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But What If It Just Doesn’t Make Sense?

On the /Filmcast, we recently recorded our Prometheus review episode. It was a lively discussion and I enjoyed it a great deal, but it’s prompted a wave of e-mail and feedback that has only rarely occurred during our podcast’s entire run (one other memorable instance: Inception). I love all the e-mails we receive and I’m incredibly grateful that people are engaging with our show and with films in such an enthusiastic fashion. I love stuff like these 15 insane theories about film and TV that will blow your mind, ideas that re-orient and re-cast everything you’ve come to know and believe about how a film unfolds. But when it comes to Prometheus, I tire of the vastly divergent interpretations of what actually happened in the movie.

Drew Mcweeny’s spoiler-y Q&A about the film is enjoyable on its own (make sure you check out all the other articles I list in our review too), but it also highlights a potential issue that Prometheus raises: isn’t it entirely possible that this movie just makes no damn sense? In light of all the glaring plot errors highlighted in Drew’s post, isn’t it entirely possible that the screenwriters/director just had no idea what they were doing when it came to constructing an internally cohesive and satisfying narrative?

And if that’s the case, does Prometheus really deserve hours and hours of pondering and writing and theory-espousing?

Of course, there are plenty of movies that don’t explain themselves at all, movies where the viewer struggles mightily to make sense of the events on screen, yet they are movies still widely regarded as masterpieces. I think invoking David Lynch at this point in the conversation is appropriate. /Filmcast listener John from The Fifth Wall writes the following [SPOILERS for Prometheus]:


First, what is the last David Lynch film you saw?  I hate to pull the “it’s notsupposed to make sense” card, yet I do believe the film works on a meditative level that belies (and, in many ways, renders moot) the plot.  “Lost Highway”, for example, is an exercise in meaningless if you demand an explanation as to why Fred Madison suddenly becomes Pete Dayton in terms of conventional plotting.  However, if you catch the deceptively nonsensical line from Madison near the beginning of the film, that he “likes to remember things [his] own way,” the film opens up and the pieces fall into place.  (I can back that argument up, I swear, but you don’t check your inbox for 10,000 word treatises on movies from 1990s.)  David in Prometheus also has a line that I’d argue functions as a cypher to unlocking the real meaning underlying this film — a line you didn’t touch on, which says to me that you had a different viewing experience than I did:

  • David: Why do you think your people made me?
  • Charlie Holloway: We made ya ’cause we could.
  • David: Can you imagine how disappointing it would be for you to hear the same thing from your creator?

In other words, what if you tracked down God and, to quote Fight Club, “He never wanted you”? In fact, “In all probability, he hates you”?

I’m a Lynch apologist. I know he’s not everyone’s cup of tea, and I’m sure most Lynch fans out there will want to tar and feather me for making this comparison.  But I’ll also say that, somehow, I walked out of Mulholland Drive without caring that The Cowboy is never explained or given “Script Writing 101” character motivations.  (I’ll go even further and say that I can re-watch Blue Velvet a dozen times more before I die and never care that the script is atrociously stupid in ways that far surpass anything in Prometheus.  And, ho boy, does Prometheus have some atrociously stupid moments)  And with that, I’ll put the Lynch references away.

Looking at Prometheus on those terms, I’ll only add that I just didn’t see the problem with a lot of plot “problems” you raised.  You thought it was problematic that the Engineers that created humanity eons ago now apparently want to destroy us.  Or that the “black goo” that sparks life on Earth would result in the xenomorphs in the future.  To that, I say that it’s more bizarre to assume that a sentient race would have consistent motivations over millions of years, or that we’d be able to understand the motivations (or the technology) of a truly “alien” race.  That probably sounds like a cop out (“so again, we’re not supposed to understand it, great”), but I don’t think so.  This was, for me, a movie about the perils of human exploration into areas we can’t possibly hope to understand, any more than Europeans could understand the Americas and all the strange diseases and natives that handed them their asses for centuries thereafter.  Turning that analogy inside-out, the experience of David getting beaten up by the Engineer may be akin to the Aztecs learning that Hernan Cortes was no Quetzalcoatl, that this supposed “god” came to bring their destruction for reasons the Aztecs couldn’t possibly have understood at the time.  This is Solaris as bio-horror sci-fi.

I’d argue that the film tells us all about the Engineers that we need to know for purposes of this entry in the series.  As far as the humans (and the audience) are concerned, it’s because they “can”, and humanity is right to feel as disappointed as David was by that discovery.  If this email generates any reaction on your podcast, I can already hear the laugh line, “Great, the movie wanted me to feel disappointment, and it succeeded at that.”  But there’s profundity to be had in that disappointment, at least for me.  

After that, the emergence of a “xenomorph” was perhaps the cheapest bit of unnecessary “fan service” in the whole movie.  First off, I don’t buy that it was a xenomorph — they were not on LV-426, the giant squid was at most a distant cousin of a facehugger (as if a possum and a grizzly bear were the same animal), and (come on) Ridley Scott knows what a xenomorph looks like and he would have give us one if he wanted to go there.  But he was presumably going “somewhere” with that scene, unless it was a sign of sheer studio meddling.  Short of that unlikelihood, I hope that, much like Ridley very deliberately highlighted that they were going to LV-223 and not LV-426, he was also deliberately showing us something not a xenomorph to signal that there was more story to be told in future installments before we circle back around to the opening of Alien.


John’s e-mail gives you an idea of the types of e-mails we’ve been receiving (all of which offer totally different interpretations of the events of the film), but I think the Lynch comparison is somewhat apt. The issue I have with this argument is that I feel it’s completely belied by the movie’s fairly effective opening setup, as well as its positioning as a summer blockbuster. There’s no better way for me to say it but this doesn’t “feel” like a movie where people are supposed to disagree on the fundamentals of the plot itself. Sure, we may have differing interpretations on what the meaning of life is, and what motivates Dr. Shaw, and what makes us human. But are we really supposed to disagree as to what the hell the Engineers were doing in the first place, why they were trying to kill all humans, etc.?

I’d like to bastardize a quote from Arthur C. Clarke, if I may: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Here’s a corollary: “Any sufficiently non-sensical film lacking explanation, cohesion, or logic is indistinguishable from a masterpiece.”