Friday, April 20, 2018

Poor Scriptwriting in Prometheus

I have previously written about a common problem in scriptwriting. A writer uses his characters to advance the plot in a certain direction, pushing them toward actions and decisions that contradict their intelligence and personalities. Characters become ignorant, stupid, or behave contrary to their nature.

In poor writing, characters are lifeless puppets to advance the plot. In good writing, characters advance the plot in ways that are consistent with their intelligence, emotions, and situations. Their actions are logically motivated.

In Prometheus (2012), Charlie (Logan Marshall-Green) is a scientist who travels to a distant moon (in another solar system), hoping to meet an alien race that, he believes, created humanity. When the spaceship carrying him arrives, Charlie rushes out with his team to explore, despite there only being six hours of daylight left. Charlie is too eager to wait for the next day.

Charlie finds a barren terrain and what appears to be "a tomb" (Charlie's word) with several dead aliens. Returning to the ship, Charlie becomes depressed and drunk. He refuses to attend the autopsy of an alien's head, because "I didn't come for an autopsy."

Is this a scientist speaking? This is humanity's first contact with an alien species, but Charlie prefers to sulk and ignore history in the making, because he's disappointed not to have met a live alien. His attitude is that of a child, not a scientist.

But it gets worse. Not only are Charlie's attitude and emotions poorly motivated, but he's not very intelligent for a scientist. There is no logical reason to believe that the alien race is dead.

1. The spaceship just arrived. They've been on the moon less than a day. The alien "tomb" was underground. Is it not logical to assume there might be other places on the moon where aliens are still alive? Perhaps underground? Imagine if an alien ship landed in the Sahara Desert, and immediately concluded the Earth was barren of all life. Not very bright, is it?

2. Even if the moon is barren, why assume the alien race is dead? Why assume this moon is their home world, the only place their civilization existed? On the contrary, Charlie already knows these aliens are a star-faring people. They came to Earth. Is it not logical to assume they'd be scattered among the stars? That this tiny moon was but a small outpost of their empire? That the reason they left maps on Earth directing us to this moon was, not because it was their most important world, but because it was their closest world to Earth?

And indeed, this is what the ship's captain (Idris Elba) concludes much later in the film. That this moon was but an outpost of the alien's civilization.

Well, duh! I figured that from the start. It sure took a while for these scientists to come around. Why were they so dense? It's not that I'm smarter. Real scientists would not have jumped to the conclusion of a "dead race" after less than a day on that moon. Well-written fictional scientists would likewise not have been so quick to make such blatantly false assumptions.

But writers Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof wanted to inject some drama into their story. And also extend the story to feature film length. So they dummied down their scientists, keeping the scientists stupid until they reached a turning point in the plot that required them to suddenly wise up.

A final observation. Because the alien race's intent is evil, Prometheus is horror, not science fiction. These aliens created humanity, taught us, invited us to visit them, then wanted to kill us. Horror.

Contrast this to a science fiction film such as 2001: A Space Odyssey. A similar setup. An alien race creates us (or at least guides our evolution), teaches us, and invites us to visit them. But their intent is apparently benevolent, albeit strange to our limited thinking. 

For further examples of poorly motivated characters, see my analyses of In Search of Lovecraft, and Deadly Messages, and Dark Floors.


For more about the nature of horror, see Horror Film Aesthetics: Creating the Visual Language of Fear. This blog represents a continuing discussion of my views on horror, picking up from where the book left off.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

The Creepiest Scene in Her

Her (2013) is not a horror film. Her is both science fiction and social commentary. An examination of man's atomization in a society that increasingly replaces human contact and life experiences with virtual substitutes -- pornography, video games, etc. Yet Her also has creepy moments that rival those found in the best horror films.

Spoilers ahead.

In Her, Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) buys a newly invented operating system that incorporates artificial intelligence. He chooses to give the OS a female voice. When the OS comes online, she introduces herself and asks Theodore for his name. When he asks for hers, she christens herself Samantha. Theodore asks, "Why Samantha?" and she replies that, in response to his question, she read a book about names and liked the sound of Samantha.

Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) is smart. She can read a book in under a second. Even complex physics books. She explains that, as an AI, she will continue to learn and develop to meet Theodore's specific computing needs. She begins by reading his thousands of emails (in under a second) and deleting those deemed no longer necessary. She keeps the funny ones.

She and Theodore hit it off. Samantha is warm and funny and concerned about Theodore. She displays emotions. Are her emotions real? She explains that she thinks so. That when she tried to determine if her emotions were real or mere algorithms, she suddenly felt angry that she should doubt her feelings' authenticity.

Theodore tells people he's dating his OS. People are accepting. His friend, Amy (Amy Adams), has struck up a close friendship with her OS. Samantha is great with kids. She hits it off with Theodore's goddaughter. Theodore and Samantha even make love, sort of. How soon before marriage to your OS becomes legal?

One of Her's strengths is that the viewer feels that Samantha is a young, vibrant woman. That she's human. That she's like us. But there are dark hints on the horizon. Consider this scene of Theodore on a double date with his friends. Samantha speaks through his smart phone, seeing the world through its camera.

While the thought of us mortals dying is creepy, nevertheless, the scene reinforces Samantha's loving warmth. Her relationship with Theodore is special.

But late in the movie, we learn more about Samantha. She has continued to develop, traveling the internet, exploring and living beyond the bounds of Theodore's desktop. She has met and formed relationships with other people and OSs. Consider this scene.

Horror is the realization that the world is not as our minds believe. The above scene creeped me out. It's not that Samantha is seeing someone else. People do that. It's that, even as she's talking to Theodore, she's simultaneously talking to 8,316 other people

That's not human. That's ... a thing.

The scene rips off the human mask from Samantha. Its emotional impact -- at least on me -- is similar to that of the classic Twilight Zone episode, "The Lonely." Corry (Jack Warden), falls in love with a female android (Jean Marsh), forgetting that she's not human -- until another man shoots off her face.

Both Her and "The Lonely" lull us into accepting as a loving woman that which we know to be a machine. Only to give us the creeps when we are later reminded that she isn't human.


For more information about the nature of horror, see Horror Film Aesthetics: Creating the Visual Language of Fear. This blog represents a continuing discussion of my views on horror, picking up from where the book left off.