Released in the summer of 2012, Prometheus is director Ridley Scott’s long-awaited return to sci-fi and to one of the most intriguing and enduring film legacies. One of the most common problems levied against Scott’s film is that its events don’t connect with the derelict spacecraft from the first Alien film. Everyone just naturally assumed the Engineer was going to get impregnated, waddle into this chair and give birth, cut to 70 years later and the Nostromo is setting down. While the connection would have been ideally suited to the plot of Prometheus, Scott has certainly earned the right to chart his own territory in the universe he helped create. And besides, there’s nothing suggesting he won’t make such a connection with a later film in this new series. The problems with Prometheus that this video will discuss exist solely within the realm of narrative technique and structure. This is not going to be fan-fic speculation. There are great sources for that material if that’s what you’re looking for, but this will not be one.
On that note, I want to give another word on the content of this video, while it’s certainly intended to entertain, it is not intended to unduly or unfairly criticize or satirize the film. There are countless sources for such content already, my intent is not to add to the mix. Instead, this video is intended to inspire serious discussion on the plot of Prometheus. Rather than an extended foray into speculative fan fiction, this video addresses specific problems in the structure and plot mechanics of Prometheus that could have been fixed with some minor alterations in the script and editing. These are by no means definitive, and they exist simply to point out directions the movie could have gone that would have eliminated many of the problems fans and detractors have, rather than to stress these are the only fixes that could have or should have been made. I look forward to people sharing their own in the comments.
I acknowledge that there have been a lot of videos and comments online already about how to do this, so rather than simply repeat those points this video will instead list of features that have yet to be discussed.
Section 1: Dastardly Plans
The main problem is that the plot is disjointed. Events occur without much reference to previous events, nor do they bear much consequence on the scenes which follow them. Narrative is the selection and direction of these seemingly unrelated events into the illusion of structure. It’s what makes film so alluring, the potential to impose order on the chaos of reality. In reality things don’t need to have meaning or purpose. We may impose one, ascribe consequence and significance to coincidence, but that is our own doing, rather than any sort of broader cosmic scheme. As it currently stands, and as it has stood for thousands of years, we as an audience like cause and effect. Take the story of Oedipus Rex. For those who need a primer, Oedipus was a king, who accidently killed his father and married his mother, it’s complicated, but in either of the major versions, be it Sophocles or Seneca, the plots are essentially perfect models of narrative construction. Oedipus doesn’t just rip out his eyes in these Greek and Roman tragedies, he does it because he’s overwhelmed by the discovery of his heinous crimes. Now imagine if the playwright had chosen to omit or change any detail of this play. Imagine if the family dynamic wasn’t present. Imagine if the play just began with Oedipus ripping out his eyes. Imagine if the next bit after that was random people millennia later talking about advancements in opthalmology. You’d be left to wonder what the point was in showing us the opening with Oedipus. Sure, it happened, it’s vaguely related to eye surgery, but what’s your point? That’s an example of introducing elements that don’t need to be introduced. Again, if you’re familiar with the film Prometheus, I hope you can see what I’m already getting at.
Now let’s look at another type of structural problem, the incomplete plot. Let’s rewind and look at that Oedipus situation again. Imagine if Oedipus had learned he’d killed his father and married his mother and then, rather than dealing with this, the play had instead spent the next act focusing on a war between Thebes and a rival nation, and, to make the plot even more complicated, while that was playing out the play brought back the Sphinx from the first act, as a twist villain to wreak havoc on Oedipus in the finale. It would’ve been an action-packed climax, sure, but what the hell would it have to do with murder and incest?
Put simply, there are no consequences for actions in this movie. In order to demonstrate why this is a problem for the plot, I refer to the words of the incomparable E.M. Forster. Writing in 1929, Forster wrote in Aspects of the Novel that:
We have defined a story as a narrative of events arranged in their time-sequence. A plot is also a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality. “The king died and the queen died,” is a story. “The king died and then the queen died of grief,” is a plot. The time-sequence is preserved, but the sense of causality overshadows it. Or again: “The queen died, no one knew why, until it was discovered that it was through grief at the death of the king.” This is a plot with a mystery in it, a form capable of high development. It suspends the time-sequence, it moves as far away from the story as its limitations will allow.
It’s a matter of style, and it governs our reception of the plot.
Section 2: Infecting Holloway
Prometheus lays out the basis for an ambitious storyline, introducing characters and plot themes with measured precision, but the film begins its first egregious error in plot structure after Holloway’s death. Notice how up to this moment, actions had consequences. The Engineer drinks the ooze, his disintegrates, new DNA is formed, we’re left to assume the film will make something of it. Shaw and Holloway find a map, it leads them on their mission. David is told by Weyland to try harder, he infects Holloway, Holloway is killed. Holloway, infected, sleeps with Shaw, she is impregnated. The events are linked, they build one atop the other, they are not merely episodic. After Holloway’s death, events are piled one atop the other without narrative cohesion. It all begins with the lack of consequence for David infecting Holloway. By consequence I don’t mean that David needed to be punished for his actions, consequences means that the events of the plot are linked.
The majority of events in the film happen without consequences. Holloway dies with little bearing on the plot. David betrays Shaw, with no bearing on the plot, other than to leave her to do the surgery herself. David’s treachery against Holloway is revealed, with little bearing on the plot. Weyland is revealed, with little bearing on the plot. Vickers is revealed as the child of Weyland, with no bearing on the plot. The Engineer is awoken, and rather than having anything to do with the initial premise of the movie, his presence turns the film into a pseudo-slasher flick. As E.M. Forster reminds us, these scattered events make a story, but they do not make a plot, or at least, not one with much style.
I want to explore some of these problems in more detail.
Why does David infect Holloway? The interpretations are multifarious: perhaps David was asked specifically by Weyland to do so; perhaps David chose to do so because he assumed that’s what Weyland meant when he told David to try harder; maybe because David was curious to see what would happen; or, perhaps David was upset by Holloway’s dismissal and infected him out of spite. Any of these is an interesting and worthy line of inquiry for the film to have taken up. But this never happens. And in fact, the incident is only mentioned again twice near the end of the movie, and twice it is summarily dropped before it has any chance to develop. This is an example of actions lacking consequence. When actions lack consequence, they lack purpose. While this infection does result in Shaw’s pregnancy, the lack of consequence makes Holloway’s infection entirely arbitrary. He could very well just as easily been infected somehow in the temple, and the moment would have raised fewer questions, and less frustration, than this aborted attempt at characterization.
Section 3: Squid Baby Blues
Speaking of abortion, Dr. Shaw’s pregnancy occurs without consequence in this film. Why not acknowledge that Shaw gave birth to a squid baby? Why not have Vickers, or Weyland, or David worry that it’s still alive, squirming around, getting inexplicably bigger. Why isn’t Vickers concerned when Janick says “lifeboat, two years of life”. Shouldn’t she have referenced the previous scene that took place in there, something to the effect of, “you do know there’s a giant face-raping octopus in that thing”. But no, Vickers only reaction is to run from the bridge.
If fans rise to the defence claiming “she didn’t know about it”, then that simply raises further questions about why David wanted the embryo in the first place. While it is perhaps refreshing that the film chose to not retread the familiar ground of the Alien franchise and its theme of corporate greed, the fact that none of the other characters aboard a scientific vessel are at all concerned, or even acknowledge the hybrid squid baby squirming around in the medical chamber is not just implausible, it’s so confusing that this lapse undeniably reveals the sheer volume of script rewrites this film underwent. While I understand and even commend the impulse to avoid retreading familiar ground, the filmmakers give nothing in its place. David won’t take the embryo out for reasons he never specifies (something to do with facilities, but we all know how that turns out). And because neither he nor the film ever specify, nor do they follow up with the incident, it begs the question of why bother to include it.
It’s not as if the other characters were unaware that Shaw had an alien embryo gestating inside her, or, more importantly, that she removed it—rather, David’s insistence that she be put into cryo-stasis when it’s first discovered suggests he understood that the embryo was of some considerable importance. While somewhat typical, corporate greed is nevertheless a clear and simple motivation. Weyland-Yutani’s greed becomes the impetus in both Alien and Aliens. Put simply, the company wants the alien for its bio-weapons division. This film, on the other hand, presents a dizzying mix of plot themes, without ever providing any payoff for these motivations.
Section 4: Calamari Confrontation
Following off from Shaw giving herself a C-Section, why not have Shaw acknowledge that the reason why she had to do it herself is because David wouldn’t help her, moreover, that nobody would? Instead, she walks right into the main room where they’re all standing about. I can understand that she wouldn’t be thinking clearly with all the drugs she’s pumping into herself (seriously, I don’t think you’re supposed to mix those), but the film never gives Shaw a chance to acknowledge what David just did to her, nor that she suspects he probably did it at Weyland’s behest. Because then in the next scene it’s like all is forgiven by everyone, for everything, Shaw doesn’t mind David basically tried to keep her sedated as a science experiment, nobody cares that a squid baby is loose on the ship, these people don’t seem to mind that Shaw wacked the crap out of them with a garbage bin, and nobody is concerned (Shaw especially) that Weyland is suddenly back from the dead? She comes off as incredibly foolish and naïve if she doesn’t suspect that the codgery old bastard is clearly a codgery old bastard hell-bent on getting his way no matter what the collateral. Moreover, neither Weyland nor David seem concerned about the whereabouts of the fetus. In the original Alien, Ash, the scientist, was especially keen to examine and hang on to the corpse of the facehugger, despite Ripley’s protestations. I get that Scott didn’t want to simply repeat the beats from Alien, but then don’t include so similar an element. It comes with the territory unfortunately. Because how could these characters possibly know the state of the alien, why wouldn’t they even be curious to recover it? Why wouldn’t they even ask Shaw about it? It’s the climax, you want to keep things moving, I get it; the pace would suffer if the characters were to suddenly stop here to have a cup of tea and reminisce, but you can’t just keep lashing plot holes together and hope they make a bridge. And yet the filmmakers still stop to introduce yet another plot thread—David wanting Weyland dead. Why not take a moment to resolve any of the other plot threads currently unraveling in this picture? Why not have Shaw ask what David’s plan is, why try to keep the fetus? What does he want with it, bioweapons? Genetic research? While the answer obviously isn’t vital, Shaw’s lack of curiosity over why David was willing to sacrifice her for reasons unknown is curiously at odds with Shaw’s constant search for answers in this movie. She wants to know about everything but that? She wants to know, for example, what David wants from Weyland, but she’s not the least bit curious about why he did what he did to her?
Section 5: Scenecraft 101
The key questions to ask when considering whether to include any scene is “what information is this scene trying to convey?” And more importantly, “why does this scene need to exist?” If the answer to both is answerable by the same simple epithet “because it looks cool”, then save your money and never bother shooting it. The more answers these questions provoke, the stronger the case for the scene. Next, the question is “does this scene accomplish its goals?” Does it convey the information intended? What else might the scene suggest. It is the duty of the filmmakers to consider and interpret the scene in countless ways. Ridley and his editor show they are capable of this approach, going so far into the minutia as to worry whether the shot of a screwdriver lighting up a belt would lead viewers to believe the turn of the screwdriver had caused the door to open (which says a troubling amount about the level of intelligence Scott is attributing to his audience). So in order to better illustrate this point of asking questions about the goal of a shot or scene, consider the penultimate shot of the movie, Elizabeth blasting off into the unknown in search of answers. I know why this scene is included: “get ready for a sequel!” On a more serious note, the scene is intended to convey the tenacity of this character. If we or the character ever had any doubt of the strength of her convictions, they’re resolved when she displays her tenacity to travel to the depths of a presumed hell just to find out her answers.
Consider the scene that immediately follows. What is it trying to convey? That the engineer gave birth, that an alien is alive on this abandoned planet, that it bears a similarity to the alien of the original series. But the question one must also ask is “so what?” What is the purpose in this movie for the scene. Let a movie never exist solely for the purpose of promoting a sequel. What is the impact of this scene on the rest of the film? It represents the completion of the life cycle, the pay-off for the oral rape, the money shot as it were, but that in itself does not warrant its inclusion, certainly not when countless other scenes are left without satisfactory conclusions.
Scott, his editor, and more importantly his scriptwriters, would have been well-served to apply this logic to the plot of their film, they may have come up with some more worthwhile answers.
If you like where my words are going, follow them on twitter @binarybastard
This is just part one of my five-part series exploring the problems with Prometheus. Forthcoming essays will explore other issues with the film, from characterization to its unanswerable questions. Be sure to check back for more.
 By comparison, even Raiders of the Lost Ark explains why the Nazis would want the Ark, and the payoff comes by way of a slam-bang finish where the villains face the wrath of God and Indy emerges victorious. Also note that by the time The Last Crusade rolls around Spielberg doesn’t even bother explaining why the Nazi’s would want the Grail; either you get good vs. evil or you’re not a human being.