Picking Apart Prometheus: Part 1 — Missing pieces

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.[1]

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.

[1] 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.


10 thoughts on “Picking Apart Prometheus: Part 1 — Missing pieces

  1. I watched Prometheus so that I can now follow along. I couldn’t agree more about the first 40 minutes being a masterpiece . . . I’d even say the first 55 or so. I’m a fan of the movie, A.I., so I found it interesting that this android is also named David, and is also teased about wanting to be “a real boy.” I’m not sure if an intentional or accidental parallel though.

    I have no idea how you’re going to tease out another four analyses beyond this one, but I’m looking forward to what’s coming.

    • Oh, I have my ways. 😉

      I’m delighted to learn you’ll be able to follow along, and I hope to get you participating before the end.

      David was one of my favourite characters of the year, and I wish I could remember where I read an amazing analysis on the character (especially as it related to his fascination with T. E. Lawrence, another enigmatic character I’m furiously impassioned by). I may have to do a sixth part just to offer some conciliatory praise of the character (which is woefully abandoned by the end).

  2. Still learning the rules of the game. I wasn’t sure if commenting early on in the series would enhance or impede your creative output. I won’t be so hesitant in the future.

    • By all means! Comment and discuss! It’s all already written, I’m just tweaking things here and there as I respond to the gist of the discourse. The only thing that’s yet to be completed are the videos. (The copyright crap didn’t help.) Anyway, I’d love for you to share your thoughts on anything, every bit helps.

      • I’ve been reading a little bit about the movie, and it sounds like a lot of the loose ends and problematic moments were created during rewrites. It’s always frustrating when you hear about movies that lose themselves in the process of getting made.

        David is an awesome character, and it seems like the most interesting push of the film is that of David’s own evolution. The robot who is “more human than the humans” isn’t exactly a new idea, but it’s done so well here. I found myself going back and forth between sympathizing with David and hating him, but the entire spectrum of emotion there totally made sense. I wasn’t wondering if I should hate or love him, but found myself liking him as a character for making me feel both, often at the same time. It reminds me of the sense of indecision we often feel when judging ourselves. One day we feel malicious, antagonistic, self-loathing and the next day we might feel more hopeful, helpful, and at peace with ourselves and our actions. His dynamic path felt like my own, so I was willing to struggle along with his journey as it changed from moment to moment. Even when I found myself questioning the plausibility of some of his actions, like sneaking the alien sample into the drink, I would then think it through logically and conclude, “There does seem to be a strong basis for him doing such things, even if we’re evaluating his actions as those of a robot and nothing more.” In the case of the drink, he had basically asked for permission to contaminate the drink, and was given it.

        Props to you for being able to write about all the false starts and unrelated elements in the movie. That’s where I find myself just too overwhelmed with the confusion of it all to be able to dive in and begin dissecting it piece by piece. That’s what I disliked most about the movie, just not being able to understand so much about what was going on, and feeling like I wasn’t being given ANY sort of an inroad to begin understanding the movie as it existed on screen. So many of the secondary characters were indistinguishable from each other to me. I didn’t really understand who any of them were or why they were there. To make any sort of sense of it all, I had to research the original intentions of the film, rewrites, and comments made by those involved in making the film. By comparison, Southland Tales, which you also wrote about, is another complicated film to get your head around, but even after the first viewing I knew that there was an internal logic here, that every character served a unique and important function, and that repeated viewings would ultimately give up the movie’s secrets to me. For those who want a larger understanding of the world that exists beyond what is seen in Southland Tales, there are the comic books, but they’re not an absolute necessity for understanding the film, and at least they exist in the same world as the film. Contrarily, I have to go outside the world of Prometheus to understand it. I have to go back into the real world, and when I have to do that, the explanations I find there are interesting “what if’s,” but ultimately unfulfilling since they are completely removed from the magic of the movie itself, seemingly more connected to the world of the film’s financing than the world of its characters.

        I guess what I wanted most from this movie and didn’t get was mystery . . . the level of mystery I felt during the first scenes of the Engineer disintegrating into the waterfall. We’re talking creation myths here . . . who we are, where we came from, how we’re all connected. This is some pretty profound stuff, and to set up this type of tale so well only to see the engineers devolve into grunting sociopathic meatheads by the end of the movie, it felt like a real disservice to the tough questions the movie should have been asking itself. I half expected the engineer to yell, “Hulk Smash!” as he started lashing out at the people around him. There isn’t even a hint here of the type of engineer we saw at the beginning of the movie. This doesn’t seem like a being capable of judging another being’s worth (which I’ll get to a little further on).

        I did love that you had to play a flute to activate the Engineers’ ships. It’s that weird type of left brain/right brain combination I love to see in portrayals of advanced societies. That was a nice detail, but it was yet another detail that seemed to contradict the plausibility of an Engineer who awakens and flies immediately into a fit of rage at this handful of humans (and one humanistic robot) for no reason whatsoever. If the engineers were such capable destroyers (as they were shown at the end of Prometheus), then why would they even need to create another race of beings to carry out the job that they’re obviously capable of taking care of themselves? It would have been more interesting for the Engineers to have created the bio-weapon aliens to offset their own inability to perform those jobs. Then, the creatures become the Engineers’ own Pandora’s box, and there are plenty of interesting parallels to draw out there in terms of the current state of our own human evolution . . . nuclear technology, atomic warfare, etc.

        I liked Shaw for the most part, but there were obviously a lot of problems with the character. To bring back the idea of mystery . . . she was supposed to be grappling with these huge ideas of god and creation, but seemed entirely untouched by a sense of mystery and wonder in her own life. Sure, she asked a lot of questions and was curious. But curiosity and mystery aren’t the same thing.

        Perhaps the most frustrating thing in the movie for me was the end, and the introduction of the idea that the Engineers were displeased with humanity for some reason. What an interesting idea . . . that wasn’t explored in the movie. What a missed opportunity! As soon as I heard it, I thought, “Why haven’t they been working towards this idea the entire movie?!?!?! The film should have been teasing us with premonitions of this idea, things that would have be been swirling around in our head a little so that, by the time this “punishment” idea is introduced, we are already thinking about the concept of punishment, or even just good and evil. The fact that there are monsters and people isn’t enough, especially if you want to blur the lines about who really is good and who really is evil. I read somewhere that this line is supposed to intimate that the Engineers were somehow responsible for Jesus, and that his time on Earth was a test, a test failed by humanity when he was put to death. What an interesting idea . . . that also wasn’t explored in the movie. I love the whole idea of this, even if it seems to contradict the events as they are shown (the Engineer seeds Earth and the gears are put into motion), and there isn’t any mention of a return by the Engineers, nor is there any suggestion of a special preexisting program in the genetic code that might produce a “Jesus” for every society they create, who can then judge the worthiness of the created society. Shaw’s quips about the Engineers being displeased with us are so tantalizing, and they never go anywhere . . . except, oh yeah . . . “sequel.”

        And since I’ve resigned myself to letting “rambling” become my official way of engaging in film discussions, I’ll add one more thing on that topic. If the Engineers are so displeased with us, yet genetically they are us, then this poses a serious problem. They’re lashing out at themselves. That’s not an impossibility, and there are parallels in Christian theology for a god lashing out at the very same quality he/it creates, but you’d need a real commitment to these ideas to make them work in a film, and that commitment just wasn’t there. And it’s still ANOTHER reason that the blind rage shown by the engineer when he awakes makes no sense at all. In terms of a similar idea as humanity evaluating their own actions in relationship to their makers, I’m reminded of one of my favorite lines from “Tree of Life,” when the boy asks about himself in relationship to his father, “Why do I have to be good if he’s not?” So, you can have these kinds of complexities in a film, but you have to be willing to really address them, not just leave them hanging as vagaries.

        The film WANTS to ask so many interesting questions, but it seems like its commitment to being an action flick overpowers the ability for the film to actually EXPLORE these questions. Again . . . what a missed opportunity.

      • So many times while I was reading your thoughts I found myself nodding in agreement, at other points actually saying “yes” out loud.

        The nature of the Engineer was perhaps the most troublesome aspect of the film. I address it a bit more in my second part, but yes, the whole problem is that he feels ripped out of another movie (a slasher flick). Maybe this is where my analysis dips into pure “what I wanted to see”, but I was hoping for a more benevolent (or at least, intelligent Engineer, or maybe two–good cop, bad cop– a juxtaposition). That’s another issue with this movie, which I address in part 5: we’re left to do so much speculating, to the extent that we’re left grasping at the most implausible of straws. The deferral to Southland Tales is a good point, and I thought a bit about it and it seems to be that the ambiguities of Southland Tales exist on the metatextual plane (not to mention that the film sets out from the very beginning to challenge our basic assumptions of logic–so we don’t go looking for logic). This film, on the other hand, leaves all its questions on the textual level. It’s more “why this and why that?” when it seemed like they were hoping the viewer would consider “why are we here, and where are we going?” But then, I can just pose that question to you, I don’t need a two-hour film and hundreds of millions of dollars to do it. The two hours and the millions of dollars are so I can present you some terrifically entertaining answers. I go into this in more detail in Part 5.

        The film definitely suffers from an identity crisis. And yes, it’s no doubt stemming from two different writers (and Scott doing his trademark meddling). Just as Prometheus was ending I remember myself in the theatre thinking “wait… isn’t the film really just starting then? Wasn’t this whole thing supposed to be about searching for answers? Why would you let the search get side-tracked for an entire hour?!” It’s different in the case of an overarching narrative, but then I examine that briefly at the end of Part 2.

        I’d love to add your comments to a more prominent position somewhere, I’m thinking of doing the “Picking Apart Prometheus” as a section, sort of like the Southland Compendium, and I’d be honoured to have this comment as an appendix. Let me know.

  3. These are my first fumbling attempts at discussing fiction films in any serious sort of way, but if you see anything you can use, of course you are welcome to it.

    I’m enjoying the hints of what’s to come in the five-part series.

  4. Nail-on-head stuff! I’m working on another “In Defense of…” piece for Prometheus. I like the idea of sticking up for a movie (like Crystal Skull) that’s been unfairly maligned. I think this movie suffered from “Incredible Trailer Syndrome.” That first trailer did its job too well, so when Prometheus turned out to be a well above-average sci-fi, rather than the second coming, the critics turned on it and the audience followed. For me, the bulk of the problems regarding plot are down to the final edit. I’ve read a synopsis of what was cut (can’t remember where), and this omitted material would have gone a long way in fixing the problems with the narrative. Anyway, nice job.

    • I’m glad to hear you’ll be working on a defence. My series does far too little to recognize the commendable aspects of this film (the sets are quite lovely, for starters)–although I hasten to add I was motivated to respond to the countless opinions praising this film online for the very same problems I point out. I concede the trailer set the bar extremely high, but I don’t think my criticism with the film is motivated by that disappointment. These problems exist independently of the trailer. Nevertheless, I look forward to reading your piece, in no small way because your writing style is such a joy to experience, and your unique ideas are always delivered with wry and laconic wit.

  5. Pingback: Determining the Terminator Part 3: Upping the Ante | digital didascalia

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