So, Prometheus. Eagerly anticipated, endlessly speculated about, and therefore pretty much guaranteed to disappoint everyone!
Actually, I thought there was a great deal about it that was excellent. It’s an intelligent attempt to broaden the Alien universe, to ask big questions, to tackle big issues, and yet reference some of the key elements of the earlier films – artificial intelligence, the biology of alien lifeforms, and the conflict between profit, scientific curiosity and survival.
It doesn’t always succeed. Indeed, some of those issues may be near-impossible to tackle: I have yet to see a movie, Hollywood or indie, that has anything profound or illuminating to say about religious faith. Any attempt to seriously explore the nature of belief invariably ends up shallow, mawkish, or awkwardly preachy. As a Christian, I find this both frustrating and strangely reassuring. Storytelling is a process of metaphors, after all, and perhaps the best way to approach profound themes in our work is metaphorically. Stories are there to teach us how to live, not which creed to believe or which rules to follow. And a good thing too.
Anyway, Prometheus. I wonder if the problems with the flagging, slightly muddled second act lie not so much in the writing but in the genre – the exploration movie?
Movies about people going out and exploring stuff have been around a long time, but they’ve never been a major genre. Or perhaps it’s fairer to say they’ve never been a genre in and of themselves – because in fact, most movies about exploration change genre in the second act.
Take Alien, which begins with the crew of an ordinary vessel being diverted from their journey home to investigate a planet for unknown reasons. But as we all know, the movie changes course – and genre – where there’s a kind of late, secondary inciting incident involving John Hurt and a facehugger. Now we have a horror movie, and exploration is out of the window.
Similarly, Indiana Jones may set off to explore some fascinating archeological evidence, but invariably there’s a secondary inciting incident that propels the movie into an action-adventure, and Indy spends the rest of the movie punching Nazis.
Prometheus may contain a few horror tropes – and some of them are certainly horrific! – but it never changes genre. Right to the very last frame, it’s firmly about the search for the origins of life and the meaning that knowledge would give to human existence.
The problem is, that may be what dooms the story – because the explorer is just there to explore. He arrives, he looks, he tries to get back home in one piece. He’s a detached observer –
And that’s the one thing the protagonist of a movie can never be. Alien could never be about the crew discovering an alien life form and studying it, without mishaps, on the way back to earth. Indy can’t just discover that Nazis want a magical artefact and say “That’s very interesting.”. In order to be a protagonist, he can’t simply observe: he has to make a moral choice and take action based on it.
The protagonist of Prometheus is never faced with a moral choice. She’s never asked to help save lives, to choose between humans and aliens and androids, decide whether to share her research or not, or tackle any other moral quandary that the situation might produce. She just keeps on sifting the evidence for scientific, academic answers.
Which makes her a great scientist, but just maybe, not a very satisfying movie protagonist…