By now the secret must surely be out that, while I absolutely loved looking at “Prometheus”, I absolutely hated it from a narrative perspective. It was kind of like being exposed to the ebola virus at the Playboy Mansion. As I’ve said before, I don’t think a movie has ever worked harder to insult an audience’s intelligence. People have fallen in love with the big ideas of “Prometheus”, namely its creative take on the origin of man and the possibility that alien life forms could have sowed the seeds of life on Earth—a scenario so utterly groundbreaking and original that H.P. Lovecraft wrote a whole book about it in 1931 (“At the Mountains of Madness”) and Stanley Kubrick did a movie on it in 1968 (if you don’t know which movie I’m talking about, just go ahead and stop reading this right now). Yeah, “Prometheus” was a visual feast for the ideas, but I have never gotten so progressively more pissed off in the days following a movie as I have contemplating the asinine decisions and motivations of characters in that movie.
I think what pisses me off more than anything about “Prometheus” is that if it were a book that I had written, I would never be able to sell it to an agent. They would say the first half drags too much, the ideas are too unoriginal, the characters too cardboard, the dialogue is too corny, and the ending is too unsatisfying and open-ended. “Prometheus” is all of those things. Instead, though, it’s a multi-million-dollar blockbuster that some folks are praising as a masterpiece and I’m still trying to sell my first novel! Okay, I’m a little bitter; I’ll admit it. Nevertheless, “Prometheus” is a veritable master class in how not to write and how not to tell a story and I thought I’d weigh in on that pejorative statement.
“PROMETHEUS” SPOILERS AHEAD!!!
1. Having More Characters Does Not Always Make a Story Better – One of the first reviews I read for “Prometheus” promised me nightmares. The only nightmare from “Prometheus” that has stuck with me, however, is its atrocious character development. Now, nobody throws more characters into his books than George R. R. Martin. There are more people in the Game of Thrones saga than live in Kentucky (okay, okay…not that many, but it’s CLOSE), but it works because every person in Martin’s saga fits perfectly into his universe. Every person builds upon the story or adds to it in some minute way that is always brilliantly executed. Also it’s fantasy and your book doesn’t even qualify if you don’t have like at least 300 characters.
What made “Alien” so great is that, with only seven or eight characters, we knew just enough about each one of them. What so many people forget is that Ripley was not the clear heroine of that film—she was only the survivor. That was an interesting approach by Ridley Scott and it made that story more engaging because the monster was so (literally) alien and horrific and the audience had no clue of knowing who would come out alive. Books tend to need a little bit more of an anchor, but if there is one thing we can learn from “Game of Thrones” it’s that even books don’t need protagonists so long as all the characters are fascinating and well-constructed.
2. Sane Characters Must Behave Rationally – Nothing annoyed me more about “Prometheus” than the Horror B-Movie motivations and decisions of its characters. If you are writing fiction, characters simply cannot do things only because it forwards the plot. No, the plot must move forward as a consequence of characters making rational decisions. Some writers sweep this rule under a rug and are forgiven because whatever is happening is just that good. Other (and better) writers will subtly dodge this rule from time to time, but mostly adhere to it. Then you have “Prometheus”, which basically said “rationality? WTF is rationality?”
One of the most glaring examples of this rule to be found in “Prometheus” involves two characters that all haters of that movie now know well: The Mohawked geologist and his wily biologist sidekick. During “Prometheus” when the group of explorers is working its way deep into an ancient alien ruin, these two characters make the rational decision to become extremely frightened of the unknown and decide they would feel safer in the ship. Logical decision! However, the two immediately become lost (despite the fact that one of them was in charge of mapping the damn place) and end up wandering around the ruins and becoming progressively more freaked out. In truth, they have no purpose but to tell us, the audience, how scary the place is because the visuals don’t do it justice after 35 years of watching “Alien”. Later on, the two characters happen back upon the very room they were initially too afraid to go inside and what do they do? They go barging into the room without a care in the world and start poking alien snakes in the damn eyeball.
Yeah, that doesn’t end well for them.
The point, though, is that your characters have to be consistent. A “cowardly character” cannot just suddenly be overcome by a stirring bout of courage unless something else has happened first. For example, maybe that character just had some great spiritual awakening—maybe something utterly cathartic that liberated said character from the shackles of cowardice and now that character can finally be brave! If it doesn’t happen on the page, though, it NEVER happened. Why not, you ask?
3. The Audience Needs SOME Context – Because the reader has no context. If a character is cripplingly cowardly, we need some indication as to why he or she is that way. Is your character afraid of entering ancient alien ruins that look utterly creepy and deathly? Okay, that doesn’t need much context. But does your character decide “Well, maybe it’s not so bad” only ten minutes later? The audience/reader needs some indication as to why the character abruptly feels exactly the opposite as he or she did earlier.
“Prometheus” is full of characters who behave in strange ways that are never explained to the audience. You have Charlie—everyone’s whipping boy, it seems—who wakes up one morning and decides to be a raving d-bag to the ship’s resident android and the audience is never given a reason why. Was he molested by a Furby as a child? We’ll never know. The only thing we do know is that this guy hates a charming and debonair robot modeled after Michael Fassbender and the writer, Damon Lindelof, tells us to just blindly accept it, despite the fact that I, personally, would be doing everything in my power to make sure that I DON’T piss off the soulless android who basically looks after me while I’m asleep.
Furthermore, that mohawked dude I mentioned earlier shows back up after basically being killed and he has clearly been exposed to some sort of pathogen or substance that is not good for humans. What does it do to him, though? It clearly gives him superhuman-like powers and enables him to go on a horrible killing spree that decimates half of the unnecessary characters wandering around the ship. Pro-Tip: If your book requires spontaneous “cleaning” wherein one character abruptly murders exactly half of all the other characters and you never feel the need to explain how or why that just happened, throw away your manuscript and start from scratch, but this time, do not include those characters and do not include anything building up to that scene. It’s a ludicrous and offensive moment that will only piss off all your readers.
I’m living proof of that.
4. The Author Must Choose What to Explain and HOW to Explain It – Another beautiful thing about science fiction is when authors don’t overexplain—in other words, when a writer doesn’t explain his way well past the fiction. Remember how awesome The Force was in the first “Star Wars” movies? Then remember how much The Force blew when George Lucas had Liam Neeson make up some bulls*** about midochlorians or something being responsible for it? Wasn’t The Force so much cooler when we didn’t have an explanation for it? Well, the same can probably be said for the iconic xenomorph from the Alien franchise. At the end of the day, I think we’ll all be able to say that “Alien” was cooler before “Prometheus” came along and explained who or what the “Space Jockey”/”Engineer” was.
In my upcoming sci-fi book, I’m telling a story about the future of The World Cup in a post-apocalyptic world that is radically different from our own. But I will NOT tell the audience much about how the world got to that point. I won’t describe the exact nature of the apocalypse except for what the reader needs to know, because my novel is not about the set up, but about what came afterwards. I’m only looking to establish my world, without explaining every little detail of its origin. I only plan to give the reader exactly what he or she needs to know to accept the world I’ve created and to enjoy my story.
In “Prometheus”’s defense, the movie is not terrible on this front. What I love about the early scenes on the ship is that everything is instantly identifiable…but somewhat different, or “futurized”, and that works.
5. Today’s Readers Know When Something is Tacked On (Sometimes) – Maybe it’s just me and a reflection of my evolution as a writer, but I believe people are smarter today when it comes to plot and what makes good television/films/books. Every time I go to a movie these days—even those I enjoy—it seems like it’s never ten minutes before my friends and I start picking apart “Prometheus” or “The Avengers” or “Leap Year” with Amy Adams. I just don’t think it’s as easy to slip cheap gimmicks and plot holes past readers as it used to be.
…Unless “Twilight” has tons of plot holes. Does it? I’ve never read the books, but those things have made TONS of money.
“Prometheus” has the gall to end on a veritable mountain of plot holes. Yeah, I’m going to talk about the ending, but you were warned about spoilers way back so the joke’s on you. At the end, the main character Elizabeth Shaw, decides to hijack a ship and head for the home world of the very alien race that just did everything in its power to murder her and everyone she ever knew. And who does she get to take her there? The untrustworthy android who was directly responsible for murdering her boyfriend. It would be like my girlfriend and I walking down a street in Lexington, Kentucky and having a gang member pop out who murders her and beats me within an inch of my life. Then, what do I do? I decide to march right down there to his gang hideout and have a word with him and find out WHY he destroyed my life, obviously! I mean, I’m sure the whole thing was just a big misunderstanding!
To those of you who have never seen “Prometheus”, I swear that THAT story got made into a movie. I don’t care what kind of book you’re writing, I guarantee you it’s better than “Prometheus”. I guarantee you the story is better, the characters are richer, and the plot points make more sense. It’s insane. So many of us indie writers can’t get published, but Hollywood is willing to pour millions into a quasi-prequel that is that unforgivably awful.
In other words, keep writing. If Damon Lindelof can find success, YOU can find success. My name is Sean Chandler and I believe in you.