Oh and if this is too long as one more "What's Wrong With Prometheus" blog (and it totally is because I was high on Ritalin and rage when I wrote it), just read number eight. That is the part that is probably most relevant to writers.
For starters, let me make a little disclaimer here. Prometheus is not a terrible movie.
PROMETHEUS ISN'T A TERRIBLE MOVIE!
It's just a very poorly written movie. However, film as an art form is an amalgam of many different sub-arts and there's a lot more to a film than its writing. A lot of great movies have mediocre writing, and a lot of movies with spectacular writing are quite bad. Prometheus contains deep, philosophical themes. The acting is competent and at times even spectacular. Fassbender's portrayal of David is sublime–he successfully pulls of an android with no emotions....who hates. It is an absolute visual orgasm from beginning to end. And it is undeniable that Prometheus will get you thinking about sacrifice, the difference between life given for life freely or taken by force, and the paradox that creation and the creator has with being both these things. Given that for most movies, one disengages at the exit door and never looks back, a movie that keeps you thinking is something. Sadly, it is difficult to consider the deep philosophical themes about creation because they get eviscerated in a haze of "Wait...WHAT?" that pervades every scene.
The point is that this isn't the place where I'm going to talk about how the soundtrack was overbearing. And I'm not going to talk about the juxtaposition between gorgeous and sweeping panoramas and enclosed spaces. And I'm not going to talk about casting Guy Pearce as an old guy. I'm going to focus on the writing.
Ah, the writing. Where to begin? I wasn't even remotely surprised when I got home and found that it was the same writers who did LOST. (There's another melange of unanswered questions, contrived exposition, and rule-less world building.) In terms of writing, Prometheus is an absolute train wreck from beginning to end, exhibiting within almost every minute of it's convoluted plot, the pitfalls to writing science fiction, the pitfalls of writing horror, and the pitfalls of writing
Remember I don't do Thou Shalt Not's when it comes to writing. I'm a firm believer that a skilled writer can Earn it. ("It" being anything.) But be wary! It might be possible to earn a Greek mythology reference for your ship's name, but it will be a lot harder for you to get away with establishing no "rules" for your monster.
1- Be aware of genre cliches.
Let's start simple...but HUGE within Prometheus. Science fiction is considered a cliche ridden landscape for a pretty good reason. That shoe often fits. The same goes for horror, and if you're doing sf/horror you have twice as many cliches to worry about.
A- One cliche is the film's title: the symbolically appropriate mythological ship's name. It may very well be intensely clever and absolutely appropriate, but it's getting so old that it really doesn't matter how fucking perfect it fits. It was neat, and clever....the first three thousand times. It's unfortunate because Prometheus is the one who fashioned humans out of clay and gave them fire (only to be punished eternally for it) and in the Western Classic Tradition, he has come to embody searching for scientific knowledge regardless of the consequences. Pretty damned appropriate, right? The scientist guy even says "I'll do anything!" all dramatic like right before he drinks down the Stuff of Doom that ends up with him so sick his ship mates say "Kill it with fire!."
The thing is, there are so many effective and surprising and delightful ways to reference world mythologies without being so ham handed as the name of the ship and title being the mythological figure who embodies one of your main themes. There were all KINDS of mythological references in Prometheus, from "babies bursting out of creators' heads" to someone opening a box (of sorts) that unleashes all kinds of hell, to the overwhelming theme of children killing and supplanting their parents (both parasite children and just outright brats). There was foot washing. There was a crucifixion scene (after a fashion). There were calls for kings to die because it was their time. The engineers kind of LOOK like titans. (Prometheus of mythology is a titan.) The dude drops his cloak all Christ like and then pauses before drinking from the cup in the opening sequence. In a totally advanced tech universe, they still use fire (get it? FIRE-nudge nudge) to kill half the baddies. There's a line that is practically Shiva's motto about creation and destruction and the fact that one cannot exist without the other. It's Christmas during the movie. And there are an awful lot of abdomen wounds (think about it--an abdomen wound would cover the Greek mythology sacrifice of Prometheus and the vulture/liver thing as well as the spear that pierced Christ). Yeah, actually religious myth imagery was everywhere.
You still have the problem that the whole "name your ship the theme character" has been done over and over and over and over...and over and over (and over) AND OVER.
Plus seriously....SERIOUSLY...why would you ever ever EVER name your ship Prometheus and then zip off to look for the creators of human life. Remember what happened to Prometheus? This would be like going on a mission to travel beyond galactic rim and naming your ship The Icarus. You're just begging for disaster.
The thing is, you can do this without being so blunt force trauma about it as "Starship Jesus" (which ends up on a mission to save the human race) or some transparent shit like that. Here, let me show you how to do this, how to do it well, how to do it subtly, but how to do it in a way that is still absolutely delightful when you discover it: the planet name: LV 223. Now check out Leviticus 22:3 "Say to them: 'For the generations to come, if any of your descendants is ceremonially unclean and yet comes near the sacred offerings that the Israelites consecrate to the LORD, that person must be cut off from my presence. I am the LORD." Okay now remember how they were searching for their creators (their gods if you will) and how the room with the ooze was obviously a room of some serious, possibly sacred, significance and the atmosphere reacted to their presence? Remember how the Architect looks just...OFFENDED at their presence–like they're unclean.
Cool huh? That one was fucking awesome. That writer gets a gold star.
B- Another cliche is the really old guy motivated by clinging to life who sort of kicks off the whole party under mysterious circumstances that turn out to be him wanting to live forever. The wizard is an archetype and he's often portrayed as way too old to still be alive (The Emperor from Star Wars is a Wizard), but his sci-fi mirror seems to have only one portrayal over and over again. Usually he's basically exactly the same character. This guy always funds the project in secret, reveals his agenda to live forever in the third reel, and dies horribly anyway. Yawn. Seriously this has been so overdone that the minute I saw they had used makeup to make Guy Pearce REALLY old, I knew he was alive and trying to live forever. Wouldn't it be refreshing for someone to fund one of these expeditions out of genuine philanthropy or pursuit of knowledge for a change. You know bizillionaires actually DO that sort of thing sometimes. Or maybe they could just be upfront and honest and a reasonably likable person. "Hey I figured what the hell, right? And as long as I'm driving across the galaxy doing my hail Mary to live forever, you guys can tag along and do some of your science stuff too right?Why waste a trip? Plus, I could use the company. Now, who wants a kitten?" Or wouldn't it be neat if it worked instead of always ending in that ironic death, and the person got to live forever. Instead they're always enigmatic douchecanoes who are essentially evil and die as a cautionary tale by being smote with the flaming sword of cliche law.
C- The ostensible asshole gets it in the first real. Seriously, why is being a jerk always fatal in horror movies? Jerks survive all the time in the real world, and even win and get the girl and retire with nice annuities and everything. It should not be possible for me to know within five seconds of a character's introduction that they are going to die first. (Of course the surreptitious jerk always makes it to the final reel and then gets his comeuppance. That was Weyland in this movie, Burke [Paul Riser's character] in Aliens, and Ash in Alien.) The fact that I am able to accurately predict who will die first means that we left "trope" in the rear view mirror, and are well into cliche.
D- Here's one I hate. Why doesn't anyone ever tell someone when they're obviously really, really sick? Strange planet with strange black goo? Little silver fishies coming out of your FUCKING EYEBALL? Last night you totally did your girlfriend? You should probably hide it! Endanger the mission, everyone in it, and the love of your life by pretending everything's cool. This is just bad writing that puts the needs of the plot (for the bad virus not to be discovered) over realistic characterization that no one with fish tendrils coming out of their eyeballs would just say "Maybe I'll just take a Sudafed and power through--Sudafed works on fish eyeball syndrome, right?"
Very few stories can successfully pull off a believable motivation for a character not going to a doctor...or at the very least saying, "Hey babe, I might have been sick last night with alien death flu when you had my mucus membranes all up inside yours. Might want to get yourself checked out. I mention because I care."
E- The "sterile woman who is knocked up by an alien" cliche. Seriously, I know we have a cultural soft spot for miracle births, but this one's getting old. Like....Lazarus old.
F- There is a "Hi, we're here to be horribly killed" cliche in space horror, and it gets worse with every bump in special effects technology. (You don't want to have a lot of deaths when each one is a logistics nightmare and special effect budget bleed, but when the death scenes are cheap and easy, suddenly its, "let's show those bad boys OFF!") You always have four or five characters you "get to know," and a couple on the side, but then the rest seem destined essentially to die in order to raise the emotional stakes and show how badass the monster is. It's lazy writing. If you need more victims to show off your monster's dazzling array of killing powers, you are not relying on the right kinds of things to build tension. Alien scared the crap out of us despite having only six deaths because it played into some deep cultural fears we have and because every death was a fleshed out character we'd seen bantering and joking and being themselves--not some cargo worker whose name we didn't even know. You don't need to raise the body count to raise the stakes. In fact, it's counter intuitive, but it actually makes things easier on the audience if the body count is higher instead of lower because A-we don't CARE about people dying if we don't know them and B-when we're desensitized to the circus of fatalities, the deaths of the characters we DO know don't hit us as hard. What will raise your stakes higher is threatening a character that people really know and relate to, and keeping the death spaced enough that each one hits home and drawing out each victim's anguished attempts to not die rather than the usual "Bam-your-dead!" crap. What will really raise the stakes is if you can find a cultural trigger that makes people deeply uncomfortable and hits them where they live.
G- The person who has faith survives. UGH! Done. To. Death. (So to speak, I suppose.) Start killing off those fuckers in the first few chapters (or the first reel). Your writing will be fresher for it. Let the asshole cynic atheist with the James Randi T-shirt and the Richard Dawkins pajamas actually make it, just so people can honestly say they didn't know what was coming.
H- And oh my fucking buttlicking CHRIST what is it about epically inept "dream teams" that populate every one of these movies. How do these people get "hand picked" by a multi-trillion dollar corporation to undertake the most important mission ever if they are so incompetent. Presumably if it were your job to do the assembly, and you had a one TRILLION dollar budget, you would not go down to your local community college and grab an MA who is coasting towards retirement. You would find someone premier in the field. You would find someone who is educated. You would find someone who is really fucking smart, and who has demonstrated that they can apply what they know to new situations.
So why do all the people on these epic uber mega super duper dream teams suddenly take a hundred-point I.Q. drop the minute they reach their destination? Do planets (or derelict ships) in sci-fi horror have everything-you-ever-learned dampening fields?
I'm not talking about pressure under fire--in which an academic might easily lose their cool. When monster shows up, we don't expect Dr. Classroomguy to continue to continue wearing fuzzy sweaters and thinking the disembodiments are "terribly interesting." It's cool if they lose their shit and make terrified judgement mistakes at that point.
I'm talking about doing THE actually worst thing you could do in a given situation:
- Hey, I'm a biologist in a room with the first dead alien ever seen? Man I'm bored, and not the least bit scientifically interested in the heretofore unseen alien--I should wander off from the main group!
- Hey our android CAN read this language! No need to actually do it though. I was just checking.
- We have tracking sensors on every single person in the group. Not only that, but I'm a geologist who maps caves. I even have these nifty map making balls Ooops, I somehow got lost!
- We recovered this alien head? Hey without doing any tests or anything, let's just randomly run some current through it, and see what happens! That usually works, right?
- Hi, I'm an archaeologist who has explored for one hour in one part of one building on a planet of an unknown civilization in what is clearly the greatest discovery in all of history ever and I even found a giant head in a room with OBVIOUS religious/cultural significance that would make any legit archaeologist have a spontaneous careergasm, but I'm going to drink myself into a stupor and have a tantrum because I didn't find one alive.
- Hey I'm on an alien planet and I just spent the afternoon with my helmet off in a room with black ooze, and now I have fish swimming out of my blood-filling eyeballs–I'm sure it's nothing.
- Strange hissing pissed off alien phallus rises up out of the black ooze? I know! I'll try to pet it! Relax, I'm a biologist, so I know that angry wildlife can't possibly hurt you if you use the "hi there little guy" line.
- Hey guys, let's just randomly take off our helmets like we've never even heard of germ theory and not put them back on even when we find evidence that everyone in this place has died horribly?
- Hey let's touch the black goo–that's not really dangerous, right?
- A giant alien tried to send bio weapons to earth, killed like four guys in five seconds without so much as an explanation, and then instead of just getting on one of the "other ships" and leaving, it actually took the time to actively hunt me down personally–I should totally pop over to their home planet to say and ask "why you mad bro?"
I mean suddenly these doctors and engineers and "hand picked" people seriously have worse judgement than the teen agers in a slasher flick. Where did the experts go?
These aren't tragic flaws that lead to a downfall (like in Alien when Parker wouldn't shoot the alien because Lambert was in the way, and he has a soft spot for her, so instead he runs in and gets himself killed); these are the best of the best making literally the worst decisions they possibly could IN THEIR FIELD, short of just jumping out the nearest airlock or doing a swan dive into the black goo. Stop it, writers! Seriously. That's lazy ass crap, and every blog in America is right to call bullshit on Prometheus for it. If your character is smart, have them be smart. If their flaws lead them to make a mistake, that's good characterization. But you can't just turn off their brain during the death scenes because it's more convenient for your body count. Besides imagine how much more intimidating the baddies will be when your characters are doing everything right and still get killed. After Prometheus I was genuinely unafraid because I knew I would never act like such a dipshit. After Alien, I couldn't sleep because....it didn't matter if you did everything right.
2- Clunky Exposition in Dialogue Sucks
When I say clunky, I don't mean like a 1970's computer. I mean clunky like a centipede with those wooden shoes from Holland. Seriously there were lines that I just had to crawl under my seat and power-wince at their delivery. Exposition dialogue is a subtle maneuver in written arts where the writer does a dance (hopefully so well you don't notice) between giving the audience well needed information, and actually being something someone might say.
Instead the lines went something like this: "Hi, I'm the suchandsuch scientist. How are you?"
"I'm just here for the money, motherfucker. Don't even try to be my friend."
(No, really, I'm not kidding. I'm doing it from memory, but it was that bad.)
Uh....what? Seriously? Who the fuck talks like this??? No one. That's who. No one is that unpleasant when they first meet another person who is generally trying to be friendly with them unless they have a gaping open wound AND have recently quit smoking. The goofiest thing of all was this was not even important exposition. The information that was apparently so vital that it had to be delivered as a response to "hi" did NOTHING to inform his (*cough*) character development. It wasn't a motivation that lead him to his death. It was just pointless back story introduced clumsily through a way that people just don't talk.
When Vickers is talking to Weyland, it was absolutely obvious that she was his daughter. Absolutely. And even if the writers didn't trust the viewers to be smart enough to pick up on the hundred and fifty clues they dropped in the space of one scene, they could have made half a dozen references in that dialogue that would have clued in the clueless in a realistic way. The subtle casualness with which people let the word "dad" or such slip is a perfect example. Instead she says something dramatic, pauses, and then says "Father!" in a deep, melodramatic voice.
Nobody fucking talks that way. ("Why of course I'll pick you up a couple of Red Bulls while I'm at the store......FATHER!")
(Actually, I noticed more than a few clues that Vickers might be an android--the age disparity with her father, the fact that her bio-bed isn't calibrated for females, her physique was given more attention than any other characters', her ease at exiting cryostasis without being sick, the way she avoids lying(?) by sleeping with a guy, and a few others. We do not see her body after the ship rolls over her and that is a notoriously huge red flag in speculative fiction, so I'm wondering if she's not sitting in a Vicker's shaped indentation in the ground thinking "I really hate this planet.")
And don't even get me started on how they revealed Shaw was barren. I don't... I can't even...
It wasn't like one or two steaming piles of clunky exposition. It just kept happening. Every scene, someone said something that transparently put their back story or motivations. The captain towards the end basically says straight out "I will sacrifice myself if I have to in order to keep evil black slime bioweapons from going to Earth."
Guess what happens ten minutes later?
And with absolutely no tension either since we already KNOW what he's going to do, he sacrifices himself to keep evil black slime bioweapons from going to Earth. There are so many more sophisticated ways in his portrayal we could have discovered that he was the sacrificial lamb of the story, but instead they had to have him say it outright.
Remember, every character needs to be written as if they are the main character of their own story. Having archetypes populating the space between the one or two characters you care about with their clunky dialogue just makes no one care when they start to drop dead. Believe me if you come up with more than a cookie cutter victim for a character, it can make it so much more gut wrenching when their life is threatened and heart wrenching when they die than if you contrive of fantastically elaborate death scenes. And guess what? They don't even have to have noble goals or be particularly good people. They just have to be identifiable and believable goals. No one is a heartless asshole mercenary in their own narrative--or if they are they only acknowledge it as their gruff exterior because their true inner being is tragically misunderstood. I basically didn't care about ONE SINGLE PERSON in that movie except David, who was in a running competition with evil snakes and/or zombie frogmen for who could be the biggest butthead, and Shaw, who was the main protagonist. Why? Because they had identifiable internal conflicts and they were fleshed out the most and they weren't just there to show how the monster works.
3- If you're going to have a hard sci-fi explanation for stuff, get it right. Or at least don't get it completely fucking wrong.
If you are writing about a technology that is way more advanced than reality, you need to do one of two things. You can handwave a bit and trust that the audience will forgive you. (Hey, we never demanded that anybody explain the transporters in Star Trek--which would need the energy of a sun PER transport according to E=MC2!). The other thing you can do is get the science as right as possible. What you can't do is try to cut through the middle by getting the science WRONG but expecting the audience to play along.
Prometheus is filled with talk of DNA, genetics, and pictures of swirling helices, and dividing cells, and all about parasitical organisms. There is this black goo that (apparently) breaks down DNA to seed a world with if ingested from a cup in a large quantity, but makes fish swim out of your eyeball if you only have a little, but makes worms becomes phallus snakes if they swim in it, but people become zombie frogs psychos unless if they fall into it...or something, Prometheus places the Engineers' tech level well beyond forefront of our current biological knowledge. They could have just had the black goop be Stuff That Just Works™ but they opted to go with all the scientificy looking stuff.
And then proceeds to ignore everything about how genetics works.
Okay...you dump your DNA into a pool of water and kick off humanity by dissolving yourself with some black goop that shatters your DNA. Won't that fuck the whole seed idea a little, the DNA being all broken apart like that? I'm not expert, but DNA is pretty much the building block, right. Shatter it along the amino acids, isn't it kind of not your DNA anymore? Further, I'm assuming that is like the bedrocks of life or human life, and not that humans just kind of sprouted up out from around the waterfall the next day like lilies. So how is it that we evolved to be "exactly like them" (sic) when we surely faced different evolutionary challenges. There is absolutely NOTHING to suggest that the final product of your seeded DNA and a billion years would look anything remotely like you–in fact, that goes against every current understanding. Also, in the billion years between then and now, YOU will have evolved as well. Lastly....seriously....you can't say we're an exact DNA match to the engineers (complete with a little screen that has an identical overlay and flashes the word "perfect") and then have the engineers be nine foot tall albinos with black eyes who are like three times stronger than us and immune to bullet wounds. That's not an "exact match." Or did you fall asleep the day they taught biology in biology class?
If you want to hand-wave, hand-wave. Call it a "Faster Than Light" drive, "spin it up," maybe through in some technobabble about "tachyeon bursts" and "ionization flow," and poof, you're there. (Notice how they didn't mention how they traveled 60 [or 16--I may have misheard] light years in 2 years and we didn't demand to know what sort of fuckery was going on with that--if you don't bring it up and then get it wrong....we won't poke holes in it.) No one is going to get in your face about an object with finite mass going faster than the speed of light in science fiction. But if you start meticulously describing how the FTL drive works and it involves antiprotons--you better know what those are. This movie could have simply said "they seeded the galaxy and here we are" and left it at that (kind of like that ridiculous Star Trek: TNG episode), but their focus on DNA and genetics (because of the highly genetic "tricks" of parasites, I'm guessing) made it look like someone doesn't know how evolution works...and worse didn't care. Maybe the maps, and the allusion of Prometheus point towards the fact that they may have "steered" evolution as well (one MORE thing the black goop can do?) but we have no actual reason to think that. It might make a little more scientific sense that way, at least, but they should probably reveal that in the movie instead of assuming a picture of some balls on a wall make it self evident that they can outsmart evolution.
The problem was that it wasn't just the genetic stuff either.
- The hyper intelligent android kept shining his flashlight at holographic projections and holding it on them–dude they ARE light; your flashlight will actually make them harder to see.
- Early on they say with a cool sort of reveal voice: "There is a star in the system." I hope so. That's what a system is.
- Prerecorded holograms shouldn't be able to accurately follow the people around them with their eyes.
- Jamming an electrode into a head will not work–especially if it has "similar neural pathways" (or whatever they said--I'm going on memory here) as us. Just...no.
- Shaw is apparently NOT killed by the falling spaceship because she was next to a rock and the ship hit the rock and gave her a little crawlspace. A gazillion ton spaceship isn't going to just hit a rock and stop moving, the acceleration might be small, but the mass is enormous so a LOT of force is coming out of that interaction. Either the rock would shatter, get smooshed down into the ground, or the ship would warp along the hull, but either way Shaw should be paste.
- Speaking of the physics of things falling....if two gigantic ships are accelerating AWAY from you at a distance of perhaps two kilometers or more, and one rams the other...from behind--as they crash, the bigger ship will not suddenly reverse direction, come back, and fall on YOUR head. I promise that's one thing, at least, you don't have to worry about.
- Another problem with the crash sequence: the ship tumbles around for a good five minutes, but David's head is right on the floor where Shaw left it when she goes back.
- The squid proto-facehugger thing grows to perhaps a thousand times its biomass in just a few hours with no apparent source of food. Did it just absorb those molecules out of the air?
- How does David age the baby at "three months" if it's not human? Does he know what alien babies look like?
- If you have an incision as large as the one Shaw got that is sutured with medical staples and not sealed shut, you would be in bed for a month before you could even start physical therapy. No way she doubles over in agony and then two minutes later starts hopping chasms (successfully) and dodging starships (also successfully).
- Vickers says she didn't come half a billion miles to get laid. (I laughed out loud in the theater at this one). That's not even exiting the solar system. You came a lot further than that, lady.
4-A contained story should be contained
I always go back to the text. Even if the "text" is a movie. My formal tools of analysis of art involve finding proof in the actual work for things I assert. If I want to say David is contemptuous of humans (and he is), I can't just make the claim and let it stand. I have to talk about something like the length of pauses and choice of words during the scene at the billiards table. (Beautifully acted, by the way. Just brilliant.)
I understand that we live in a new era. Multimedia is very accessible to a lot of people. It is entirely possible for ambitious artists to create an experience that goes beyond the celluloid and a few bits of revealing information about Prometheus exist only online. I'm not some curmudgeon insisting that everything must be contained within the celluloid, but I am going to insist that everything be contained within what exists of the art.
And sadly, most of the online content only informed the movie a little--it didn't explain the mac truck-sized plot holes. Mores the pity.
There is a bit you can find on the internet about how Jesus was one of the engineers sent to Earth as an emissary. You can find this if you dig around for a while in an interview with Ridley Scott. This information didn't make it to the final draft of the script. That's the significance of finding the body that died 2000 years ago. Now of course we all know how Jesus's "mission" ended up. That's why the engineers are so upset with humans. And doesn't it just all make sense now?
Excuse me but....WHAT? First of all, no. No it does not all make sense now. At this point it has BARELY achieved the status of one of those things that is interesting to think about. A FEW things make a little more sense, but not everything. Even if the audience somehow were given this information, it MIGHT explain the anger a little (though not genocidal hatred from a race prone to sacrifice) but every other unexplained bullshit thing is still unexplained.
But if this was really where you were going...how could you leave that out?
A corpse that happens to have died right around the time of the crucifixion is not enough of a clue to make the connection to Earth history and an event that happened on a moon sixty light years away. If we had some way to know that one affected the other we might be able to put two and two together. It wouldn't have taken much. A record of a transmission that they had killed the emissary and they must all die, and the archaeologist asking in a "that's-not-a-moon" tone of voice, "When did you say he died?"
And for realz....if JC were a nine-foot-tall black-eyed albino who was immune to things like being STABBED, I think the book of Matthew might have had a couple of differences.
So real talk here:
Sometimes with certain directors (and Scott is one) you have to accept that probably something REALLY important ended up on the cutting room floor so that a scene of graphically depicted violence could go an extra thirty seconds of dazzling visuals, and you will probably get it explained when the director's cut comes out. However, it makes for bad writing to leave really vital things out. No one should ever have to dig up an interview with the director about earlier drafts of the script in order to get a piece of the puzzle. All the pieces should be in the art. That art might be greater than simply the film itself, but it should still be there.
Prometheus didn't trust its viewers to figure out that Weyland was Vicker's father without a silver platter, but you're going to make us figure out why the engineers are upset with nothing but the most oblique clues that probably no one who didn't read that interview would have otherwise gotten. That's just....mean.
The mark of good science fiction revel is that when you get all the pieces of the puzzle, you realize you were looking at it all along. You kick yourself for not noticing. You have a light bulb moment. You say "OH!" You go back and reread scenes and they make SO much more sense. It's one of the most fun parts of good sci-fi. But that "reveal" should come from having the pieces that you already had put together in front of you, and NOT from having a new piece handed to you that wasn't "in the box." And seriously...doesn't that seem like that particular insight might be important enough to mention more directly. If the entire movie is a mystery about why your creators hate their creation but we will make only a single, passing, oblique reference to the actual reason and consider it good, that's not okay. It's like how all of Ash's weird behavior and furtive glances and quarantine breaking in Alien makes sense when you realize he was an android who had his programming overridden just like Mother did. It MIGHT be okay to have an unsolved mystery like that if there were no direct and immediate consequence. But considering that reason got four people and an android pretty much insta-killed, it was poor writing that the audience wasn't told.
5-There's making your audience do the heavy lifting and then there's not helping them at all
[Take this next section with a grain of salt. And this was written in 2012 before even a DVD release. Prometheus has already been confirmed as the first in a trilogy, so we can view the work paradoxically as a discrete entity and as largely incomplete. It is entirely possible that within movie two and three further information will be revealed that will explain some of the unanswered questions. I mean these guys wrote Lost, so surely we can expect that in the fullness of time they won't leave any unanswered questions.... Oh wait.]
Closely related to the last point of having your work be contained is not giving them an answer at all. Scott may have told us (not in the movie though) that we killed Alien Jesus, and that's why the Engineers all have bees in their bonnets and a hard-on for killing humans, but there are giant gaping things that were not even hinted at.
- If the bioweapon "got away from them and destroyed them all," why were the Engineers running TOWARDS the chamber with the black ooze and the creepy we-worship-Xenomorphs architecture while looking behind them like they were being followed? =
- Why would aliens seed Earth with a map ("no....an INVITATION") to a bioweapons research facility? That's like having Wookies on Endor. That does not make sense. Why not put a map to their home world or diplomatic center?
- Why did David poison Holloway?
- If they knew they were going to meet some aliens, why would they bring an unarmed ship? These are still humans right? Humans who bring weapons when they think there might be big rats in a basement.
- What in the name of all that is HOLY was up with the black goop? Was that crap just liquid Deus Ex Machina or what? [If you're in a sci-fi world you have to establish "the rules" and then obey them. The black ooze is basically everything that's wrong with speculative fiction. It, apparently, can do anything....anything at all. It breaks down Engineers into the seeds of life, gives humans tendrils in their eyes and makes them impregnate women with little proto-facehuggers, makes nasty parasite snakes out of little worms that swim in it, turns dudes into psycho-killing-machine zombie frogmen things. The end result is a cluttered feel to Prometheus of what the hell is going on--too many baddies and not enough coherent sense to how it worked. To top it all off, by the end, we still have no idea what it is, or how it works. The one clue that it might be reactive to the particulars of the host body (when Shaw says their presence has changed the atmosphere) is never further explained.
- The scariest horror movies always establish pretty quickly how things work and then don't move the goalposts. One of the coolest things about Xenomorphs is that we know their "rules": smart, but not technological, acid blood, second shooty mouth, tendrils that trip you, etc... And on top of that, before they start doing their thing, we see the space jockey who has gone through the same thing. They are not just "anything goes" of death dealing. Honestly, that's less scary and far less coherent. When you know what to expect...that makes it worse.]
- Why did the engineer become totally violent? (Which might be a different question than why do the Engineers hate humanity...which isn't really answered in the film anyway but in an interview with Scott about earlier drafts.)
If anything the throngs of nerd support is proof that if you write a compelling story, people will be willing to do a really close reading for clues. You can make them very subtle, but they do have to be there. (Though you do still have to explain the connective tissue that explains why aliens a zillion miles away give a flip about Earth history). You can count on your audience to be intelligent enough to "get it," which is why lines like "....FATHER!" are particularly goofy.
Lots of people have lots of theories as to why some of the characters did certain wildly irrational things. You can find ten answers to every one of these questions online with a quick search. In some cases these explanations fit pretty well, and in some cases they are REALLY grasping. (I mean seriously grasping!)
As writers though, we have to keep in mind that unless the art itself contains some kind of clue, a person can conjecture all day, but they are just making shit up. And if we are reverse engineering our explanations to fit the art, the artist has failed. Throw them a fricken bone.
For example, David poisons Holloway with some of the black ooze. Why? Why infect a human at all, but especially the ONE GUY who's probably the lead of the project. I've seen a lot of people guess that he was experimenting with it, but we don't really know that since he doesn't do other experiment kinds of things like examine it under a microscope, and he didn't stick around to monitor Holloway's condition or examine his body afterward. I've seen people guess he has lost his first law directive since Bishop says (in Aliens) that earlier models were twitchy. But there's no other indication of this. If anything David doesn't completely break down but has a strange habit of shifting back and forth between savior and traitor. Some say he got an Ash-style directive to preserve the life form for bioweapons testing. Some say "Try Harder" didn't come from Weyland, but that David was actually in contact with the engineer. Some say he knew that Holloway would impregnate Shaw, even though there's absolutely no way he could have known they'd have sex or what would happen if they did. But all of those theories are just guesses with no real support. Maybe one of those is true.
But there aren't clues, so we just have theories that kind of fit.
Clues for careful "readers"=awesome.
Random shit that births a zillion unsupported nerd theories=bad writing.
I shit you not, I read a guy say that the squid grew because it was in a medlab and found biogel to eat. You know what...if that helps you sleep at night, that's AWESOME but good writing (which is done differently in film, of course) would involve a few desiccated gel packs in one of the shots or something. At least then some of this absolutely ludicrous rationalization could be chalked up to little fanwank nerds doing OCD "deep readings"...like they do. But without ANY clue, it's just people racing to defend something they don't WANT to be bad.
Notice how I didn't ask where the phallus snake things CAME from? That's because if you're watching carefully, you see that there were some worms or something that fell off of one of the team's suit. That's all you need. One little clue that actually happens in the "text." I wouldn't say this is WELL explained or that it made good sense (like I'll mention soon), but I didn't feel like it dropped on my head out of nowhere. You don't have to ponderously explain every last phenomenon, but you can't have stuff just happen for no apparent reason.
Your readers (or viewers) are--quite obviously--willing to work extremely hard if they want to to search for clues and grew up watching Aliens on DVD and want it to be good, so you do not have to spoon feed them everything. However, they should not have to make shit up on your behalf.
[Ironically (as a total aside because...you know...this article is totally not long enough) the best explanation I've can come up with for David poisoning Holloway isn't offered online (at least not that I've seen), but comes right from the "text." David's first on screen action that isn't completely banal is watching a movie about a double agent that he says he "likes." The writers were EXTREMELY careful in avoiding having David proffer value judgement such as "like" with anything else so that line really jumped out. It is referenced enough times that you MUST give it some weight in understanding David. Lawrence of Arabia is a story of divided loyalties and a soldier who increasingly "follows orders" but goes about doing so in HIS own way. David is insubordinate through most of the movie. He touches things they say not to. He turns off cameras. He stays when they tell him to leave. He grabs shit they tell him not to grab. When they get firm with him, he will technically follow directions, but when he does, it's often very literal and passive aggressive--he does what they want in his own way and in his own time. Just like his hero, ol' Lawrence. Further, passive aggression seethes off the screen in the scene in the billiard room. You can't watch that scene and continue to believe that David has absolutely no emotional center–there's SOMETHING going on there and it's very obviously not a warm and fuzzy feeling. David also has a curious fascination with creator/created dynamics, and in almost every creation myth there a "the rebellion" of the created against their creator and of course that's a huge theme throughout the film of the created destroying their creator. Add together these elements of divided loyalty and doing things "your way," an almost teen-rebelliousness, and contempt for the creator and you have the one reason I have NOT seen anyone give for why David killed Holloway.
It was personal.
David was ordered to try harder, and he used that as an excuse to do something that he kind of wanted to do. He basically murdered Holloway because he hated Holloway's dismissive and condescending attitude towards Androids. He stretched the boundaries of his instructions into a rationalization for licence. Anyway, that's my two cents, but it's at least based on the text.]
6-Try not losing your sense of history....after five minutes
Even if I hadn't known that several people had a hand in writing Prometheus, that would have been my first guess. Hugely emotional moments are suddenly swept aside not in a way that is even contrived, but more that borders on spooky. It almost felt like a chain story when the writer before obviously goes somewhere the writer after didn't want to go, and so they just ignore it and focus on their own shit.
Yeah, it felt a lot like that, actually.
- After David poisons Holloway, he doesn't really interact with him again. This is one of the reasons I don't think he was trying to do an experiment or bring home samples. He doesn't look regretful or satisfied when Holloway sacrifices himself. It's like it never happened.
- After David basically sedates Shaw and attempts to force her to have an alien baby, she is strangely cool about it the next time she sees him. She doesn't even call him an asshole or throw a vase at him or anything when he makes that awful pithy remark obviously intended to provoke her.
- No one particularly seems to care that Weyland is alive. Shaw is a bit surprised, but then kind of says "Okay, cool." Not only was there no REASON for that plot point, but there was no real reaction to it either, so it was absolutely useless. He lies to the entire ship with a complicated ruse, and when he turns up, their basic reaction is, "Whatevs, that's cool. Only ten people have died so far, so it's not like we have any reason to be upset that we're out here under false pretenses."
- When Shaw aborts her alien baby, she's stumbling around covered in blood and no one says "Hey, are you okay. Or "What happened to you?" To which an interesting answer might be "Yeah David tried to make me keep an alien baby...maybe you should have a little chat with him about that."
- For that matter, no one seems to care about what Shaw did either. She lays out two crew members and breaks into Vicker's uber-expensive biobed that she's been asked not to touch, and not one person mentions it. Ever. It's not even a matter of "Hey why'd you do that?" "Alien baby." "Oh okay, fair enough. Carry on." It just NEVER comes up again.
- Something David says about knowing it wasn't the air that made Holloway sick gets Shaw suspicious, but she never really says or does anything about that outside of that one moment.
It was like someone kept hitting the damned reset button on everyone's emotions. Or like writers kept passing off the script to someone who didn't want to deal with baggage from the last part cause they were so impressed with themselves for what they had to add to the equation.
Of course, knowing the Prometheus script was a collaboration explains some of this, but it doesn't excuse it. You can't have major things happen that ought to be seriously affecting the arcs of all the characters involved but are just never mentioned or referenced again. If you want your audience to share any emotional impact from moments (especially moments as agonizing as the bio-bed scene), you have to have these caliber of events resonate with consequence. One of the reasons Alien was so scary is that you could see how things were really getting to the people who were left. They started to lose their shit, and with everyone that died, they became more like deer in headlights. By the end of Alien, Ripley is so unspooled she is singing a kid's song to herself, just to find the strength to put on her restraining belt.
7-An ambiguous ending is fine, but an unexplained, five-character killing spree is not
"Why do they hate us?" is a big question, left unanswered, in Prometheus. (Even if you take that interview about earlier drafts and Alien Jesus as canon, it still doesn't quite explain everything). The nature of seeking one's creator is an even bigger question left unanswered.
But that is not what the writer needs to avoid here. Not as such.
It's really okay to leave these questions unanswered. In fact, I can't think of any speculative fiction where someone has found the answer to an existential question that it didn't come off as kind of corny. How many of us actually breathed a palpable sigh of RELIEF when "God" in Star Trek 5 turned out to be a prisoner.
Of course, when grappling with the big questions, if they don't get answered, you don't have any kind of urgent consequence. There is no answer, you are frustrated, life goes on, you keep looking, and it is the SEARCH that gives you purpose. That's the human condition.
So I want to make sure it's clear that I'm not insisting Prometheus reveal to us the answer to every question raised in the movie–even one as big as driving the entire second half of the film. That would be kind of awful really–much POORER storytelling. However, some questions do require answers because they have an immediate and sudden impact on the lives of the characters. If you watched a movie, and suddenly four people dropped dead, you would be very irritated if you never found out why.
Which is essentially what happened with the Engineer when they woke him up. I mean...anyone who's seen a horror movie (ever) knew that visit wasn't going to go well, (if for no other reason than they had the old guy who wanted to live forever with them) but the writers still didn't explain WHY. If your unanswered question has it's own body count, that isn't delightful ambiguity. That's fucking bullshit is what it is.
Even if we take the Alien Jesus thing as true, (and there's no reason anyone in the audience SHOULD know that because it wasn't in the movie) that only explains the broad brushstrokes. It still doesn't explain why the guy is so upset he kung fu fights everyone in the room to death.
He wakes up, kills everyone, and we never know why. This is not the answer to an existential question left for artistic reasons. This is not the answer to a big plot question you can intend for your audience to take home and wonder about. Give your readers something. Have the Engineer deign to explain why he is now going to kill you. Drop a hint. Bring his head back to life like you did the other one and say "WTF Y U Mad Bro?" like you did Ash's. SOMETHING.
In Inception we have an unanswered question that is left to the audience to go home and think and talk (and blog...and blog....and blog) about. No problem! But the death of five people and the entire last reel of action wasn't riding on that answer either. You don't need it to make sense of the movie. As a writer you can leave unanswered questions, but not if they've left major "real-world" significance in their wake and not just existential crises or intentional ambiguity.
8- Write your story. Then worry about themes in later drafts. You shouldn't do it backwards, and if you do--if you ever do--don't force your story to do what it needs to for the themes
Powerful themes will not overcome your plot holes, and being vast and existential will not save you if your logistics are seriously flawed.
Does Vicker's death work thematically with the movie? Interestingly enough, it's possible. Any time a character escapes certain doom only to be killed a couple of minutes later by something else, you're probably dealing with some kind of significance in the writing (or they just would have died from the certain doom). Her character is so focused on certain things (namely succession and survival) that she is often unable to see the bigger picture (like the danger of the mission or the fate of all humanity). So it is entirely allegorical that in the end her inability to see land stretching to the left and right but only what was right in front of her was her demise.
Perhaps. But COME ON! Who the fuck doesn't dodge left when they're being rolled on by a giant doughnut? Vickers. That's who.
The key to good writing is to have the world make sense and be consistent and strangely, almost magically, it points the way towards your theme. Even POWERFUL themes should work with a story not force the story. This is PRECISELY why you write the story first and tease the themes and symbolism that you discover out in later drafts. And Prometheus is a monumental example of what happens when you start with themes and symbols first and try to cram your story into those containers.
People will forgive a lot. Just look at the comments section on any article about this movie (even this one, like, every time I post this), and people have already invented complex–often convoluted–explanations, FAR removed from what happened in the actual movie to excuse things that made little or no sense. But there is a limit to their benevolence, and Prometheus crossed that line (about half an hour in). When the STORY doesn't make sense, it doesn't matter how profound your themes are or how incredible your imagery is.
When David is telling Shaw about her pregnancy, he is lit (ostensibly by the bio bed) from a light from beneath him. He speaks in a soft and inhumanly calm voice that informs her that even though she is barren, she is with child. She has been knocked up by their creators. (Though if you know your bible, the Elizabeth there who had a birth despite being barren is different than Mary. However, there's some verses about how the baby "leapt" within Elizabeth's stomach at the voice of Mary that are SUPER creepy in the context of that scene.)
The problem with this scene is that David is so completely out of character that even though it is interesting and profound Biblical symbolism it kind of sticks out like a sore thumb. David isn't terse or sardonic. He isn't curiously poking and prodding at everything. He isn't pulsing with the passive aggression that absolutely defines him. He isn't scrambling to learn more. He doesn't offer pithy insight or witticism that generally serves to make things worse. All the things that define him as a character suddenly drop away for that moment. He simply has this serenity--you might even call it an ANGELIC serenity (nudge nudge) about him. Despite how profound this moment is as an example of stunning religious allegorical images within science fiction, it is terrible from the standpoint of the writing because David is so completely un-David like. You want a scene like that to have a slight "discordance" to it that draws your attention to something strange going on--like a song that shifts into a minor key just for a moment. You don't want it to change so completely that the reader is left wondering what in the name of flaming emu testicles is going on.
By contrast Ash does something that makes sense with the surface story when he attacks Ripley. There are only a few small details--what he grabs as a weapon and how he uses it--that serve to clue in the careful viewer to the symbolism and themes being suggested.
Another key scene that is guilty of this is the ship ramming sequence. The co-pilots stay, ostensibly because the captain can't drive. That makes NO fucking sense, and he was trying to slam into a ship the size of a football stadium that was close and travelling at low speeds. Their choice to come along was, at best, completely superfluous. And, honestly, it wouldn't have taken much to show that there was a bond between them that couldn't be broken or something, but instead both of them kind of shrug and say, "Hey, I'll stay and get killed too! What the hell. Nothing good on TV anyway." Of course, the reason there are three people on the ship is so that when Janyk (Does that name seem in any way FAMILIAR to you folks?) sacrifices himself for the good of all humanity (nudge nudge) he says "Hands up!" and suddenly you have a clear symbol of Calvary with Jesus and the two robbers at his sides. The two co pilots on the sides with their hands almost in a crucified position are lower than Janyk in the middle doing the same. (And yes...your savior was a black guy--deal with it.)
The problem was this imagery came at the cost of good writing. The contrived motivations for the pilots to suicide themselves were poorly executed and so the whole scene seemed contrived to achieve that payoff.
Want a GOOD example a subtly done moment that works with the theme? Holloway says, "Here's mud in your eye," before drinking the drink infected with "life creating properties." Prometheus created humans out of mud so there's an interesting allusion there that the black goop might be like a sort of "mud of life" type thing that creates and destroys. But where that moment nails it is what happens next. A little tendril thingie comes out of where? His eye. That one was well done because it didn't alter the story to make it fit but just subtly tweaked the knobs a bit to make a line particularly significant.
There were many, many problems with the consistent logic of Prometheus. You have to realize that YOU may know your story internally and externally, but your reader (viewer) will first encounter your surface action and only go deeper to look for subtext, imagery, and themes if that surface level is working.
- A giving, sacrificial race that can't even be bothered to stop for a moment and explain WHY they're about to go on a multi-murdering spree.
- How can the same group that sent Jesus (assuming that whole Alien Jesus thing is true) turn around and wipe out the entire planet and species because of the actions of a few. Isn't that a little....un Christ like?
- With all that tech monitoring them, those guys should not have gotten lost. Unless you need a contrived reason for no one to know something is rotten in Denmark for several hours after a fatal attack.
- No ship carrying bio weapons of mass destruction would have a holographic recording that spontaneously plays of someone inputting the access codes. For that matter, there is absolutely no sane reason that the most dangerous bioweapon in the universe would be in an unlocked room in unlocked jars.
- There is absolutely no reason for Weyland to pretend to be dead. None. Ironically no one seems to give a shit when they find out he is alive. None. So not only is that plot point pointless, but they didn't even use it for developing tension.
- Weyland should have just frozen himself cryogenically and spent the rest of his trillion on curing whatever was killing him. Seriously his choices made no sense other than to have a "father who won't die" symbol on board.
- No one asks David what the words say. Seriously wouldn't that be the FIRST thing you would want to know? Unless of course you wanted a contrived reason to stay ignorant of everything's purpose and of the implications of such a place until the body count started.
- Why were there worms? Is space travel really so messy that they track worms everywhere they go? I'm not sure if they were brought in on one of the bio-suit or were already there, but in either case they don't really make sense, except to have evil manifest itself in the form of a serpent.
- The alien beating Weyland with the head of David is absolutely bizarre and perhaps one of the most problematic moments in the whole movie from a surface standpoint (as I mentioned above). And that's really saying something in this movie. However it is also one of the, if not the, most profound and poignant images in the film if divorced from the surface story. It's magnificent as a metaphor–a moment embodying some of the deepest central themes. The engineers have been destroyed by their creation (we assume), and there's an implication that it is human's fault. So he destroys a human with ITS own creation. A beautiful chiasmus, but nonsensical when the execution of a theme is given precedence over the surface story.
You probably aren't ever going to write anything with an established fanbase as rabid as the Aliens franchise, so you won't have fanwank nerds crawling over each other and themselves to defend your inconsistencies. You will have to do better about having your surface story make sense and THEN go back and add in all the themes.
9- Don't have zombie frogmen things that show back up at the ship for no apparent reason that makes any sense whatsoever (after falling into the black slime with the second evil pissed off snake), beat up characters we don't know or care about in a confusing action sequence that is as difficult to follow as it is to muster any give-a-shit about, and then themselves get killed in a moment with absolutely no emotional stakes and no discernible explanation and then never mention it again.
This one's pretty self-explanatory.
Overall the problem with the writing in Prometheus was that instead of characters we actually care about, monsters we actually fear, motivations we can actually understand, and a story we can actually follow, the plot was little more than a vehicle hastily stumbling and staggering from one allegorical image to the next, in the pursuit of its Deep And Meaningful Themes™. The dialogue is a melange of contrived exposition, horror movie cliches, and uncharacteristic ineptitude punctuated by moments of subtext, clarity, and profundity that borders on genius. The writing team did not work and play well with each other nor did their seem to be any oversight of the collaboration to smooth those things out. It's like they wrote a container in which to hold all the neat things they wanted, and didn't worry that the filler between was cliche, confusing, hackneyed, and full of holes.
Despite all the pixels I've killed trashing the writing, and an article that is nearly as long as the script itself, I still thought it was an amazing movie. I'll probably see it again before it leaves the theaters (possibly even in the twice-as-expensive IMAX) just so I can catch some things I missed. It is gorgeous and allegorical allusion orgy that is just the sort of thing that gets lit-nerds like me all hot and bothered.
Sure it hurts to watch a movie with writing this bad.
The trick is not minding that it hurts.
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