Escape Pod

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When Vickers realizes Janek is really mutinying and going to ram the alien ship with the Prometheus, she has only 40 seconds to flee to an escape pod. She races to the escape room and slams her hand on a waist-high box mounted on the wall next to one of the pods. The clear, protective door over the pod lifts. She hurriedly dons her environment suit and throws herself into one of the coffin-shaped alcoves. She reaches to her right and on a pad we can’t see, she presses five buttons in sequence, shouting, “Come on!” The pod is sealed and shot away from the ship to land on the planet below.

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The transparent cover gives a clear view into the pod. That’s great, since if there were multiple people trying to escape, it would be easier to target an empty one. The the shape inside is unmistakeable. That’s great because at a glance even an untrained passenger could figure out what this is. The bright orange stripes are appropriately intense and attention-getting as well.

Viewers might have questions about the placement of the back-lit button panels inside the pod, seeing as how they’re in a very awkward place for Vickers to see and operate. I presume she has some other interface facing her, and the panels we see in the scene are for operating when the pod is resting on the planet’s surface and its lid opened. From that position, these buttons make more sense.

I think that’s where the greatness ends. The main consideration for an escape pod is that it is used in dire emergencies. Fractions of a second might mean the difference between safety and disintegration, and so though the cinematic tension in the scene is built up by these designed-in delays, an ideal system shouldn’t work the same way. How could it be improved? There are three delays, and each of them could be improved or removed.

Delay 1: Opening a pod

Why should she have to open the pod with a button or handprint reader or whatever that thing is? The pods should be open at all times.

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If pods had to be sealed for some biological or mechanical reason, then a pod should open up for her immediately when she enters the room. Simple motion detectors are all that is needed.

If she has to authorize for some dystopian, only-certain-people-can-be-saved corporate reason, then a voice print could work, allowing her to shout in the hallway as she runs for the pod.

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Some passive recognition would be even better since it wouldn’t cost her even the time of shouting: Face-recognition or fast retinal scan through cameras mounted in the room or the pod. Run a quick laser line across her face and she’s authorized.

Delay 2: Suiting Up

Can she put on the environment suit in the pod? Yes, the pod is cramped, but that’s the biggest delay she experiences. Increase the size of the pod slightly to allow for that kind of maneuvering, and then she can just grab the suit as she’s running by and put it on in the pod’s relative safety.

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Even cooler would be if the pod was the environment suit: All she would have to do is throw herself in the pod, activate it, and the minute she landed on LV223, the capsule transformed, Autobot-style, into an exosuit, giving her more protection and more enhancement for survival on an alien planet. Plus, you can imagine the awesomeness of letting Vickers fight the zombified Weyland Ripley-style.

Delay 3: Activation

This is one delay that I’m pretty sure can’t be either automatic or passive. The cost of making a mistake is too dire. Accidentally pressed a button? Sorry, you’re now being shot away from the mother ship faster than it can travel. Still, why does she have to hit a series of buttons here? Is it a (shudder) password, as a corporate cost-control measure? Yes, that spells dystopia, but it should be faster and more intuitive, and we’ve already authorized her, above.

Fortunately this doesn’t need much rethinking. Since we’ve already seen a great interaction used for an emergency procedure, i.e. the 5-finger touch-twist used for emergency decontamination on the MedPod, I’d suggest using that. Crew would only have to be trained once.

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The total interaction, then, should be that Vickers:

  1. Runs to the escape room
  2. Is identified passively (and notified of it by voice)
  3. Grabs a suit (this is optional if you go with the awesome exosuit idea)
  4. Throws herself into an open pod
  5. Performs a simple gesture on a touch pad
  6. Is shot away from the soon-to-explode ship

Bam! You have saved massive amounts of time, a crewmember removed from the immediate danger, and you have the setup for an awesome ending where Vickers in her exosuit can just punch the falling alien spaceship out of the the way rather than running from it like a moron.

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Spacesuits

The surface of LV-223, as one imagines with the overwhelming majority of alien planets, is inhospitable to human life. For life support and protection, the crew wears suits complete with large clear “fishbowl” helmets that give a full-range of view. A sensor strip arcs across the forehead of the bowl, with all manner of sensors broadcasting information back to the ship. Crew also wear a soft fabric cap beneath the bowl with their name clearly stitched into a patch that sits above the forehead. (Type nerds: The face is modular, something similar to Eurostile. The name is in all caps. This is par for sci-fi typography, but poor for legibility at distance.)

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Sadly for the crewmembers (and the actors as well) the air inside these bowls are not well filtered and circulated. The inside surface fogs up quite easily from the wearer’s breath.

Audio

Audio is handled intuitively, with all microphones between spacesuits being active all the time, with an individual’s volume relative to his or her proximity to the listener. Janek is at one point able to stand in front of the ship and address everyone inside it, knowing that the helmet microphones are monitored at all times.

Lights, Cameras

There are lights inside the helmet, placed over the forehead and pointing down to make the wearer’s face visible to others nearby, as well as anyone remote-monitoring the wearer with a backward-facing camera. A curious feature of the suits that they also include yellow lights that highlight the wearer’s neck. What is the purpose of these lights? Certainly it shows off Michael Fassbender’s immaculate jawline, but diegetically, it’s unclear what the purpose of these things are. It is after the scientists remove their helmets in the alien environment—against the direct orders of the Captain—it becomes clear that the spacesuits were designed with this in mind. This way the spacesuits can be operated helmetlessly while maintaining identification lights for other crew. The odds of this being a feature that would ever be used on an alien planet are astronomically low, but the designers accommodated the ability to be operated without helmets.

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Sleeve computers

Holloway’s left sleeve has two small screens. The left one of these displays inscrutably small lines of cyan text. The right one has a label of PT011, with a 3×3 array of two-digit hexadecimal numbers beneath it.

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A few of the hexadecimal pairs have highlight boxes around them. Looking at this grid, Holloway is able to report to the others that, “Look at the CO2 levels. Outside it’s completely toxic, and in here there’s nothing. It’s breathable.” It’s inscrutable, but believably shorthand for vital bits of information, understsandable to well-trained wearers. For inputs to the sleeve computer, he has four momentary buttons along the bottom and a rotary side-mounted dial. Using these controls, Holloway is able to disable his safety controls and remove the helmet.