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A Few Lessons from Prometheus
Recently I wanted to elaborate on my blog post, and I found myself focusing on Prometheus while thinking about it. This was specifically because I thought, when compared to Alien, it acts as a blueprint for what not to do in terms of concealment. So I thought I’d outline a two of the most important lessons this film taught me.
The first point is that isn’t it way scarier to watch the watch the first Alien and wonder, “if that random planet has spider monsters just laying around like spare parts at an Ikea shop, what else is out there!?”. Where as in contrast, is Prometheus really scary? As it elevates the significance of the aliens in the mythology, so too does it elevate the significance of humans until we’re basically both the result of ancient alien engineers, inherently tying our past, present and future together.
But cosmic horror only works if we’re insignificant. As a tale increasingly elevates the significance of a villain, so too does it elevate the significance of the hero. This is a problem in a lot of ways because horror really thrives when it downplays humanity’s significance. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not an absolute rule and it’s rather specific to cosmic horror, but I think the whole alien franchise suffered as it became clear that there’s probably only ever other aliens out there. Even in Alien vs Predator the fates of all three species are closely intertwined. And, as scary as aliens are, it soon becomes clear it’s all you’re going to find out there in this world. That’s predictable, and it’s not that scary. A horror story is best when it leaves you asking,
“What else is out there? What was I not shown?”
To break from Promethus, consider how Abandoned by Disney begs the question,
“what else is Disney hiding?”
Cosmic horror pulls this off by downplaying humanity’s insignificance. But other stories do other things. Dracula drives home how vampires can be so charming, and superficially able to blend amongst us. Frankenstein drives home that scientific advances can lead to terror, and science was booming at the time, and still is. The Exorcist raises the question of "what other demons are out there, waiting to possess us?". Even Evil Dead, which happily flaunts the "keep the monsters hidden" rule, still left me asking, "Jesus Christ, what the hell is on the other pages of the Necronomicon if you can flip it open at random and get a tree rape murder party?"
The second lesson is that a story has to make sense. Let’s look at one glaring plot hole in Prometheus. For me this is the worst plot hole because it occurs early on, and because it punched me so hard in the face I immediately recognized it as a plot hole as I was watching the scene unfold.
It’s the scene where a biologist (as in a person who went to university for three years, secured a master’s degree after another year, then studied for PhD for another three years, before then presumably having a career for many years afterwards) decided to pet a space snake. I can’t rip into this scene hard enough. All animals on Earth are instinctively programmed to avoid snakes, to the point where they’re one of the most common phobias in humans. They’re basically spines that felt the need to forget about limbs because they are that fucking dangerous, they don’t need them. All scientists should realize that touching a wild snake from another planet while it enlarges itself and makes a hissing noise (the default signal for leave me alone) is so profoundly stupid it stops being feasible. And this is unforgiveable because it's really not hard to convince an audience that a horror character is acting stupidly for a reason.
Did you know in the original script the ship had to choose idiots? Because the ship was a private venture, and because what it was doing was profoundly illegal, and Weyland also wanted to keep the whole eternal life thing under wraps, the recruitment for the ship specifically sought scientists who had no viable careers in academia, and who no one would miss. In other words, the biologist of that movie was barely a biologist at all, but more like the dumbest human alive who had managed to trip through a biology degree. I can’t remember exactly, but I think they specifically recruited the biologist because he had a criminal history involving copious amounts of drugs (so it would make sense if he just disappeared).
But that’s not a justified conclusion to make from the final product. All characters must behave in a consistent manner, such that if a character performs an action that is heroic it must have been established that the character has heroic tendencies. If a character does something stupid, it must be established that they are stupid. Or rather, their stupid behaviour must be justified from their point of view (even smart people can act stupidly). A character doesn’t have to be rational, rather they only ever have to be believable. This is an essential tool to develop because you will often need to justify behaviour that will involve moving towards a dangerous place, be it a haunted house, a distress beacon on a planet, an abandoned insane asylum, a graveyard, Bill Cosby's house after 6pm… Jokes aside it amazes me how many writers craft stories that don’t make sense at a fundamental level.
The original Prometheus script is full of similar moments that rectify a lot of the criticisms people like me had. It’s incredible how glaring plot holes like the above can be mitigated with very little effort. When the script makes it clear that they intentionally sought morons, who could be easily manipulated to crew the ship, that guy’s stupidity actually makes sense. Now, I’m willing to buy that whole scene because it hinges on the guy being a moron. But otherwise, the movie is asking me to believe that a scientist would do something most children would know not to do, without giving me one single credible reason.
One line though. It takes one line of dialogue in the original script to fix that problem.
So what this teaches me is that all concealment is not equal. Concealing the motivations behind a non-villainous character doesn’t always make sense, and any part of a story that is plot critical should be established in a way that feels natural. If you want a character to jump really far you can’t introduce that character trait as they’re jumping. Rather, it makes more sense to begin the story as they’re practicing the long jump at school, or in an athletic facility. If you want a serial killer who can be stabbed a million times and survive, you need to establish to the audience that such a feat is supernatural, and not just a plot hole (you could have the police find signs of witchcraft in his hideout). So we need to be careful about when we decide to take a minimalist approach, which is ubiquitous in horror, because it’ll often be tempting to leave us with a plot that’s full of holes.
And if someone says, “this doesn’t make sense” chances are, it doesn’t. Concealment is not a universal rule that lets you obliterate common sense, it's there to fulfil a specific role. Once again this kind of returns to a point I made in my last point - take feedback seriously. If you have failed to convince someone of something that's on you most of the time. And it's really no excuse to get upset either, because you can often fix the problem with very little effort.
In summary, horror needs to balance a conceal and reveal interplay that drives home the fact that the world is potentially full of nasty things in a way that is unpredictable. A good horror should leave you asking, “What else is out there?” The second thing to learn is that a character’s behaviours, and the plot, should make sense. And while it’s very easy to cut something that robs the plot of logic, it also doesn’t take a lot to convince the audience. People will take only one or two pieces of evidence and consider it sufficient to justify all sorts of nonsense. Ultimately, what we hide, what we let loose for the audience to see… these things need a balanced, working relationship.
So I hope people find this interesting like the last one. I'd love to read more comments and discussions. I think there's a lot to be said for these issues with regards to creepypasta and loads of other stories/films etc, but here I wanted to focus on one film just to keep myself from rambling.