Noah J Nelson on Monday, Jun. 11th
Warning: As a discussion of the flaws in the film, and the lessons that can be learned from examining them, this essay contains massive spoilers for Prometheus. It will also be nigh incomprehensible to someone who has not seen the film.
Perhaps no major studio picture was more anticipated this summer by film fans than Prometheus. The Avengers might have more hype, and The Dark Knight Rises has a legion of fans who’ve been holding vigil since the end of the last Batman movie, but Prometheus represented possibility on another level entirely. Director Ridley Scott returning to science fiction, in a near prequel to his iconic triumph Alien no less, was destined to be an event in and of itself.
In the aftermath of the release a conventional wisdom has begun to form: the film is gorgeous, includes the best use of 3D since Avatar, and has storytelling flaws so deep that the film is almost unwatchable on a storytelling level.
For this film lovers should be thankful. It’s been a while since we had a deeply flawed film that is so easy on the eyes. One whose philosophical ambition– to tackle big themes in terms in layman’s terms– is crippled by the dictates of Hollywood’s screenplay formula. Prometheus is truly a gift from the film gods, although the operative myth here is actually Pandora’s Box, with screenwriter Damon Lindelof in the gender swapped role of the heroine.
What follows are my modest attempts to diagnose some of the problems running around in the film’s DNA. They are issues that pop up in a lot of contemporary films, especially genre films, and this is an opportunity to confront them head on.
Multiple Character Syndrome
This nasty affliction often affects TV writers who have come off of long, successful runs on genre series. Accustomed to writing for a large cast, the writer allows that instinct to take over. Yet what was an asset in long form storytelling becomes a massive liability in the short time span of a feature.
For all intents and purposes an audience has an empathic carrying capacity. A version of Dunbar’s Number for fiction if you will. My best guess is that on our first encounter with a narrative we can expand out attention to about 5 principle cast members. Everyone else gets regulated to the back burner. Key elements of the plot should center on the 5 main characters.
To take the original Star Wars as an example, the key characters are: Luke, Leia, Han, Obi-Wan and Darth Vader. These are the characters that make the big choices that drive the plot, the ones that the audience cares the most about what they do next. The rest of the cast remains engaging, but the agency of the story rests with these five. [Don't get me started on Grand Moff Tarkin, fanboys. Save it for another day.]
Prometheus has way too many characters with agency. First there’s Noomi and her twerp of a boyfriend Hammond. Then we get David. Glorious David who the whole movie should be about. After that comes Vickers and Idris Elba. Then psycho-tattoo punk geologist and dumb biologist. Some pilot guys. Guy Pearce in bad make up.
All of these characters have poorly defined motivations of their own. It would be fine if half of them were just window dressing, but they seem to want to be actual characters, only they seem to be really bad at it. It’s like listening to a seven year old try to describe a season two episode of Game of Thrones. Only with all the naughty bits cut out.
Even Joss Whedon suffered from this syndrome. Alongside the scheduling shenanigans that accompanied it’s debut, the thing that doomed the TV series Firefly‘s chances with mainstream audiences was MCS. From the first episode Whedon tried to have a cast almost as large as the final season of his Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Less screen time per character means less time for the audience to learn to love them. The Avengers could have gone the same way too without the existence of the previous Marvel movies. Imagine the poor souls who walk into that film without having seen at least Iron Man.
Lacunas vs. Plot Holes
This is a problem that hits us coming and going with Prometheus. First off, we’ll probably need some definitions here.
Plot holes we all get: they’re gaps in the logic of the story. Unanswered “why’s” and “how’s” that make the action feel forced.
Lacunas are also gaps. Technically they are gaps in memory, but I’ve used the term for years to describe the open questions in the backstory or mythology of a narrative. Most lacunas are meant to be filled in at some point. A question is asked and an answer is given somewhere down the line. In Game of Thrones the question of Jon Snow’s true parentage is a hotly debated topic. That’s an example of an intentional lacuna.
Other lacunas are, for lack of a better term, emergent. They come from the questions that the storytellers have yet to think, or are seemingly unwilling, to ask. The most extreme versions of these questions are what drive the fan fiction community. Which ultimately leads us to a world where Bret Easton Ellis campaigns on Twitter to get the job adapting a bunch of whitewashed Twilight slash ficiton novels for the screen. But I digress.
Emergent lacunas are the strength of Whedon’s Firefly. An exceptionally elaborate universe was hinted at in just nine short episodes of television by having charcters in western garb fly around in spaceships and curse in Mandarin. This sparked the imaginations of genre fans who leapt right into the gaps created by these broad strokes and started filling them in for themselves.
Lacunas can also be a franchise’s downfall. Star Wars was initally blessed with so many of them. Deliberate questions like “What were the Clone Wars?” and accidental ones like “How are Jedi babies made?” launched a million million… well let’s not go completely there. When the time came to start answering them for real in the prequel movies, many fans found they liked their answers better than those that George Lucas came up with.
Prometheus tries to side step that problem by making a bit of a hullabaloo about how it isn’t really a prequel to Alien. It just happpens to be set in the same universe at a point in time earlier than Alien. Prometheus doens’t even take place on the same planteoid as Alien, which opens up all kinds of questions as to what is actually going on.
Which are exactly the kinds of questions that you want to have in a head-scratching Sci-Fi movie. Unfortunately Prometheus also has plot holes. Gaps in character logic and moments of happenstance that are nothing short of hack writing. A to-a-fault devotion to Hollywood’s version of where and when the major beats of a screen story have to fall. At multiple points in the second act you can feel the necessities of plot trying to thrust their way down the character’s throats. In at least one case literally doing so.
Instead of the action rising out of empathically understood character motavations we get wind storms, wrong turns (from the guy with the mapping tech, no less) and really horrible archeological dig protocol from a bunch of people who we are supposed to have doctoral degrees. Maybe Scott and Lindelof are trying to tell us that our education system is screwed. It could be that everyone on board the Prometheus has a PhD from University of Phoenix.
The existence of plot holes cheapens the lacunas. A good lacuna takes a little bit of thought and imagination to deal with. When a story is saddled with plot holes, however, the audience stops wanting to suspend disbelief and begins ridiculing instead.
There’s an “SMS dialogue between Noomi Rapace and an Engineer“ post going around on social media. In it the character of Dr. Shaw berates the giant for the seeming gap in story logic that would have us belive that humans evolved from Engineer DNA through evolution and wind up having the same gentic profile as their makers despite an infinite number of possible outcomes.
The author of that post also makes light of the engineers subsequent return visits to earth, questioning why the giants didn’t just wipe humanity out back then if that was the plan all along. What’s sad here isn’t the plot holes, becasue these aren’t plot holes, but the lack of imagination on display by the author of the satire.
Just a drop of imagination allows the return visits to solve the paradox of humanity evolving from engieer DNA. Subsequent visits would allow for that evolutuion to be directed so that humanity winds up turning out the way our makers intended. An ongoing experiement, as opposed to one that was “fire and forget”. [Mr. Lindelof may contact me through Twitter to recieve instructions as to where to send my No-Prize.]
One problem that the current crop of storytelling conventions make for really lazy audiences. If everything isn’t explained all the way through some people just throw up their hands and yell “stooooopid”. Come to think of it, maybe the whole film is a condemnation of our education system and poor parenting skills. Yet fault lies here with the filmmakers as well the presence of plot holes saps the will of the audience to play with the lacunas.
Simply put: you can have some things not make sense and be up for debate so long as the fundamental bases are covered and charcters motivations are clear by the time the union logos roll.
Mythology vs. Character
Every would-be franchise faces this problem. It is one of the leading causes of MCS, one that can be exasperated when toy and game licensing deals as involved. Tie-ins, thankfully, were not the cause of this problem in Prometheus. However the status of Prometheus as being the scion of a major film franchise– the Alien series– is why we find this problem here in the first place.
Genre writers love building worlds, and genre fans love having them to explore. That’s what makes lacuna’s such effective tools. Genre is a giant game of “what if” in it’s purest form. Throw upwards of a hundred million dollars at someone who likes playing “what if” and you can wind up building some pretty fantastic worlds.
The first thirty plus minutes of Prometheus are a testament to the power of world-building in genre films. Honestly I would have been happy with two hours of David just bicycling around the ship, fiddling with all the control interfaces and showing us what late 21st century technology could look like.
Problem is that to rake back in some of the investment in all that production design we apparently need to have a story. Stories need to have characters. I actually wish it could be otherwise. I’ve been lucky enough to see some brilliant theatre recently that didn’t so much have characters as archetypes that spouted wonderfully staccato poetry. The production was quite the experience, but I wouldn’t necessarily call it a story. More of a meditation on certain aspects of life.
It is the would-be mythographers first duty to balance the instict to world build with the need for a story to have characters. In so doing it quickly becomes apparent that you can’t have an effective mythology without strong characters. Star Wars endures not becasue of ideas like the Force, Jedi and Sith but becasue of Luke, Han and Leia. Everyone who has tried to build an elaborate mythology without a strong cast of characters has failed.
Applaud The Ambition, Mourn The Missed Opportunity
Prometheus could have been great. Should have been, really, which is whay there has been so much digital ink spilled over its faults this weekend. Yet as a whole film fans should spend less time ridiculing the failures just for the sake of feeling superior.
There is a hell of a lot of ambition on display in Prometheus, and anyone whose written so much as a short story knows how easy it is to get lost in the weeds. While we shouldn’t let Lindelof and Scott off without some chastisment we should praise the breadth of the vision on display here. That, coupled with a solid understanding of where things went wrong, is our one real hope for getting better stories out of our ailing studio system.