The Plot Hole Problem – Prometheus

Prometheus has been stirring up a lot of conversation lately, but not all of the heated discussions are focussed on the film’s themes and merits. It seems that quite a few people have taken issue with alleged plot holes that permeate the film, finding them to be indicative of lazy writing that results in a confused and unfulfilling experience. While I think it’s fair to say that Prometheus doesn’t tell the most straightforward of stories, many of the supposed ‘plot holes’ aren’t really plot holes at all.

What was up with the beginning of the movie?

The film’s prologue featuring an Engineer is somewhat ambiguous so is open to interpretation. We don’t know for certain that the planet at the beginning is Earth but it’s still reasonably clear that the Engineer sacrificed himself in order to seed some form of life on that planet. His DNA is shown breaking down and then being reconstituted in the waters below, symbolically showing the creation of life.

Is the liquid the Engineer drinks at the beginning the same as the black liquid we see later?

Maybe – this is admittedly unclear. The liquid at the beginning looks different to the ooze we see later, although it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch if they are related because they both affect DNA.

Why weren’t the crew informed of their purpose until they had reached their destination?

The film establishes that the crew are on a top-secret, privately-funded mission so revealing their purpose prior to leaving could have led to a security breach. Furthermore, this type of plot device has been used in the other Alien movies, notably Aliens in which the crew aren’t informed of their mission and haven’t been formally introduced to one another until they reach their destination.

How did they find the Engineer installation straight away?

This is a bit of a plot contrivance but hardly a plot hole. Many films including the previous Alien movies feature an element such as this – the Star Wars series is a particularly notorious offender of this trope.

Why didn’t the film lead directly into Alien?  Is it set on a different planet?

Easy: Prometheus isn’t a direct prequel to Alien. It occupies the murky space somewhere between prequel and spin-off, taking place in the same sci-fi universe but primarily telling an original story. Crucially, Prometheus features a different planet (LV-223) to the one in Alien (LV-426).

The origins of the ‘Space Jockey’ in Alien are still up for debate

What did the black liquid do?

We learn in the film that the liquid is a kind of biological weapon being developed and/or experimented with by the Engineers. It’s an chaotic substance that appears to mutate the DNA of whatever it comes into contact with, also making it more aggressive (and perhaps somewhat similar to the Xenomorphs from the Alien movies).

The cobra-like creatures that the two lost scientists encounter are the result of worms coming into contact with the liquid that leaked out of the urns (we see the worms in an earlier shot prior to their transformation). As we see in the film, the cobra-worms can regrow their head which is a trait that’s typical of worms.

Holloway is also infected by the liquid but is killed by Vickers before we see what will ultimately become of him. Later however, Fifield, who fell head-first into the liquid, returns in an aggressive and mutated state. It’s reasonable to assume that this is what would have become of Holloway if he hadn’t been burnt to a crisp.

Nevertheless, the liquid also has an effect on Holloway’s sperm, evidenced in the unnatural foetus growing in Shaw. This foetus eventually develops into a massive creature resembling a Facehugger from the Alien movies, which makes sense because it’s designed to impregnate and it was born of (mutated) sperm, which are also designed to impregnate.

How can Shaw be up and about so soon after the C-section?

It’s the future: medical technology has advanced quite a lot. Even in today’s modern world I know of people who have been up and about soon after surgeries. Moreover, we see Shaw inject herself several times with unknown medication that probably helped her recovery.

Why did nobody question Shaw about her ‘baby’?

The easy answer is that only a handful of people knew about it, and they might have seen Shaw and assumed that she’d undergone a procedure and disposed of it. Regardless, by that stage everyone was preoccupied with Weyland and going to visit the live Engineer that David discovered. She isn’t completely ignored however, as David does attempt to comfort her, also admiring her strong survival instincts before quipping that he didn’t think she had it in her.

How did Shaw’s baby grow so big?

Who knows? How did the Xenomorph grow so big in Alien? It’s a genetic anomaly, an unknown organism that might very well be capable of growing so large despite being locked in a room.

Was the Xenomorph at the end of the film the first of its kind?

Probably not. In the room with the giant head we see a mural of a Xenomorph, indicating that the Engineers were already aware of them. There are also other nods such as Engineers with their chests burst open as well as David inspecting a secretion not unlike those made by the Xenomorphs. The suggestion seems to be that the event some 2000 years earlier that killed most of the Engineers was a Xenomorph outbreak. This might also explain the famous ‘Space Jockey’ in Alien, who’s noted to be fossilised – maybe he crashed on LV-426 in a failed attempt to flee from the outbreak? As Janek (the captain) says, whatever it was that they had there got out and turned on them.

Why did David infect Holloway with the black liquid?

Early in the film we see David spying on Shaw’s dreams, his actions here constituting a blatant invasion of personal privacy. This is significant because it helps to set him up as someone who’s curious and a free thinker despite being a robot, also showing that he’s not limited by our human conception of morality so can carry out those actions that we might consider to be unethical. After arriving on the planet and discovering no living Engineers, David is ordered by Weyland to ‘try harder’ so he turns to the chaotic black liquid. After wryly butting heads with a depressed and petulant Holloway, David spikes his drink as a way to get back at him and find out the answers that they’d come all this way for by doing ‘anything and everything’.

Why did the scientists take their helmets off? 

The given explanation is that the air wasn’t toxic within the structure, but it also helps from a storytelling perspective because it allows the characters to not be impeded by their helmets. Certainly, in a realistic scenario it is a stupid thing to do considering the possibility of pathogens, but did you ever stop to consider the same in series like Star Wars in which the characters jump from planet to planet all the time? It’s a common sci-fi trope; at least the characters in Prometheus acknowledge the stupidity of it when they begin to worry once it becomes clear that Holloway is infected with something.

Why were those two scientists who got lost so dumb?

The issue here is that people are transposing character traits from Fifield (the geologist) to Millburn (the biologist) and vice versa. Fifield freaks out at the sight of the first dead Engineer that they find and wants to leave – he didn’t sign up for this and there’s only a few hours of daylight left anyway. Millburn decides to join Fifield on the way back to the ship. Note that Millburn has been constantly trying to befriend Fifield up to this point so it makes sense that he would want to accompany the geologist. Millburn might be a bit on edge but he’s certainly nowhere near as freaked out as Fifield.

Of course the duo get lost however, left behind in the confusion and mad rush to get out before the storm hits. Personally, I appreciated the irony of the mapping expert getting lost. At least Fifield had a reasonable excuse because he was freaked out and shown to be smoking ‘tobacco’ (hint: it wasn’t tobacco) so was in no condition to think rationally. Perhaps Janek could have directed them but it’s not clear that he was aware of their situation and whether that was possible in the circumstances (my memory of this part is a little hazy, but the attention was focussed on the others so Fifield and Millburn might have simply slipped under the radar).

By the time the pair encounter a pile of bodies nerves are obviously high, but Millburn at least is composed enough to get up close to examine an Engineer, noting that its chest looks like it exploded. Warned by Janek that there might be a life form West of their position, they assume the worst and decide to head East (I imagine most people would think of some horrible monster if they were in a similar position… it seems like a very human thing to do).

Fifield and Millburn eventually find their way to the room with the giant face and leaking urns. It’s important to recognise that neither scientist was present when the room was opened so they are unfamiliar with the strange black liquid and changing murals. It’s at this point that the mutated worms first appear. Fifield freaks out but Millburn takes control. He tells Fifield to calm down and says he’s ‘got this’. He is, after all, a biologist and therefore intrigued at this new organism (which fortunately isn’t some kind of monster rather a small creature not unlike a cobra or snake). Wearing a full body protective spacesuit, Millburn then does what I’ve seen so many so-called ‘experts’ do on wildlife programs – he approaches the creature and attempts to touch it, observing that it’s ‘mesmerised’. As viewers we know he’s screwed but his actions aren’t at all out of character and thus a supposed ‘plot hole’ as so many tend to profess.

Why did Shaw and Vickers run in a straight line away from the falling ship?

I encourage you to watch the scene again because they aren’t running in a straight line, the problem is that the ship isn’t crashing in a straight line. The pair are actually continuously changing the direction they’re running in but the fast editing can make it difficult to tell that that’s the case.

Why did the Engineers create us? Why did they change their minds? What were their motivations? 

Honestly, I could write a whole essay on this because there’s so much that could be said and argued, from allegories of the myth of the Titan Prometheus to theories that Jesus was an Engineer – it’s really the main crux of the film’s themes. I think I’ll leave this one open for a follow-up, much in the same way as the movie teases a tantalising sequel.

And that’s it! While there are still some points I haven’t covered I feel I’ve addressed enough to call it. Hopefully this has helped you to understand the how and why of Prometheus and given you a greater appreciation of the film. As always, if you’d like me to discuss another issue in the film please post a comment below and I’ll do my best to respond.

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