Prometheus is All Smoke, No Fire

“My character motivations! Are they in here?!”

Prometheus is not very good. It’s well-produced, well-directed and acted, and has some really awesome visual design, but you can only put so much lipstick on a pig. The story has no idea what it’s doing and the characters and dialogue are trite.

The problem is the writing.

Like much sci-fi lately, Prometheus isn’t so much a film as it is b-roll for a trailer. Before setting foot in the theater, the viewer knows that a mismatched gang of “scientists” is launched into the cosmos to unlock the secrets of humanity’s origin, something goes wrong, disturbing alien violence ensues, and it turns out Earth needs to be saved. These points were all established in the trailer, and the film did its absolute best to avoid expanding on any of them in any meaningful way. This actually made the film boring, despite all the explosions and alien mucky-muck.

Every time one of the vacuous characters raises a concept that might give the movie a hint of soul, it’s promptly stowed away to make room for another half-baked,  boring “philosophical” one-off.

Oh, I almost forgot. And this applies for the rest of my post:

[SPOILER ALERT]

Let’s take a look at David’s “explorations” of his humanity. The character is introduced studying human languages, watching Lawrence of Arabia over and over again, and trying to imitate Peter O’Toole’s hairstyle. We also see him shooting hoops on a bike and (for reasons never made clear) watching Shaw’s dreams. So ok, he’s human enough to be charming, but different enough to give pause. This could’ve opened up the plot to have David explore this duality for himself, and indeed, his quest for meaning could have paralleled the crew and Weyland’s. And yet, when the movie’s action begins in earnest, we see him manipulating hopelessly advanced alien technology with impossible expertise and getting crewmembers infected with alien goo for pretty much no reason. As far as the writing is concerned, he’s really just there to make sure brutal violence and icky body-horror are in the immediate futures of the rest of the cast.

It’s as though Damon Lindelof’s script is yammering at the viewer, “Oh look, the android is trying to explore what it means to be human! He is a metaphor for our own struggle to find meaning, which is also present in this movie! Did you know that this is a neat thing that happens in science-fiction? It’s in this movie!” But that’s about as far as it’s developed; the film gives lip-service to the idea of this theme, makes a bit of a fuss to let you know that it’s present, but ultimately refuses to do any work to flesh it out. Oh, the film wants you to think that it’s bringing up these questions, but the character actions and dialogue completely lack follow-through.

Here’s one big problem: like most of the characters, David’s motivation for doing anything is never really clear.

Lindelof seems to like the ideas of 1) artificial life “endeavoring to become more human” and find meaning from its creator 2) a being that only looks human but is frighteningly not-so, and 3) the emotional hodge-podge of a son seeking paternal approval. So instead of developing one of these throughout the course of the movie in any meaningful way, Lindelof decided that that’s too complicated. I mean those are all cool things that androids do in movies, right? Let’s throw them all in there, and leave the rest up to the viewer!

Prometheus brings up a lot of themes and implications that it insists are “profound,” but absolutely refuses to let them focus or develop in a way that threatens to tie together (hmm, does this sound like a certain successful ABC TV series?). It’s as if Lindelof thought up all the things that “would be cool” in a sci-fi movie, tossed them in a bucket, shook it up, and decided that that was how you tell a good story.

But this is something that’s stuck in my craw about Lindelof and this approach to “storytelling,” which I found just as ineffective in Lost. That is to say, this is not storytelling. It’s a mish-mash of neat starting points without a thought to their end point, and without even a thought that there should be an end point. This approach is often apologized for or justified as “leaving something up to the imagination.”

That’s bullshit. You can leave “big questions” up to the audience to ponder. Let’s take The Sixth Sense for a moment, but only in a very specific context. [spoiler alert, on the tiny chance you’ve never seen it] The story was about a character who was trying to piece together his life, and help a small child get over a rather unique talent. We get to the end, and it turns out Bruce Willis has been dead the whole time, big twist, et cetera et cetera. The “big question” that film plays with here is pretty simple: “What happens after you die?”

But how did that film ask its big question? Did we see Haley Joel Osment running after the dead, interrogating them about how they got that way? Did Bruce Willis come up with a list of Things to Ask the Dead People? No it didn’t. It “asked” the question by giving us the answer, “when you die you have to mope around for awhile and whine to pubescent boys about your unfinished business before you take care of it and run off to The Great Wherever.”

But this is just an example to illustrate the concept. The point is that you make some kind of creative decision, and then steer your characters toward it.

Prometheus tries to con the viewer into thinking that it tackles questions like “why are we here?” and “what happens after we die?” Except that it doesn’t. Not at all. The events of the film and the experiences of the characters don’t investigate this one bit. Oh sure, Weyland and the crew say that’s what they’re looking for, but you don’t ask these types of questions by just dropping them into the mouths of your characters and patting yourself on the back.

But those aren’t even the types of questions that I came away from Prometheus with. Instead, the film makes the viewer wonder things like: What are David’s motivations when he poisons Holloway? Is Holloway apparently racist against androids? Is that a thing? Did David think that Holloway would get Shaw pregnant with an alien-baby? What good would that do? Is David supposed to be the protagonist? Why is everyone so comfortable with taking off their helmets in an alien environment? Why did Weyland want everyone to think he was dead? Can people really be this stupid? What’s the black goo supposed to do? Why do I care that Weyland is Vickers’ father? Why is it that the first thing that the Engineer wants to do after waking up from a millenia-long sleep is to kill everyone in the room? Doesn’t he want to at least, uh, radio home base?

I felt the same kind of frustration in Lost (and for what it’s worth, in the new Battlestar Galactica as well). It’s just that much worse in Prometheus because Lindelof doesn’t have as much time to jerk around his viewer in a feature film versus several seasons of a TV show. Looking back, the only reason I bothered to watch Lost at all was the promise of a big reveal. Something was going to tie all this crazy stuff together, and won’t that be mind-blowing! Yeah. Well we know how that turned out.

I don’t know whether to call this creative cowardice, laziness, or sheer con artistry. At the very best, this is a case of knowingly promising the viewer much more than you’re prepared (or able) to deliver.

Lindelof just doesn’t want to take any responsibility for what his characters do and what happens to them. They are developed only insofar as they can take the viewer to the next big tease. It’s apparently up to the viewer to fill in the gaps of a character’s motivations, the disposition and purpose of any alien beings, their motivations, the basics of their culture as it relates to the plot (which it does), why a human-created android can manipulate their technology like a pro, and any other ridiculous holes in the plot. A good sci-fi script should leave a few things up to the imagination. It shouldn’t completely rely on the viewer’s imagination–or sheer force of will–to replace a lack of imagination on the part of the writer.

I’m not advocating for long, drawn out scenes of boring exposition. Maybe nerds like me would eat that stuff up, but there has to be enough visual excitement in a movie for it to be successful. I know this and I know that we don’t want to spoon-feed the story to the viewers. But don’t we want to at least feed them? This is like tossing a hungry person a list of ingredients with no recipe, and then going on about what a great chef you are.

Ridley Scott is a director, and he had a really interesting idea for a movie. But he had an idea for a movie, and not an idea for a story. It’s up to the writer to turn this idea into a story, with a coherent plot and well-developed characters that drive the story’s actions to some kind of logically consistent resolution. Prometheus feels more like a bulleted list of sci-fi tropes and “profundities” given visual form, but it didn’t need to be. This is the difference between a pile of loose threads and a tapestry. Ultimately it’s a wasted opportunity, and I lay the blame for that squarely on its writing.

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