Prometheus: In Which The Gods Of Plot Punish The Characters For Their Precious Agency
(Beware. Below be spoilers. Also, I’m posting this Sunday, but it’s my Monday post. Shut up.)
If you’ve come to find out whether I liked the movie:
I liked it.
You now may go.
Go on! Shoo. Shoo. Ah, you’d prefer I offer up some kind of… valuation. A grading or ranking of sorts. A 3.5 out of 5! A B, maybe a B+! One thumb up and the other thumb kind of herkily-jerkily turning up and down in a most uncertain manner. There. Done. Graded. Off with you, then.
Aaaaand you’re still here.
Well, since you’re stuck to me like gum on a shoe, I suppose you’ll forgive me rambling a bit about the film? And the story? See, this is a fascinating film. Fascinating for its strengths, and fascinating for its (many) flaws. A number of folks on Twitter tried to turn me off of seeing this film (which is a bit curious — I mean, if there’s a bridge washed out on the way to the theater, please do warn me, but otherwise, assume I’m capable of making this decision) as if a lack of enjoyment was reason enough not to go. It isn’t. Not really. Because even in a flawed film I’ll still find value — it may not be an entertainment value, but storytelling done badly has educational value, at the very least.
And so I knew going in I’d likely get some education.
I did. Not because it’s a bad film. It’s not. It is to my mind quite good — it’s beautiful, elegant, icy, and has some truly gut-churning scenes of body horror. Just the same, it’s a film that misses its mark, but that’s okay — the mark was quite small and quite far and it was brave of them to shoot for it. I appreciate a film that aims for the bullseye and misses more than a film that tries only to hit the broad side of a barn and then — nicely done, chap! — hits. Aspirations matter in storytelling. They’re not the only thing. But they matter.
Here is where the aspirations of Prometheus fall down — and, also, where the storytelling lessons lurk.
This is a film about ideas, not about people.
Put more crassly, it’s a film about plot, not about character.
There exists a mode of storytelling that some call “plot-driven,” and Prometheus is most certainly that. The plot is a machine. A program, of sorts. Things happen — or, to the storyteller’s mind, “need” to happen — and the characters are forced to either catch up, strap in, or retroactively become part of the mechanics. The plot-driven storyteller says, “I need the White House to explode,” and so they arrange events and shuffle characters to make that happen. It’s all a bit of artifice. Sometimes it’s done well. Most times it’s done so you notice it — you see the puppet characters living in the shadow of the sequence, relegated to catalysts or bystanders or square pegs hammered into circle holes.
BUT ENOUGH OF ALL THIS SEXY TALK OF PEGS AND HOLES, you say. What, then, is character-driven storytelling? A plot is a plot is a plot, so what’s the problem?
Well, as I’ve said in the past and will say again and again because I quite like the way it sounds and I think it’s clever and I am at times in love with my own cleverness, “Plot is like Soylent Green: it’s made of people.” By which I mean, plot does not exist as a mechanism for characters to hop into, but rather, characters — by being characters with their sticky wants and trembling fears and all their other foibles and peccadilloes — create the mechanism by making choices based on their motivations. They’re building the machine as they go. They’re not cogs. They’re prime movers. They’re the motherfucking engineers.
Mark that word. “Engineers.” We’ll come back to it.
The storytellers of Prometheus — or so I like to imagine — sat down and said, “Okay, we need to retrofit an origin for the Alien mythology, and we’ve got this basket full of lofty ideas we can play with. We’ve got fate and free will and faith. We’ve got questions of science and ethics. Plus we’ve got all these other little awesome things — body horror and sci-fi tropes and spaceships and corporations and, y’know, aliens. It’s great!” And they went off to the races imagining the sequence of events necessary to bring the story backward far enough to explain the origins of, oh, all of mankind and then forward enough so that the audience starts to see where the Alien mythology comes from.
Somewhere, I like to also imagine one of the writers squinting and lifting a delicate finger and, when someone calls on him he says, “Ummmm. So. What about the characters?” * blink blink blink*
And then there’s a lot of ohh and mmmm and ahh yes right of course, and then they get to figuring out the characters. But that’s already the wrong order. The machine is built. Now the characters can only fit into it — like plugs, like gears. It’s an inorganic fit, as if characters are just automatons shuffled onto the stage.
And it shows. Yes, our lead scientist has “issues” of faith, but they feel painted on — as shallow and shiny as lipstick, and just as easy to rub off and forget. Characters make decisions not because they’re characters, but because they’re serving the Great And Powerful Plot Machine. One character gets inexplicably drunk because… the plot needs him to be drunk. Another character — a biologist — cares nothing for biology at one point and then gets lost (because the plot needs him to be lost) and, upon meeting some squicky Star Wars trash compactor creature decides now that he loves biology so much he wants to play a game of grab-ass with the damn thing. Again, because the plot demands it. (A tiny note: this film is filled with scientists and they are easily the shittiest scientists ever put to film.) David the android is a cipher because… drum roll please, the plot demands it. The plot demands things left and right and soon characters are constantly betraying good sense and their own motivations to feed the howling mechanical beast.
The plot is in service to ideas and ideas drive the film — but again, the connection is missed between plot/character and idea/human. Ideas are the most human thing in the world. They’re ours. All life is subject to genetics but only human life is subject to memetics and so it is a great shame to separate people from ideas. Science obeys laws outside of us but the study of those laws are uniquely, well, us.
Ahh, but here’s where it’ll really bake your noodle. Remember, I asked you to bank that word, “Engineer.” Well, that’s what the characters in this film call the aliens that “made” us (and who are apparently an exact genetic match despite being easily twice our size) — and it starts to occur to me that the problems I’m having with the film are in a way the problems that exist in the film’s storyworld and mythology, too. In the world, characters discover that humanity was made by uncaring titanic space-psychopaths who engineered events without regards to any kind of emotional intervention that they can parse. And I, as a film-goer, feel the same thing about the film itself: the plot and characters are made by the “engineers” (the storytellers) who have little interest in the emotional intervention of the characters. The plot is the plot. Mechanisms — let’s call it “fate” — exist outside the characters and beyond the audience. The characters have minimal agency because the Space Gods — whether they be the writers or the albino xeno-titans who created us — don’t want them to possess that agency.
The storytellers are the titans. The titans are the storytellers. Man — and character — is puppet.
Prometheus serves as a commentary on its own storytelling.
Probably not intentional.
Though, if it is, pretty much genius.
So, to conclude: I liked it. I did. I was entertained and educated. It’s a beautiful film and its many ideas and questions are still ping-ponging around the ol’ skull-cave.
But it’s not a character-driven piece. If it were, it would’ve been an A+, I think.
Oh, and P.S., it’s basically just the first Alien movie retold in a bigger, weirder way.