But What If It Just Doesn't Make Sense?

On the /Filmcast, we recently recorded our Prometheus review episode. It was a lively discussion and I enjoyed it a great deal, but it's prompted a wave of e-mail and feedback that has only rarely occurred during our podcast's entire run (one other memorable instance: Inception). I love all the e-mails we receive and I'm incredibly grateful that people are engaging with our show and with films in such an enthusiastic fashion. I love stuff like these 15 insane theories about film and TV that will blow your mind, ideas that re-orient and re-cast everything you've come to know and believe about how a film unfolds. But when it comes to Prometheus, I tire of the vastly divergent interpretations of what actually happened in the movie.

Drew Mcweeny's spoiler-y Q&A about the film is enjoyable on its own (make sure you check out all the other articles I list in our review too), but it also highlights a potential issue that Prometheus raises: isn't it entirely possible that this movie just makes no damn sense? In light of all the glaring plot errors highlighted in Drew's post, isn't it entirely possible that the screenwriters/director just had no idea what they were doing when it came to constructing an internally cohesive and satisfying narrative?

And if that's the case, does Prometheus really deserve hours and hours of pondering and writing and theory-espousing?

Of course, there are plenty of movies that don't explain themselves at all, movies where the viewer struggles mightily to make sense of the events on screen, yet they are movies still widely regarded as masterpieces. I think invoking David Lynch at this point in the conversation is appropriate. /Filmcast listener John from The Fifth Wall writes the following [SPOILERS for Prometheus]:

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First, what is the last David Lynch film you saw?  I hate to pull the "it's notsupposed to make sense" card, yet I do believe the film works on a meditative level that belies (and, in many ways, renders moot) the plot.  "Lost Highway", for example, is an exercise in meaningless if you demand an explanation as to why Fred Madison suddenly becomes Pete Dayton in terms of conventional plotting.  However, if you catch the deceptively nonsensical line from Madison near the beginning of the film, that he "likes to remember things [his] own way," the film opens up and the pieces fall into place.  (I can back that argument up, I swear, but you don't check your inbox for 10,000 word treatises on movies from 1990s.)  David in Prometheus also has a line that I'd argue functions as a cypher to unlocking the real meaning underlying this film -- a line you didn't touch on, which says to me that you had a different viewing experience than I did:


  • David: Why do you think your people made me?
  • Charlie Holloway: We made ya 'cause we could.
  • David: Can you imagine how disappointing it would be for you to hear the same thing from your creator?
In other words, what if you tracked down God and, to quote Fight Club, "He never wanted you"? In fact, "In all probability, he hates you"?

I'm a Lynch apologist. I know he's not everyone's cup of tea, and I'm sure most Lynch fans out there will want to tar and feather me for making this comparison.  But I'll also say that, somehow, I walked out of Mulholland Drive without caring that The Cowboy is never explained or given "Script Writing 101" character motivations.  (I'll go even further and say that I can re-watch Blue Velvet a dozen times more before I die and never care that the script is atrociously stupid in ways that far surpass anything in Prometheus.  And, ho boy, does Prometheus have some atrociously stupid moments)  And with that, I'll put the Lynch references away.

Looking at Prometheus on those terms, I'll only add that I just didn't see the problem with a lot of plot "problems" you raised.  You thought it was problematic that the Engineers that created humanity eons ago now apparently want to destroy us.  Or that the "black goo" that sparks life on Earth would result in the xenomorphs in the future.  To that, I say that it's more bizarre to assume that a sentient race would have consistent motivations over millions of years, or that we'd be able to understand the motivations (or the technology) of a truly "alien" race.  That probably sounds like a cop out ("so again, we're not supposed to understand it, great"), but I don't think so.  This was, for me, a movie about the perils of human exploration into areas we can't possibly hope to understand, any more than Europeans could understand the Americas and all the strange diseases and natives that handed them their asses for centuries thereafter.  Turning that analogy inside-out, the experience of David getting beaten up by the Engineer may be akin to the Aztecs learning that Hernan Cortes was no Quetzalcoatl, that this supposed "god" came to bring their destruction for reasons the Aztecs couldn't possibly have understood at the time.  This is Solaris as bio-horror sci-fi.

I'd argue that the film tells us all about the Engineers that we need to know for purposes of this entry in the series.  As far as the humans (and the audience) are concerned, it's because they "can", and humanity is right to feel as disappointed as David was by that discovery.  If this email generates any reaction on your podcast, I can already hear the laugh line, "Great, the movie wanted me to feel disappointment, and it succeeded at that."  But there's profundity to be had in that disappointment, at least for me.  

After that, the emergence of a "xenomorph" was perhaps the cheapest bit of unnecessary "fan service" in the whole movie.  First off, I don't buy that it was a xenomorph -- they were not on LV-426, the giant squid was at most a distant cousin of a facehugger (as if a possum and a grizzly bear were the same animal), and (come on) Ridley Scott knows what a xenomorph looks like and he would have give us one if he wanted to go there.  But he was presumably going "somewhere" with that scene, unless it was a sign of sheer studio meddling.  Short of that unlikelihood, I hope that, much like Ridley very deliberately highlighted that they were going to LV-223 and not LV-426, he was also deliberately showing us something not a xenomorph to signal that there was more story to be told in future installments before we circle back around to the opening of Alien.


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John's e-mail gives you an idea of the types of e-mails we've been receiving (all of which offer totally different interpretations of the events of the film), but I think the Lynch comparison is somewhat apt. The issue I have with this argument is that I feel it's completely belied by the movie's fairly effective opening setup, as well as its positioning as a summer blockbuster. There's no better way for me to say it but this doesn't "feel" like a movie where people are supposed to disagree on the fundamentals of the plot itself. Sure, we may have differing interpretations on what the meaning of life is, and what motivates Dr. Shaw, and what makes us human. But are we really supposed to disagree as to what the hell the Engineers were doing in the first place, why they were trying to kill all humans, etc.?

I'd like to bastardize a quote from Arthur C. Clarke, if I may: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." Here's a corollary: "Any sufficiently non-sensical film lacking explanation, cohesion, or logic is indistinguishable from a masterpiece."

6 comments :: But What If It Just Doesn't Make Sense?

  1. I completely agree with John about the "'Cause we could" line. As soon as Charlie said that, my ears pricked up, because that meant it was far more likely than not that what the Prometheus crew would find as an answer would be just that.

    And, in a sense, they did - the Engineer ripping off David's head when being asked the question (whether it was Shaw's or the old guy's doesn't much matter, as the Engineer felt no need or obligation to answer either, frankly) was proof that he regarded humans no differently than some widget, perhaps.

    Humans are always on the search for The Creator - whether that's of a religious, spiritual or scientific (not necessarily independent of one another) sort. But what happens if The Creator doesn't really care all that much?

    And then, with the end, perhaps the reason the Engineers wanted to get rid of humans - Shaw is taking a ship of the goo to the Engineers' home planet. To destroy them and their home. Is that why the Engineers decided to kill humans first? Kill or be killed?

  2. I agree with this email. Thomas Pynchon did the same approach in his novel, The Crying Lot of 49.

  3. I can't tell if this article is iconic of David Chen's continuing commitment to analyzing and responding to film, or his seeming step back from that chapter in his life. In any case, I think Prometheus is one part "there's one true answer" and one part "Lindlof is bad at telling mysteries", and I for one am still excited by the search for answers (but then, I didn't get insane amounts of email about it).

  4. (Sorry for the double post, I commented under an old username above.)

    All of this thematic debate is interesting - but for me, it's not a lack of answers or concrete mythology that caused my disappointment (though I suppose they contributed). It was the characters themselves. I found them to be so poorly underwritten, it's like the writers rushed through all of the character development to get to the 'heavy stuff'.
    I understand that you CAN read this film as a piece that doesn't really concern itself with its characters - but I don't think that was the intention of Scott or Lindelof. I think that's a by product of a sub-par script.
    Obviously this is all my opinion, but I didn't feel any connection between the two scientist leads - I didn't understand the Geologists constant douchey attitude, I felt lost when Dr Shaw's boyfriend (can't remember his name sorry) decided to get drunk after the alien head exploded and it drove me MAD to see all of the crew on the ship having such a small reaction to the fact that we had discovered some kind of alien tomb on another planet.

    Sorry to rant, but at the end of the day - if you're producing a film that focus' on characters - then they need to be believable and interesting, Prometheus failed on this front and therefore - for me - failed as a whole.

    * A quick note, I'd say a film like "2001" very clearly asserts its intentions as a 'theme' movie rather than a 'character' one - something Prometheus does not do.

  5. What determines whether a movie is good-vague or bad-vague for me is just a gut feeling of how much I believe the writer/director actually has an answer. For some reason I cannot articulate, I do get the sense that the unanswered questions in Prometheus are known, but just unrevealed.

    A quote from Lindeloff (which I discovered after seeing the film and forming the above opinion):

    "There were drafts that were more explicitly spelled out. I think Ridley’s instinct kept being to pull back, and I would say, “Ridley, I’m still eating shit a year after Lost is over for all the things we didnt directly spell out, Are you sure you want to do this?” And he said, “I would rather have people fighting about it and not know then spell it out.”

    HOWEVER...

    I think the one problem you can run into is if your film actually has legitimate plot holes. Because then how is the viewer supposed to tell the difference? It completely undermines the "good" ambiguity. I think that is what is happening with Prometheus. When characters do things that are dumb or baffling in the context of what is presented in the film, you lose faith in the strength of storytelling, and are less inclined to read into and talk about the actual ambiguity you were supposed to.

    I really enjoyed the film because I am able to ignore the plot-holey bits, and focus on the interesting questions. I fully acknowledge that I am doing some heavy lifting in this department, and that a better film should not force me to do that.

    I also completely agree with Adam's review that when a movie asks the big questions by having characters literally ask the big questions is lame. A good movie should present drama and character interaction that forces ME to ask the big questions. But I think there was enough material present for me to ask my own questions, even if I had to dig for it.

  6. This is a very good post and I appreciate a lot of the points you raise regarding this movie.

    I just want to point out one key difference between Prometheus and a David Lynch film. Lynch is a writer/director auteur who is responsible for his singular creations from beginning to end. His films may be ambiguous or flat out incoherent but we do know we are getting Lynch's vision on the screen, and everything that is or is not made implicit in those movies is by design. To the extend that we trust Lynch we indulge his fims.

    Prometheus was originally written by Jon Spaihts before being turned over to Lindelof for re-writes and then left to Ridley Scott to create the final product. If the end result is muddled, inconsistent, and unsatisfying I think it is less likely that it is intentionally open-ended and more likely that it is a muddled, disjointed mess of half-finished ideas and abandoned, vestigial plot points from previous drafts.

    Prometheus also has to maintain continuity with what is established in the existing Alien franchise. Lynch is free to create altered realities and populate them however he wants but Scott has to stay within the lines of the existing mythology and advance our understanding of it otherwise the film will feel wrong and unsatisfying.

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