Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Prometheus and Retro-active Plot Construction

Damon Lindelof and Ridley Scott
I didn’t really mean or want to do a double-decker posting on Prometheus, especially since, in internet time, the subject is practically passé by this point. But on the other hand, with a little perspective on the critical plateaus and overall opinions, it becomes to pinpoint where consensus lies, meaning it’s just about…now when I can say without too much hypothesizing what the general opinion of Prometheus' initial theatrical release is: a visually appealing but narratively flawed work, to the point where, for many (most?) people, the flaws in the plot break the movie entirely.

Without a doubt the story had some big issues, and it took a lot of thought and a lot of columns by other people for me to really grasp what the central issue with the story was. Prometheus is near-enough flawless in most attributes of the film medium. It’s expertly directed, its special effects are nonpareil, sound design and scene construction are fantastic and a glory to behold, and the acting is overall well done. Which means the most if not all of the complaints against the film fall to the script level.

Film is a collaborative medium, and as such, it’s almost impossible to parse out who’s really responsible for what and where the influence of the writer ended and the director began. So I’m not here to “blame” Damon Lindelof or Ridley Scott for the outcome of the script. Er…specifically. I mean, they at least share the blame, even if it can’t be fairly discerned what percentage of wrong each was responsible for.

Really, this post is more an observation and conclusion I’ve come to both from my own writing experiences and unintended research into the lives of writers and their processes. As such, thinking back over my viewing of Prometheus and is narrative struggles, I cannot escape the feeling that the root of many of the film’s problems arise from a retro-active form of plot construction that builds on the theme first, instead of sensibly plotting the story structure.

As I’ve said in previous posts, theme is very important in a story. Not just because theme sort of justifies the story—that is, lets the audience leave feeling that they had a reason to consume your narrative—but because it’s unavoidable. All stories say something, whether they want to or mean to. You just cannot have a narrative piece of art—be it book or film or television—without it saying something. That doesn’t necessarily mean the theme is profound, or deep. Themes can be pointless, silly, powerful, meaningless, muddled, and generally not thought out. The narrative can contradict the theme. The themes can contradict each other. But there’s no avoiding it. If you write scripts or novels or short stories and have a narrative through-line at all, you will, inevitably, have a theme. It is your destiny.

PICTURED: Incidentally, this is probably the worst
purveyor of contradictory themes in recent memory.
But some writers don’t mind having themes. In fact, some writers are really, really trying to hammer home a theme or point in their story. Some want their story to expertly extrapolate whatever theme they are interested in. And some people mistakenly build their movie around it.
So this is what I think happened with Prometheus, more or less. Sure, there are other script-central problems as well, i.e. the plot holes and weird character actions that no sensible scientist, much less a human being, would do. But those are things that needed a couple of rewrites (that apparently didn’t happen) to hash out. This retro-active theme-centered story construction, on the other hand, is an intrinsic part of the movie’s DNA, and fixing it would have required much more than a rewrite. You’d almost have to chunk the script away and start over.

I must articulate that this is a lot of speculation by me according to what I know about the process the script for Prometheus went through and my general experience of the movie compared to the comparatively minute things I know about writing. So all this is mostly speculation, got me?

But now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, there’s pretty strong evidence that Lindelof/Scott built this movie on the grounds of an overarching theme and tucked in the story around it. They wanted to say something about faith and belief even in the face of answers you weren’t expecting and about how you can’t know some things and a lot of philosophical ideas. The problem began when they started out with that in mind, and then tried to create the story from there.

Stories have the tendency to be organic things. You start to write something with this idea in mind, and then something else completely different occurs. A character you had planned to kill turns out to be more enterprising and survives, and you have no idea how in God’s name that occurred…and so when that happens, you have two choices: you can go with it, and see where it leads you, or you can go back and change the character to fit your original plan. Neither choice is bad, per se, just different styles of writing. The former is the way, say, Stephen King does it, and my example actually came from his story about how his novel Misery came to be, which was originally slated to be a novella where the main character died at the end, but upon the actual writing King discovered that his protagonist was much more clever and assiduous than he had anticipated. The latter is the way of outlines, constant revising, and character notes. Neither way is better than the other, and great novels have been birthed from both methods, but likewise, both methods have one thing in common, and that is an emphasis on plot construction to tell the story. Writer has an idea, has a way that it could make a good story, goes about making a plot (read: plan) to tell the story in a way that makes sense and is emotional affecting. There is nothing about theme even in here yet, and that’s because theme works best when it flows naturally from whatever story you’re telling.

PICTURED: Is it just me, or do their heads look really creepy?
This can be a dangerous thing. It’s where the whole trope of Unfortunate Implications comes from, when themes that seem to be present in a work have gone usually unnoticed by the creators of the work itself. But at best, themes are naturally occurring parts of a story anyway, and if you’re telling the story and telling it well, the theme will sort of bloom along with the story--as a supplement, not an end in itself. It won’t be perfect, it won’t be tightly focused, but it will be there, and it’s the responsibility of the writer, after the first draft of the story has been completed, to sit back and think about what this story he’s written is trying to say, and then upon rewrites and further drafts focus the story and cut back the excess and fit the pieces together in a way that brings the theme(s) alive organically and naturally. But this should occur only after the other considerations of the plot have been fleshed out, meaning character motivation and action, plot holes, and sensibility of motivation. The story and plot have to “work” before the theme can be extrapolated, and this in itself can be a scary part of the process, because often making the story “work” means changing elements to the point that the theme(s) is entirely different from one draft to the other. And if you started your writing process wanting to get across a theme, you have now officially been backed into a corner, and you have two choices:

1)      Go along with the story as it has naturally grown, or
2)      Hamfistedly force your theme into the narrative anyway, even though it has barely any relevance to the overall plot, and articulate it through forced scenes of conversation where the theme is forced down the audience’s throats instead of occurring with the story.

Can you guess which tack I think the writers/creators of Prometheus took?

PICTURED: And yeah, sometimes fixing the theme means a lot of extra work.
Again, I wasn’t there, I don’t know all the facts, but the strangely out of place clunkiness of the theme of this movie is redolent of a desperate attempt to shove a theme into a movie whose narrative had spun away from such considerations. Which is why everything that has to do with Prometheus’ theme of faith and not knowing the answer and mystery and all that is relegated to blatantly obvious expositional conversations between people, i.e. Shaw’s dream and the pre-sex convo between her and Halloway. These conversations not only didn’t gel with the rest of the story, but they also made very little sense in the context of the movie, which was almost entirely focused on other things not related to the idea of faith. And that usually happens when a story is built with a theme as the central driving force of a story, instead of, you know, the story.

So my advice to all young writers is to take Prometheus’ example to heart. I’m sure my three readers in Malaysia can come up with movies and books where the theme was the starting point and a masterpiece came out of it. There are no hard and fast rules in art, after all. But you have to be aware of what type of work you’re making. Allegorical works like Animal Farm might be able to get away with starting with the theme first and build from there (and really even that’s a bit iffy, because the list of truly successful allegories pretty much ends after Animal Farm). Likewise, works that are focused more on tone (a lá Tree of Life) or on a single character story can often—not always mind you—get away with building from a theme rather than a story, but even then it’s difficult.

PICTURED: Can also get away with starting from theme, though
a lot of the plot came from a previous narrative structure--in this case the book--anyway.
But Prometheus is neither of these things. For all its enthralling visual beauty, it’s relying on a traditional plot structure with action and climaxes revolving around characters and the conflicts they come into. Which is fine; I mean, what else was the movie going to be? But understanding that, there are certain limitations that are put on the story. Limitations is the wrong word—call them considerations, of which one of them is that in a movie concerned more with narrative, the narrative itself must make sense internally, before any ancillary considerations (read: theme).

And you know what? If you focus on a compelling, sensible narrative, you will get some themes out of it. Themes that you can then flesh out and make sense. They might not be what you want, but you’ll probably end up with a better movie. You need not look any farther for this than the original Alien, which had nothing in the realm of profound philosophical themes. The themes in Alien were of corporate conspiracy, and sexual subtext. The fear of rape, the result when all sociological necessities are removed from a species. Are these themes as heady as the ones attempted in Prometheus? Maybe not. Did they have more of an impact? Indubitably.
So the moral of the story, kids? Just write a good story. It doesn’t matter what it’s about. It doesn’t have to be “important” or tackle “big issues” or anything. It just needs to be compelling. To make sense. To have conversations that fit into the flow of the story, and characters that don’t do stupid stuff just for plot convenience. Make the narrative make sense, and your themes will be all the better for it.

Until next time,

Mr. E

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