Last summer, in stretch of humid boredom, I walked 6 blocks to see Ridley Scott’s Prometheus at the cinema by my family’s house. I asked my friends, who are sci-fi aficionados, to accompany me. I hadn’t seen any of the other Alien movies, so I figured they could clarify any particularly estranged plot points. However, though they whispered minor details to me to curb my confusion, it turns out that I was not the only person to be entirely bewildered by Prometheus. The majority of reviews dismissed the movie as little more than a profitable extension of the lucrative Alien franchise padded by a lavish showcase of very expensive, albeit very cool, computer animation. However, though the plot of Prometheus is regretfully superficial, its ghoulish subject matter points to some startlingly applicable ideas about progress, science, and humanity.
Shortly after watching Prometheus, I ordered take-out and watched all four Alien movies. Two days and several nightmares later, I was left to ponder the unsettling undercurrents of these infamous films. Like its older cousins in the Alien film series, Prometheus paints a complex portrait of science as a product of human ambition. Prometheus, Alien, Aliens, Alien 3, and Alien: Resurrection all hinge upon a passionate, almost religious, search for scientific discovery in the void of space. In every film, the major mission is spearheaded by mad scientist with a dark hidden agenda, followed by a ragtag group of unprofessional, unadaptable, and squeamish researchers who would never even be allowed near a laboratory – let alone a spacecraft.
To give Hollywood some credit, this colorful cast of recurring stock characters is entertaining; not many people want to watch a group of homely looking scientists calmly make educated and rational decisions about microbes for 160 minutes. Put that stuntman in a dripping alien costume, splatter some fake blood on the camera, tell that actor to unbutton her lab coat, and the film will gross millions! And though we understand that these adventurous stories are merely fantasy, these narratives still undoubtedly shape viewers’ understanding of science as a social apparatus – and generally for the worse.
Scientists are usually either portrayed as monotonous old European men, or as reckless and alarming “mad” technicians. By extension, scientific research becomes either unbearably dull, or unforgivably frightening. In either case, the scientists, and the various brands of science they represent, have completely lost their dignity and their humanity. If the prevailing narratives of American media are unable to portray science in a benign light, how are we to understand science as it works within the real world? The cues that we take from mainstream media push us further and further away from the complex world of real scientific research as a highly political facet of history and progress. Instead, fantastical movies like Prometheus relegate scientific discovery to little more than twisted musings of mad scientists.
So, no, the aliens in Alien do not actually exist, but the scientists do. And movies that misrepresent scientists as crazed, possessed brainiacs degrade the people, the profession, and the purpose.
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