Monday, December 17, 2012

Two Perfectly Reasonable Answers to Plot Holes in Prometheus (That don't make the film any better)

 Despite my better judgement, I did pick up Prometheus when the fancy Blu-Ray set arrived, knowing full and well that the "questions will be answered" promise was a false one at best. To my surprise, it did answer some questions, like:

  - Is Ridley Scott going to explicitly tie the Alien and Blade Runner universes together (Answer: Yes)
  - Were the effects mostly digital or did they use more practical trickery than you'd expect? (Answer: The latter)
  - Is John Spaihts more than a little peeved that Damon Lindelof took his screenplay and turned it into Lost on LV-223 (Answer: Yes)
  - Does Damon Lindelof know you're going to be angry that the ending is nothing more than a "to be continued"? (Answer: Yes)
  - Does Damon Lindelof care that you're angry? (Answer: No)

 You can learn all of this and more watching the three hour and forty minute making of documentary (The Furious Gods: The Making of Prometheus), plus the deleted scenes and Weyland's "notes" that accompany the viral videos. What you won't learn, in any form or fashion, are answers to perfectly logical questions. Questions that drive fans of science fiction and the Alien series into a frothy rage because of how mind-bogglingly stupid they seem to be.

 Luckily for you, while I was thinking about Prometheus, it occurred to me that there are some reasonable answers to some of the most often raised "plot holes." I will share them with you. So that's the good news.

 The bad news is that they don't actually make Prometheus a better movie; they just provide an explanation for the stupid things that happen in the story. The answers don't really help explain why they happened in the first place from a screenwriting standpoint. But I can only do so much, dear readers...

 Problem Number One: "Why are the scientists so stupid?"

 You'll find this in just about every critique of Prometheus, because it's a plot crippling error that causes the film to collapse almost immediately after the scientific crew of the ship enter the Engineers' pyramid. They don't behave like scientists, or like human beings for the most part. For some reason, either Lindelof or Spaihts took a horror movie script, drew a line through "horny teenagers" and wrote "scientists" above it in pen.

 The complaint I hear most often (and while it would take a while to link all of the reviews I've seen it in, let's start here and also use the reviews it links to) is that there is no conceivable explanation why Weyland would hire such incompetent scientists to fly as far out as any human being has ever gone on the research mission of a lifetime. And they are, to be generous, really not sterling examples of their respective fields. That is, when we know what their fields are (more on that in a bit).

 The Answer: Weyland didn't hire them. Meredith Vickers did.

 It's worth noting that while the ship Prometheus is Weyland's, and his money is paying for the expedition, the only people aboard the ship that he was directly involved with were Holloway, Shaw, and David. Everybody else was hired by Weyland's daughter, Meredith Vickers, who had no interest in the mission being successful.

 The first thing she says to them during the briefing is "For those of you I hired in person, it's nice to see you again. For the rest of you, my name is Meredith Vickers, and it's my job to make sure that you do yours."

 She's being facetious, or perhaps saying it for David's benefit, as Vickers knows her father is aboard the ship in hypersleep (Weyland, on the other hand, seems surprised that his daughter joined the Prometheus crew when she comes to warn him that he's going to die). It's evident throughout the film that the only person onboard the Prometheus with no interest in Holloway and Shaw finding alien life is Vickers, so I find it to be totally fair that she's not going to hire the best scientists available for the mission.

 Vickers doesn't even really care if they survived the trip. The first thing she asks David about the crew after waking up from hypersleep is if there were any casualties. When he explains that no one died, she dismissively tells him to "wake them up."

 That explains why Fifield, the geologist, is only in it for the money. It explains why Milburn, the biologist, freaks out when he sees a calcified corpse but then, not six hours later, reaches out to touch something that looks like a facehugger mated with a manta ray. If you don't expect your team to succeed, why bother getting the best and brightest, especially if you know your father isn't going to wake up and meet any of them until after the mission has failed?

 So when Shaw and Holloway do find something, and Vickers tries to put the kibosh on it, we end up with the scene where David and Meredith have a tense conversation about Weyland's instructions. She already hates her step-"brother," but the fact that Weyland trusts David more than Vickers only enrages her when she learns that the message is "try harder."

 Why it doesn't make Prometheus any better:

 From a story standpoint, we understand why the characters are less scientists and more "horror movie stereotypes," but that doesn't make Prometheus any more satisfying. It makes Prometheus a dumb horror movie with characters that spend inordinate amounts of time "doing science" in the laziest ways possible. It also doesn't address the two people that Weyland DID put on the ship: Elizabeth Shaw and Charlie Holloway.

 Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that we can guess what their fields are. Holloway is probably an archeologist - it is his expedition in Scotland that sets the narrative off. Shaw is a little trickier - is she also an archeologist? Is she a biologist? Is she just somebody who hangs out with Charlie and provides moral support? The film doesn't ever really address this, just like it never explains why the climate specialist who gives us exposition about the atmosphere of LV-223 is also qualified to assist Shaw and David in an autopsy of the severed Engineer's head.

 While I can shrug and accept that Vickers doesn't give a shit about the secondary scientific crew, alarms bells should go off the moment that Holloway takes his helmet off in the pyramid, and he should be quarantined immediately by the security crew that was presumably driving them from the ship to the site and back. But that doesn't happen, and then everyone else takes off their helmets because the pyramid is creating a "breathable" environment that clearly wouldn't have any unknown diseases or particles that are also in the air. There's not excuse for that, nor is there one for Holloway's sudden desire to give up on the whole mission because he can't talk to the dead Engineers they find in one part of one pyramid a few hours after they land.

 So the question shouldn't be "why are the scientists so stupid," because there's a good answer for that, but "why are our protagonists so stupid?"

 Problem Number Two: "The Movie Takes Away the Significance of the Title 'Alien'"

 So bear with me here: this is a larger argument about where Prometheus stands in the Alien series, but the gist is that what's so scary about the xenomorph in Alien is right there in the title: it's foreign. It's completely unknown to us, and that's terrifying. It is not of human design, we cannot understand it, we cannot reason with it - we can only hope to kill or be killed by it.

 That's a basic, fundamental fear that we share: the monster that cannot be appealed to, that we recognize nothing in. Its life cycle is foreign to us, its biology is foreign to us (let us ignore for the moment the fact that having acid for blood serves no biological purpose) - the xenomorphs are at best insect-like, as Ridley Scott suggested and James Cameron made explicit in Aliens. But they've always been fundamentally, well, "alien." Even when they burst from the chests of humans, the only thing they take on as a physical characteristic is our stature.

 So the issue at hand is that the "monster" in Prometheus, if we ignore the Engineers for a moment (and I'll get to them shortly) is one that comes from Shaw and Holloway having sex after David slips Charlie some of the black oil. (Total Side Note: Did anybody else think of the black oil from The X-Files, by the way?) The proto-facehugger she "gives birth" to during the medi-pod Cesarian is therefore part-human / part-alien, the same way that Fifield is when he returns after a face full of acid and black oil.

 The proto-facehugger then does what facehuggers do to the Engineer, and then a chestburster does what it does, ending the film with something that looks a LOT like the xenomorph we recognize.

 One could reasonably make the argument that the aliens are not "alien" at all, especially if we also remember that the Engineers are the progenitors of the human race. There's nothing about their biological weapon that can't be linked back to humanity in the first place.

 The Answer: That's Not the Same Xenomorph the Crew of the Nostromo Encounters.

 It isn't, and that's one aspect of Prometheus that isn't exactly addressed in the film, but one that is answered as a throwaway line in Weyland's "notes." If you were worried that the ship that Shaw and David fly away in is the same one that Ripley, Dallas, Ash, and company find on LV-426, worry not. That's not where the eventual (and inevitable) Prometheus sequels are heading. How do I know that?

 Well, in addition to Spaihts, Lindelof, and Scott insisting that the film is no longer a prequel to Alien, there's a mention in Weyland's "notes" that while they were probing LV-223 that the Weyland Corporation picked up the distress signal from the ship on LV-426. David, in fact, is aware of this, and LV-426 is actually more of a priority than LV-223, but since Weyland wants to meet the Engineers, they're following Shaw and Holloway's theory first.

 More to the point, this argument doesn't necessarily hold up for another reason, one that has nothing to do with Prometheus. I'm actually going to totally ignore Alien: Resurrection, which already went out of its way to blend together the concept of "human" and "alien" as the central theme of the film, and instead look at a seemingly insignificant line from Aliens.

 Aliens takes place 57 years after Alien, which takes place roughly 30 years after Prometheus. So we're looking at something close to 90 years later, at a point when the Weyland-Yutani Corporation has been terraform-ing and mining planets for quite a while. They were doing it before Prometheus, as is evidenced by the bet between co-pilots, and the Nostromo isn't the first time they've had to deal with a hostile species. How do I know this?

 Ignoring the Prometheus, we can surmise this from one line in Aliens. The Colonial Marines, who protect colonies under the Company, have seen their share of action, and Hudson asks* Sgt. Apone:

"Is this gonna be a standup fight, sir, or another bug hunt?"

When the answer involves a xenomorph, Vasquez mutters "it's another bug hunt."

 So let's say, for the sake of argument, that this nickname for a mission the Marines don't want to be involved in is the result of having to hunt other alien lifeforms, successfully or otherwise. So yes, they're "alien," but we're no longer terrified of them to the point that soldiers are openly bored by the prospect of fighting another "bug" when they could have some real action.

 As Aliens is widely accepted as the favorite entry in the Alien series (not by me, but by a lot of people), we can hardly blame Prometheus for "ruining" the rest of the films by making xenomorphs less "alien." We've been cool with the malaise about the "alien"-ness of the monster for more than twenty-five years.

 Why it doesn't make Prometheus any better:

 That being said, why have the xenomorphs in Prometheus at all? Why have creatures that are so similar in design to the creatures from Alien and Aliens only to tell us that "well, it's not the same monsters, so it's not a prequel!" Why bother making that connection in the first place?

 Since it's really unclear what the black oil can and can't do (it seems to break down DNA and reconstitute it, creating life) or whether it's a part of a ritual sacrifice that begins life on planets or if it's a biological weapon. In Prometheus, it serves both purposes, to no apparent end. It's a MacGuffin that does whatever Spaihts and Lindelof need it to do whenever they need it to do that. More importantly, it's not even fundamentally important to what Prometheus is "about."

 If you pick up nothing else from the film or the nearly four hours of "making of" material, it's that the film is really about "where we came from" and "what it means to meet our makers" and "what happens if we're disappointed by what we find." And oh yeah, that's why David is there, because David is constantly disappointed by his makers, which allows him to do whatever he wants and lie about not feeling emotions.

  No, really, and here's the kicker. It's another one of those seemingly insignificant lines that most people probably missed. After David quotes Lawrence of Arabia, Charlie asks him what that means and he says "It's just something from a film I like." A film he likes, in a movie where David is constantly being told he has no emotions. You could say it's lazy screenwriting, but since the creative team beats you over the head suggesting David is more evolved than he lets on, let's assume he has disdain for his creators.

 So if this is all an issue of finding our place in the universe, and the "alien" threat that we are now complicit in introducing to LV-223 is our contribution to this search, why did it need to be something that looks like it could evolve into the xenomorph we hadn't had any contact with or had even heard about in Alien? If there are enough other species out there to constitute the term "bug hunt" less than a hundred years later, why not introduce that as the lasting contribution of the crew of the Prometheus.

 Oh, right. Because things that look like xenomorphs put asses in seats. Just like Engineers who turn out to be Space Jockeys get people who pored over Alien to go frame by frame through the trailers and to buy midnight tickets. Prometheus didn't ruin the "alien" from Alien, it just exploited the iconography for a story that didn't need it. Now we just need some Replicants in the next film to understand why they're so angry about being lost like "tears in the rain."

 Well, it's like I said: those are the answers, and in the context of the film, they make sense. They don't make Prometheus a better movie, but I hope they help address some of your concerns.

* It's about 35 seconds into the clip.

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