Captain America: The Winter Soldier and the New Hollywood Paradigm

From unpromising beginnings – “He’s a WW2 soldier who fights Nazis and literally dresses in the US flag?”  – the Captain America movies are proving to be the most intelligent, dependable and daring features of the Marvel Studios multiverse. The Winter Soldier is a smart, right-wing-baiting conspiracy thriller that starts off as a terrific action romp, and suddenly develops a raw emotional heart that’s delighted fans and played surprisingly well to those with no knowledge of the backstory (which includes me, to be honest).

I’m probably going to have things to say about the Winter Soldier himself, if you know what I mean, but I’ll give you a little longer to catch up before venturing into spoiler territory. For now, let’s take a quick look at the movie and how it illuminates Marvel Studios’ wider aims.

It’s a hugely enjoyable and hugely emotional movie, but in some weird ways, it’s strangely un-movie-like. (Yes, I know that’s not a word. It’s Sunday afternoon, cut me some slack…)

For a start, The Winter Soldier is unashamedly open-ended. While other story lines begin, develop and resolve as normal, the arc involving the two title characters reaches an emotional peak, but not a conclusion. (In traditional screenwriting parlance, that particular story is only at the end of act two – the ‘dark point’ or ‘all is lost’ – as the film concludes, and one of the credit scenes would play well as the beginning of act three, the moment where new information triggers change…)

The movie also splits its screen time between multiple characters without losing focus or audience interest. In other words, it’s a team movie in all but name. It namechecks and references a wider universe, even featuring characters who’ve been bit players in previous movies as major players. It ends by turning the dramatic universe upside-down, and then sets its characters going in new directions. They are not satisfied and changed, as movie characters are supposed to be: instead they’re in transition, going on to new challenges.

All of these are elements that you find in television drama – many commenters have called Marvel Studios supremo Kevin Feige the most powerful TV showrunner on the planet – but there’ s somewhere they’re even more common…

In the individual storylines and limited runs that make up comic book continuity. In a very real sense, Marvel Studios is not creating movies – it’s creating a new comic book universe, one that just happens to be made of actors and film rather than paper and pen.

Of course, comic books have been turned into movies before: some successfully, some… not so much. But until now, the basics of the story have been taken out and shaped into movie form. It feels to me that Marvel Studios are increasingly abandoning that approach, and instead shaping our perception of movies into something more like what we experience from long-term comic book reading.

Can this approach succeed? Possibly. There are dangers. Lack of closure is traditionally considered fatal to a movie. The Winter Soldier has a hugely powerful emotional hook, which helps, and it also plays to our perception that “the second in a trilogy is always open-ended”, as established by The Empire Strikes Back. But will other, similar movies succeed without those advantages?

There’s also the “you have to collect them all” effect, where audiences  feel that if they miss a movie in this wider universe, they’ll no longer understand what’s going on, and they lose interest. And they may even resent being manoeuvred into paying out for two or three 3D movies every year to keep up with the story world.

But the biggest danger is one that’s haunted comics for years – lack of consequences. If character X turns up as a guest in character Y’s comic and then seems to be in danger of dying, is she going to die? Of course no. She has her own title, and she’s a guest star in character Z’s title next month. She ain’t going nowhere.

Franchises already suffer from lack of consequences; it’s hard to imagine Mission: Impossible killing off Ethan Hunt, say. An expended movie universe, where every creative decision has an affect on the profit margins of five upcoming blockbusters, may finally leave us floundering in a story world where no one ever dies, and therefore, nothing ever matters.

And yet this expanded movie-comic universe has a lot going for it, too. Rich characters, intertwined stories, a depth of worldbuilding that’s rare in movies. I’m very interested to see how all this turns out…

Book Review: Writing & Selling Thriller Screenplays

Slightly late on this one – Writing & Selling Thriller Screenplays by Lucy V Hay came out a few  months ago, and I’ve been meaning to review it ever since… But finally, here we are!

Thrillers are one of the best genres for new writers to work in. They’re relatively cheap to make, can attract good audiences if the concept is strong enough, and well-written thriller roles can attract name actors.

Unfortunately, they’re also one of the hardest genres to write. They require a strong mastery of plot, but unless they have well-realised characters and original plot twists as well, they can fade into the thousands of other generic thrillers in your Netflix queue.

So what can we learn from Lucy V Hay to improve our chances as thriller writers?

The book starts with a definition of thrillers – an interesting one, actually, utilizing the “fight or flight” reflex as a primary reference. Hay then looks at the various sub-categories of the thriller, and common issues in spec thriller screenplays.

Where the book gets really interesting is in the characterization section. Hay addresses the overwhelmingly white, male, heterosexual nature of the thriller to date, pointing out that the white heterosexual male hero is often every bit as stereotyped as the female or gay characters. She points out that many thrillers only feature only one female character, as if being “the girl” was sufficient characterization for her, and as if having more than one female was somehow unnecessary. Then she takes an interesting look at atypical thriller characters, and how avoiding character clichés can strengthen your story.

The book then takes a look at writing the thriller screenplay, applying the usual structures and techniques in a specific thriller context. There’s good stuff here, especially if you’re not experienced at constructing and writing screenplays, but few of the structural pointers will be genuinely new to anyone to anyone who’s read other screenwriting guides.

Then there’s a section on getting the screenplay made – pitching, the workings of the industry, and a useful section on budget (it’s surprisingly hard for an inexperienced writer to tell what will be expensive and what won’t!) There’s also a useful section of writing resources and resources looking at the thriller.

So what’s the verdict?

Writing & Selling Thriller Screenplays is an excellent reference for anyone starting to write and thinking of beginning with a thriller. It’s also a good quick catch-up for anyone wanting to check up on the basics before their next screenplay – and the section on characterisation applies across pretty much every genre. So if thrillers are a subject of interest to you, take a look!

Writing & Selling Thriller Screenplays by Lucy V Hay, in the Creative Essentials series from Kamera Books  (kamerabooks.com)

The Trouble With Spy Movies

I think I’ve worked out why spy movies are so hard to write – and often, hard to sell to an audience.

They shouldn’t be. We all love a spy: dashing, clever, constantly in danger, a chameleon changing name and appearance the way we change our clothes. They’re the person we want to be – free from the rule of law, free to do whatever it takes to save the world.

Ah yes, there lies the rub. Saving the world.

It used to be so simple. There was Them and there was Us, clearly defined by geography as well as ideology. One day We would win and They would lose, and every fictional spy’s actions took us closer to that day.

Things are not so certain any more, and that’s what’s killing the spy movie.

The problem with any contemporary espionage movie is there is no end to the problem. Destroy one terror cell, a dozen more spring up. One idealistic young recruit learns the hard way that espionage is a dirty business, and walks away; a hundred more will sign up next week. One traitor is hunted down; plenty more remain undetected. The battle is endless, and therefore meaningless.

The spying business has become just that: a business. Just like Apple or Wal-Mart, the CIA or MI5 plug away, maintaining their market share and producing the occasional innovation that puts them at the top of the tree for a while. Now, Wal-Mart is never going to wipe out every rival store: even if a rival does go out of business, it will eventually be replaced by a new start-up. Businesses don’t “win” – they stay in business, make a profit, stay out of trouble, and everyone keeps their jobs.

So with intelligence agencies. The “profit” they make is lives saved and scandals avoided, the “loss” is lives lost and scandals that leak out. As long as the profit outweighs the loss, they stay in business. But there is no winning any more.

And movies are in the business of winning.

That’s how we measure a happy ending: the hero “wins”, whether that’s by getting the love interest, reuniting their family, or literally saving the world. We want our heroes to change the world around them, obviously and permanently. But in the modern world of espionage, there is no permanent change, just another item ticked off on the to-do list.

It’s interesting that the truly successful spy movies of recent years have tried to find ways to avoid the new moral landscape. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a period piece; the Bourne movies are paranoia thrillers rather than true spy movies; Bond and Mission: Impossible create supervillains who transcend the normal scale of espionage, whose defeat can be final and definite.

Those that have stuck more closely to the traditional formula – Spy Game, The Recruit and The Harsh Light Of Day spring to mind – have found it a lot harder to capture the public imagination…

Who Are You Calling A Bad Guy?

In the movie Wreck-It Ralph, unhappy video game villain Ralph is fed up with his lot in life. A well-meaning fellow villain encouragingly tells him “Ralph, just because you are ’bad guy’ doesn’t mean you are bad guy.”

True enough. But Star Trek Into Darkness is probably the first film I’ve seen where the villain is debatably more moral than the hero.

Don’t believe me? Okay…

Star Trek Into Darkness spoilers! And I mean BIG spoilers!!!!

Stop now if you haven’t seen the movie!

Still with me?

Okay then.

Taking the plot in chronological order: Khan is awoken by Admiral Marcus and manipulated into helping Marcus prepare for – even provoke – a war with the Klingons. Khan has no choice: his crew, his ’family’, are being held hostage by a ruthless man (said ruthlessness is later demonstrated on screen by Marcus’ behaviour towards Kirk and his crew, so Khan is clearly right to fear him.)

Understandably, Khan tries to escape Marcus’ clutches. Not, we should note, by attacking Marcus. There’s no evidence his scheme to smuggle his sleeping crewmates out of Marcus’ clutches involves any violence.

The scheme is discovered, and the missiles are removed from Khan’s control. He tells Kirk later that he assumed his crew had been murdered. Which is fair enough: Marcus has a big secret to conceal, the crew are evidence against him, and, as we’ve already noted, Marcus is quite prepared to kill to achieve his ends.

So, Khan sets out for revenge against the whole of Starfleet. Maybe an overreaction. But Khan presumably has no idea how official Marcus’ actions were, or which officers are corrupt and which aren’t. For all he knows, they’re all guilty.

He comes up with an elaborate plan to bomb the facility he worked for. (Worth remembering that everyone there is breaking Starfleet regulations by functioning as a spy agency.) That plan involves offering a father a choice no parent would refuse: but it is a choice. He could refuse. Marcus later claims he was ’forced’ to commit the bombing, but Marcus would say that, wouldn’t he…

People die, here and in Khan’s later attack on Starfleet HQ. Few of them deserve it. I wouldn’t justify that objectively –  but in cinematic terms, we’ve excused far worse when it was committed by a character labelled ’hero’ instead of ’villain’. If, say, Bruce Willis’ family were killed by corrupt cops, and he then took an attack helicopter to their precinct, killing corrupt and honest cops alike, we’d probably cheer him on.

Khan goes to ground on the Klingon homeworld, which initially feels like a dumb choice for a genius: but in fact, it gets him exactly what he wants. Marcus puts the missiles in space, on board the Enterprise, where Khan has a chance of getting to them and verifying whether his crew are dead or still in there.

While on the Enterprise, Khan is a model prisoner. He tells the truth when questioned, makes no attempt to escape (despite being inexplicably transferred to the insecure sick bay), and warns Kirk about the danger he’s in. He doesn’t even resist when Kirk tries to beat the crap out of him after his surrender.

Under threat from Marcus, Kirk asks Khan for help to infiltrate the enemy ship. Despite Kirk’s suspicions, he does nothing during the infiltration to betray their alliance. Indeed, he saves Kirk’s life on the journey between ships (self-interest, perhaps, but I bet Khan could have taken that ship alone – or at least believes that he could…)

And, at the moment their alliance triumphs over Marcus and they take his ship, the deal is broken – by Kirk!

Recovering from being maliciously stunned, Khan finally snaps. He brutally attacks his betrayers, threatens to wipe out the entire crew in order to get his people back, then opens fire on the Enterprise. Hardly saintly, but this is a desperate man trying to protect his crew from a man who’s used and betrayed him…

And who can blame him? It turns out that Spock programmed the missiles he just beamed aboard to explode – and Khan has no idea his unconscious crew were removed first, remember. He thinks his people are dead. His suicide run at Starfleet HQ is the last revenge of a man who’s lost everything…

Ah, I hear you cry. But Khan is a war criminal, a genetic Nazi who wiped out those who didn’t live up to his idea of perfection…

But is that even true? Admiral Marcus says Khan’s a convicted criminal, but we’re way past believing him. Alternate Spock from a parallel universe says that the Khan he knew did terrible things. Does that necessarily mean this Khan did?

And it’s worth remembering that if the writers wanted us to be sure of Khan’s evil past, Kirk or any of his crew could have obtained evidence from another source, one less equivocal than a traitorous general or an alternate timestream. But they didn’t.

So taking all this into account, isn’t there an argument to be made that Khan is equally moral – perhaps even more moral – than Kirk?

Am I being disingenuous? Perhaps. But my point is, the labels we apply to our characters are powerful tools. “Hero” and “Villain” have a way of twisting the audience’s perception of what a character does and how justified they are in doing it. So when we use these labels, let’s use them wisely…

Things I Learned From… Being Human

So BBC Three’s most successful series so far, Being Human, has finally shuffled off this mortal coil. It leaves behind a lot of fans, a US remake, and a whole lot of questions about what the final shot of the season finale really meant  (for those who didn’t see it, think Inception…)

Fantasy and supernatural drama, for adults and for children, has a long and glorious history in Britain. Even before the era of TV, Britain was the land of the ghost story, the legend, the haunted burial mound and the sprite in the well. Perhaps this stems from the collision of so many ancient cultures – and their rich and conflicting myths – as Britain was settled and re-settled before, during and after the Roman era. Perhaps it’s to do with the influence of the Welsh, Scots and Irish on English culture, or the many dangers that “the wild” held in a land of widely varied habitats and changeable, threatening weather.

What we hadn’t mastered, until Tony Whitehouse showed the way, was moving that rich world of the supernatural into the very urban, inter-connected, cynical world of the 21st Century. Being Human places the ghost, the vampire and the werewolf into our everyday reality, and manages to preserve the threat they present while mining absurd humour and touching moments from their new surroundings.

The vampires in particular – always the most predatorial of the myths, at least until they were made vegetarian and sparkly for teenage romances – are both dangerous manipulators and killers, and pathetically deluded, self-important posers, who, as Mitchell points out, have been claiming their time is about to come since the Dark Ages. The werewolves are victims of their inner beast, but some of them are pretty monstrous as humans too. The ghosts, anchored by past regrets, may be a lot less dangerous, but they’re quickly revealed as the emotional heart of the impromptu ‘families’ that spring up throughout the series – and that gives them power for good and for ill.

Their habitat has changed from the dark forest to the crummy bedsit and the minimum-wage job – but isn’t that pretty much where we dump our ‘outsiders’ now? The threats to their existence come not from witchfinders and wolf hunters, but from the press, the curious, and most of all, the people they love. And wasn’t that always the way?

‘Reinventing’ or ‘reimagining’ a classic story or myth is a process of getting to the core of the story and finding out what it’s really “about” at this moment in time.

Are the Sherlock Holmes stories about a brilliant detective and his assistant, or about two men who don’t really fit into their society, and find a job that allows them to interact with it from the outside? Is Robin Hood really about robbing the rich and feeding the poor, or about a world that’s crumbling from the top down, and an attempt to build a new, fairer, more stable society?

Maybe, maybe not. A story varies depending on when you try to tell it. Medieval Robin Hood ballads bear little resemblance to the story we tell today, and we view Victorian tales of derring-do in Africa and India very differently to the way their first readers did. Every time we tell a story, we filter it through our own culture, preoccupations and preconceptions. That’s one of the reasons we can keep telling the classic tales – every telling is a new story.

So if placing a werewolf, a ghost and a vampire in a crummy flat in Bristol can create an entire new mythology, what could you create by filtering a classic story or character through your unique point of view…?

Vampire, Werewolf, or Ghost?

On Twitter the other day, someone was joking that, in the wake of Being Human, they now look at every new character in any TV show and ask themselves “werewolf, vampire or ghost?”

It’s an intriguing thought, especially when applied to Coronation Street! But actually, isn’t there something we can learn from this as writers?

As we all know, every fictional character needs a flaw. Perfect people are unconvincing, undramatic, and don’t generate interesting plots and conflicts in the way that characters with flaws and failings do.

And you could make the case that all character flaws fall into three categories: vampire, werewolf and ghost.

The vampires are self-obsessed. It’s all about them: their needs, their wants, their desires. They’re the characters who need to learn to care about others – everyone from the grizzled action hero who needs to learn to reconnect with humanity, to the work- obsessed dad who needs to value his family above his job.

The werewolves are decent people, but they’re at the mercy of their deepest desires. They’re the junkies, the alcoholics, the thieves and the people who can’t stop running their mouth. They’re the big flashy roles that stars are often drawn to, because they have a lot to overcome during the course of the film or series.

And lastly, the ghosts. The ghosts are haunted by the past. They have unfinished business, physical or (more likely) emotional, that they need to deal with during the course of the story. Their story will only be over when they learn to move on and live in the present, not the past.

So, is your hero a vampire, a werewolf or a ghost?

Unstoppable Force, Meet Immovable Object

One of the phrases you hear bandied around in film and in television on both sides of the pond is “high concept”. It gets misused a lot, and not only by amateurs and newbies – but essentially it’s a term for stories that could be summarised in one sentence, stories that any busy exec could grasp even if a writer button-holed him in an elevator for thirty seconds. One of the most famous classic high-concept pitches was the pitch for Alien, which, allegedly, was just  “It’s Jaws in space.”

Another superb high-concept pitch sold today, according to Variety: an R-rated comedy called “Cherries” from writers Jim Kehoe and Brian Kehoe.

“Cherries” follows three naive dads who set out to stop their daughters from making good on a pact to lose their virginity on prom night.

More details, courtesy of Scott Myers at Go Into The Story, at  http://gointothestory.blcklst.com/2012/11/spec-script-sale-cherries.html .

Not really my kind of movie, but damn, great concept!

But wait a minute, there’s something else we can learn about movie concepts here. “Cherries” isn’t just an idea, it’s a conflict. And it’s a conflict in which neither side is going to give way.

Those dads are determined to keep their daughters pure as the driven snow; the daughters are determined to go all the way on this very special night. Can you see either side backing down? Agreeing to give up and go home? Even finding a compromise?

Nope. And those are the kinds of conflicts that drive movies. James Bond and Blofeld will never agree to disagree. The shark in Jaws won’t listen to a reasoned argument. Old Joe and Young Joe in Looper will never find a compromise that gives them both what they want.

If there’s no way you can imagine either side in your central conflict giving way, then you’ve got yourself a movie…

Where Is As Important As What

I’ve touched on the importance of setting in a couple of other posts, but I thought it might be useful to consider some of the ways  the physical location and the social location (the community it takes place in) can affect your story.

Stop for a moment and think of a few movies where you found the settings particularly memorable. Why was that?

It was probably because the setting was thematically linked to the plot in some way. The best locations for stories symbolically reinforce the central character’s situation and desires.  A character who feels trapped, and lives in the shadow of a prison, or in a house full of locks and a high-tech alarm system,  finds her inner feelings mirrored in the physical setting. Alternatively, her desire for escape might be manifested in the flocks of birds that wheel over the garden every day, or the busy train station just across the road.

Additionally, choosing the right location can provide opportunities for the plot.  One of the key skills to writing action scenes for Hollywood movies is the ability to find the right setting for each scene. The confrontation between the hero and the villain in an ice cream shop will be very different to the same confrontation on a building site. There’ll be different objects to hand to use as weapons, different places to hide, different means of escape. You may not be writing action scenes, but in the same way, you can use the setting to provide the things you need to make your story work – obstacles, allies, enemies and problems.

Choosing the right setting can create a vivid social world for your central character to inhabit. If a key point in the story is your central character’s relationship with the neighbours, then you can have him living on a busy suburban street – or you might want to have only two cottages down an isolated country lane to intensify the relationship between two families. If the central character is going to try to kill his wife, then have them live somewhere that provides interesting opportunities for murder and for the disposal of the body.

It can introduce a unique element into a familiar story.  If the plot or even the characters of your story are fairly well-worn, you can create additional interest by placing the whole thing in an unusual physical or social setting. Instead of setting your family drama on a housing estate, why not locate it in the married quarters of an army base, or among the live-in staff of a public school?   Instead of a tough comprehensive, have your teacher teach at a Steiner school, or a specialist school for children with autism. A little research into this unfamiliar world, and you create a whole new level of interest for your readers.

A well-chosen setting gives a level of realism to a fantastical plot.  This is the approach we took with Wolfblood – everything’s the same as real life, except that some characters are Wolfbloods. The characters struggle with homework, friendships, parents and money troubles – oh, and a few other problems when the moon rises. The ordinary, everyday setting “grounds” our supernatural story in a world that feels familiar and real.

Alternatively, you can set the story in a fantastical version of reality, showing the reader that they’re entering into a new world where new rules apply. Alice In Wonderland shows us a fantastical version of Victorian society, where society is reflected in a distorting mirror and all the rules are changed. In contrast, The Water Babies sets a tale of the supernatural against the grim reality of life as a child chimney sweep. Both have extremely vivid, effective settings – they’re just different approaches.

So, how can you use a thematically appropriate, vivid setting to make your story stronger and more believable?

The Hero Behind The Mask

Superheroes make for great movies. The mythic figures of our time, demi-gods in lycra, they serve the same dramatic purposes as ancient heroes – wish fulfillment, role models, inspirations, a reassurance in a dark world that there are people who do the right thing and take responsibility for making the world a better place.

Of course, like ancient heroes, they have their dark side. They’re self-selected, unaccountable, and they frequently seek to overcome violence with violence, a tactic that’s usually spectacularly unsuccessful in the real world. As contrived as the “superhero loses his mind and turns evil!” storyline can sometimes seem, it embodies a real truth: the hero is only ever a few steps away from becoming the villain.

But there’s something else about superheroes that we as writers ought to bear in mind: something that might go some way to explaining why some superhero movies fail and others are huge hits.

Superheroes can be utterly unsympathetic figures, because they’re not like us.

The mythic hero is a distant figure, a divine being on a pedestal. His abilities, his personality, his morals and his ethical concerns are very different to ours. We may admire him, but we can never be like him.

Which is why – unlike the great heroes of the Greek, Roman and Norse pantheons, and most cultures around the world – superheroes have alter-egos. Cover identities. Human selves, effectively. And the greater the disconnect between the alter-ego and the hero, the more effective the character – and, off the top of my head, the more successful the film.

Who are the two most popular comic-book superheroes? Batman and Superman, both of whom have cover identities very much at odds with their costumed selves. Big disconnect = big box office. Now let’s take Green Lantern – who, at least as portrayed in the recent film, was very much the same reckless, immature person, in or out of the mask. Zero disconnect = so-so reviews and disappointing box office.

This understanding goes back as far as the 1960’s, at least in comic books. Marvel’s heroes are deliberately ordinary, young, and physically imposing: teenagers, nerds, scientists. Firmly at odds with their abilities and skills, And in film form, Marvel’s heroes have consistently outperformed DC’s heroes at the box office (though identifiable alter-egos are far from the only reason for that!)

Okay, you’re about to say Iron Man disproves my theory, aren’t you? Well, I would say he doesn’t. Tony Stark may think he’s the same swaggering badass in the suit and out of it, but I’d assert that out of it, he’s damaged, careless of others’ feelings, self-centered, and self-indulgent. In the suit, he can suppress that side of himself just long enough to be a hero. Indeed, The Avengers revolves thematically around the idea of consciously “putting on the suit”; becoming, at least for a few glorious moments, the best ‘you’ that you can be.

So, if you ever find yourself writing a mythic hero, think for a moment about who she is when she takes off the mask. The greater the change she undergoes, the better your story.

Things I Learned From… Prometheus

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…