved in the creative process of this film was paying attention at all.
Part I of this series can be found here.