Prometheus Unwound: An angry letter to Damon Lindelof


Dear Mr. Lindelof,

I can’t decided whether I like you or hate you. Note that I didn’t write, “love you or hate you,” for that what mean a greater possible result on the positive end of the spectrum. Rather, I am torn between finding your work simply good or irredeemably awful. Thus, since you are but lukewarm I will spit you out. This letter will hopefully clarify my meaning.

Ever since “Lost” I’ve noticed a trend in your writing. To your credit, you’re endlessly ambitious, which suggests that quality of your end product can only be the result of pie-eyed creative naivety. You throw things on the canvas that would make others shrink: the origins of man, good v.s. evil, the metaphysics of time, the meaning of life. That you never manage to pull off any satisfying conclusions to these lofty starting points tells me that you’re in touch with your Dionysian inspiration, but have completely neglected the Apollonian skill of craft – much like one of your idols, Steven King.

But what do I mean when I say you never pull off any satisfying conclusions? Well, being a crude man, please allow me a crude analogy. You lure like a beautiful woman I see at Starbucks reading David Foster Wallace. I wish you could find a way of talking to her, but she seems so elegant and out of my league. I then see her at a bar and we hit it off. We go back to my apartment and undress. We lay down and she starts stroking me and takes me in her mouth. She gives me amazing head until I’m ready to burst. She then hops on top of me, gives a few awkward thrusts and grunts, and we both cum unsatisfactorily. I mean, sure, I got where I wanted to go but I would’ve preferred 3/4 thrusting and 1/4 foreplay, not vise versa. The experience, though in the end better than nothing, fails to live up to all the teasing. You’re a tease, Damon Lindelof.

(don’t tell me what I can’t do!)

Which brings me to your latest project, Prometheus.

I have been a fan of the “Alien” franchise since I first saw Ridley Scott’s breakout film as a teenager. I would go so far as to say Alien is one of my favorite films. It is an unpretentious yet cerebral sci-fi horror, which is a feat often imitated but rarely duplicated. I can think only of Cronenberg’s corpus and the recent District 9 that have manage to achieve the balance that Scott did.

As a fan, I was cautiously optimistic when I heard Scott intended to make a prequel. I remember watching the 2003 commentary to Alien in which Scott mused on how he would like to explore the history of the “Space Jockey” and the origins of the ship carrying the eggs. He suggested the Jockey was a pilot on a military vessel and the eggs were some kind of biological weapon. Unfortunately for the Jockey, the eggs proved too dangerous and he paid the price. Now, many years later, the crew of the ill-fated Nostromo stumble upon the ship’s malevolent cargo and the rest is cinematic history.

Now what makes Alien so brilliant, besides Scott’s contributions – tone, atmosphere, cinematography, pacing, etc. –  was its minimalist narrative style. It gives the audience just enough to excite the imagination, but also leaves some caesuras for the audience to contemplate, namely, where did the alien come from? etc. However, it does answer the questions that are most pressing and gives enough to let the viewer play. It establishes that there is a mysterious ship with these weird eggs, but where it came from isn’t entirely pertinent. What is important is what this weird creature does and how.

You seem to think that you achieve a similar feat but you’ve missed out on a crucial element. You end up frustrating because you signify that you’re going to answer certain questions but never end up doing so. When you establish certain points at the beginning of a narrative, you’re basically creating a debt to the audience, a debt that audience expects to be payed.

The biggest debt you make is that these Engineers created humans but now want to destroy us. Neither question is remotely addressed despite the fact that you obviously allude that they will be. Rather, we get hackneyed, clumsily shoehorned religious symbolism. After considerable digging around in message boards, it seems that the film ever so secretively hints that Jesus was an alien and that because we killed him the Engineers are ready to abort the whole human project. However, something went wrong and they couldn’t bring their black goo payload to earth. What precisely went wrong isn’t explained, either.

Which brings me to the second debt. What is this planet? The directions to LV-223 were made before Christ, which means they were created when we were still in the Engineers’ good graces. However, they direct to a weapons’ development facility. Is this some kind of cosmic mousetrap? Does that means they would’ve annihilated us regardless of whatever happened 2000 years ago? Why?  Were they always planning on killing us if we got to far advanced? And how did Janek (Idris Elba) come up with this insight seemingly out of no where? And if they did design us in their image, then what about our evolutionary genetic heritage? Do these Engineers also contain the traces of dinosaurs, apes, fish, trees, etc? That the film opens with a sacrificial pageant, which suggests how life was made on an otherwise lifeless earth, alerts the reader that this is significant and will be explained in some capacity. No such luck.

You cross symbolism and plot, Mr. Lindelof, thinking one will supplement the other, but that’s not how it works. To quote T.S. Eliot, “The bad poet is usually unconscious where he ought to be conscious, and conscious where he ought to be unconscious.” The focus of a writer ought to be foremost on the narrative, not its implications. That’s why Alien worked so well.Dan O’Bannon and Scott told a taught story with clear, simple dialogue. The characters felt real because they were believably engaging with the universe and the problems it presented. In Prometheus, everyone is going on about the meaning of life, and it all feels so damn pretentious. The symbolism arises out of the work; the author needn’t beat the audience over the head with it:

Ray Bradbury: “No, I never consciously place symbolism in my writing. That would be a self-conscious exercise and self-consciousness is defeating to any creative act. Better to let the subconscious do the work for you, and get out of the way. The best symbolism is always unsuspected and natural.”

Ralph Ellison: “Symbolism arises out of action…Once a writer is conscious of the implicit symbolism which arises in the course of a narrative, he may take advantage of them and manipulate them consciously as a further resource of his art. Symbols which are imposed upon fiction from the outside tend to leave the reader dissatisfied by making him aware that something extraneous is added.”

Saul Bellow: “A ‘symbol’ grows in its own way, out of the facts.”

The third dept that you make to the audience is the role Prometheus is supposed to play in the “Alien” canon. You may have gone to great lengths trying to avoid making this a traditional prequel, but let’s face it, this is a prequel. Everything about Prometheus is a prequel to Alien. Not only does it take place in the same universe, but it has all the same structures: a crew aboard an intergalactic ship wakes up from being frozen; there is a morally ambiguous android representing a private, corporate agenda; the team stumbles up mysterious alien technology that turns on them; someone is infected; a confrontation with the alien; a ship is destroyed containing the alien. Yadda yadda, I could go on.
Perhaps the most glaring reference to Alien is the sculpture of the Xenomorph inside the facility. This suggests that the Engineers have already harnessed the Xenomorph, and the black goo seems to have something to do with. Accordingly, when one of mutated worms emerges from the goo and attacks a scientist, which is clearly referencing the face-hugger, the audience immediately connects this to Alien, thinking we’re going to see some kind of Xenomorph explode out of the scientist’s chest. Not so. In fact, he’s never referenced again, and the audience is left wanting. I’m not saying this is how the story should’ve played out, I’m just pointing out some unresolved tensions.
By aligning Prometheus with Alien so closely, the audience can’t help but assume this will somehow explain the eggs and everything else the Nostromo’s crew found in Alien. Afterall, Holloway observes that the Xenomorph sculpture is a door leading to another chamber. The audience assumes this will be addressed. It isn’t. Furthermore, how did the Engineers have access to the Xenomorph when it seems to have created by a complex cross-breading between the black goo, human sexual intercourse, the offspring of which then in turn impregnating an Engineer. Or perhaps the Xenomorph at the end wasn’t really a Xenomorph. Ugh, my butt hurts.
(I don’t own this image)
Another frustrating aspect of your writing is that you create drama by making your characters act like fucking idiots. I have to believe that there’s a deleted scene where David is shown cutting off the oxygen to the sleeping tanks, giving the crew brain damage, as that would be the only explanation as to why these people could be so goddamn stupid.
Honestly, this has to be one of the worst scientific expeditions shown on film since Dante’s Peak. Why would a crew of scientists sign up on a 4 year, trillion dollar project before being briefed on it? Also, why would two scientists, one a biologist, freak out and runaway when they’ve discovered the corpse of a 10, 000 year old alien? Surely, you’d be somewhat curious, especially if, y’know, you’re a biologist and you’re part of the first scientific team to ever find extraterrestrial intelligent life? But then this same character is unwittingly drawn to a hostile looking snake. And how did these guys even get lost in the first place? They had a detailed map of the structure, were being tracked by the ship, and were in contact with the ship. Couldn’t they just ask for directions?
I know this seems like I’m splitting hairs, and that people don’t actively criticize a movie like this, but all these questions start piling up and I can no longer suspend my disbelief.
Returning to David, I have to ask, what were his motives? Why did he poison Holloway? Curiosity? Did Weyland instruct him to do so? It seems like David has emotions, though he states he doesn’t. Bishop and Ash didn’t seem to have emotions, and they were theoretically more advanced than David. In spite of your writing and thanks to Michael Fassbender, David proves to be the most interesting character, and probably the most likeable because of it. Yet, he’s never satisfyingly addressed. There is a suggestion that the tension between the humans of Prometheus and David mirrors the tension between the Engineers and the humans, but this isn’t fully explored either. We could go on about Freudian drives, and the anxiety between the father and the son, but they’re never really taken up by the film itself.
(a summation of David’s contribution to Prometheus)
I realize that your goal is to get the audience thinking as opposed to be passive receptors, and I respect that. Prometheus, though frustrating and disappointing, is no doubt superior to Battleship or Transformers for the simple fact that it tries to reach beyond the gratuitous. In fact, there are a lot of things to like about Prometheus: Scott’s direction is wonderful, the pacing felt right until the third act, and the performances were great, too. All in all, I would Prometheus a 7/10 based on an initial viewing in IMAX, however I would imagine my grade would fall once upon a repeated viewing as the spectacle would be reduced and the narrative would take center stage.
The fault of Prometheus lies not in its stars (Fassbender, Scott), but in you, Mr. Lindelof. Ridley Scott is like a Berretta rifle; beautiful and accurate, but only as good as its rifleman. Scott understands the role of the director as well as anyone can, but he doesn’t understand writing, and that was supposed to be your job, Damon. You squandered a great opportunity to make a classic film. You either lazily or incompetently left far too much of the interpretive burden on the audience, giving them too little to work with and mistaking that for profundity.
Then again, perhaps like Blade Runner, there is an amazing version of Prometheus waiting to be brought to light. I’m not putting much stock in the hope, however.

~ by braddunne on June 17, 2012.

7 Responses to “Prometheus Unwound: An angry letter to Damon Lindelof”

  1. I think petting the vagina snake is on par with much of what characters do in Scott’s “Alien.” When Kane awakes from his alien-induced coma, no tests are run and he is released from quarantine only to have a creature burst out of his chest and escape into the ship. Then Brett goes off into the bowels of the vessel looking for some cat simply so he can get killed, and Dallas enters the air shafts to kill the alien with nothing but a flamethrower… These lapses in judgment seem to define the genre.

    • I would argue that the lack of proper care given to Kane was a part of Ash’s manipulation. Also, Brett had to catch the cat because it was tripping the censor, and at that point they didn’t realize the xenomorph had grown to full-length. In regards to Dallas, at least he had a weapon? Not a great plan but they were desperate and it was a plan nonetheless.
      My point is that in the case of Alien, though the actions of certain characters are ill-advised, I can suspend disbelief. Whereas in Prometheus I felt the actions and choices ran contrary to the previous characterization or were just too puzzling.

      • Kane was *also* released because they thought he was better — the face-hugger fell off and he was basically back to normal. They were a mining vessel with minimal medical personnel / training.

        When Kane approached the egg, he was trying to peer inside, and the facehugger jumped out and assaulted him, burning through his mask. He did not see the facehugger and approach it — they were curious, yet still very cautious, in Alien.

        The panicked response by the rest of the crew (flamethrower and all) felt fair, at least. IIRC, by the time he had chosen the flame thrower (which turned out to be quite effective, didn’t it?) they already knew that the blood was super-acidic; spraying it with bullets would have been problematic. At least fire would cauterize wounds. Ash’s duplicity felt more organic and opportunistic than David’s.

        In Promoetheus, they were acting like fucking idiots. Any biologist would have known that standing upright and fanning out your frills is generally a posture of aggression. If it were the geologist or a random crew member, that might have been excusable. The characters in Promotheus went LOOKING for trouble with a level of ignorance that is unfitting for their implied trainings – the characters in Alien found trouble by accident, and their behavior is in line with someone who is interested in self-preservation.

        The OP’s comments about Lindelof’s intentional creation of symbolism is DEAD ON. I’ve been wrestling with what pisses me off about this movie — Scott originally created characters and put them in an interesting world, letting the events unfold as the characters’ interactions led them down that road. Lindelof had a very specific story/agenda he was trying to push, and the characters were created in reverse — he need warm bodies to fit those prescribed roles. It was completely contrived and utter bullshit.

        The worst part of it all is he says that the movie isn’t anti-science… and yet he clearly did not think it was important enough to consult with any science experts about some very key issues… particularly w/r/t DNA, genetics, evolution, etc. (“Darwinism”? Seriously?)

        ugh… this fucking movie…

  2. Scott is more to blame than you think. Lindelof has stated there were major limitations to what he could do in regards to what Ridley wanted. And as they were already thinking sequel(s), they had to leave more out. Ridley is no saint. He has made some excellent movies. He has also made some terrible movies. Sometimes you get lucky, sometimes you don’t. The plot in this movie was tripe and the character development loose.

    • What you say doesn’t surprise me. After all, Scott only really has two great titles to his credit (Alien and Blade Runner – Gladiator is good but flawed), so he is more than capable screwing up in his own right. I suppose my rant comes from a recognition in Prometheus many of the problems of Lost that I found so infuriating and assumed Lindelof was up to his old tricks. It will be interesting to see if the DVD release illuminates the nature of Scott’s and Lindelof’s collaboration.

  3. an excellent assesment of Lindelof.I watched the first season of “Lost” and was appalled at the shoddy job done,it smelled rotten the first time he pulled his favorite (and only) gimmick and soon lost interest.I also remember either near the end of the first season ,I believe it was Lindelof and another ,maybe Abrams, appeared on one of the late night shows and confirmed to everyone that there really was an island,they were not dead or in limbo or dreaming and everything was real and would be answered in time. You can tell much about a man by how he gives his word.
    I saw rometheus and on one level was entertained,on another deeply disappointed,it had many flaws and i believe the cause is the lack of a good scriptwriter.I hope they don’t use him for the sequel.

  4. […] was a deeply flawed film. Others have enumerated the flaws (particularly Red Letter Media), and I wrote a post about the failures of Damon Lindelof, the screenwriter, so I won’t bother to get too much […]

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