I don’t normally blog. By the time I’ve thought through what I want to say, someone else has usually said it more eloquently, so I tend to retweet or link or lazily point in their direction.
But having recently watched Prometheus (twice), I realised there was a warning for all of us in the transmedia storytelling business. And people nagged me on twitter to write about it. So here it is.
BE AWARE THAT THIS POST IS SPOILERIFIC ALL OVER. IF YOU HAVE ANY WISH TO EXPLORE THE STORYWORLDS OF PROMETHEUS/ALIEN, STAR WARS, OR HIGHLANDER IN PARTICULAR, YOU MIGHT WANT TO STOP READING NOW.
Still with me? Okay.
Prometheus is crisscrossed with flaws. There’s some sketchy characterisation, the performances are uneven, and many lines of dialogue clang like someone on the cargo deck just dropped a box of hammers. Let’s not get into that. I want to talk about the story: specifically, the mythology of the alien creatures and their origins.
In Alien, Ridley Scott took us to a crime scene on a distant planet. There was a mysterious, derelict spacecraft, the corpse of a giant elephant-headed astronaut (known to fans as the ‘Space Jockey’) and a chamber full of gloopy xenomorphic eggs.
What exactly had happened here? We didn’t know – and that was an incredibly powerful and unnerving feeling. Something bad had happened in this place, and we were left to wonder what that was. It was left to our imagination – and I don’t know about you, but my imagination produces some pretty scary shit. I didn’t need a filmmaker to draw me a picture. I could imagine the horror.
I think this is the same thing that makes radio or novels so powerful: there is room for the imagination. You fill in the gaps.
Enter Sir Ridley with Prometheus three decades later. He says he was surprised that people weren’t more curious about where the Space Jockey had come from, and that he’d wanted to tell the Space Jockey’s story.
I think that was an error.
What Prometheus does is try to fill in the gaps for you. The darkness of the Alien crime scene has a painfully bright arc light shone on it. The elephant-headed creature is a big humanoid guy in a funny helmet. The aliens are genetically engineered weapons. And now that scene just isn’t scary.
Getting rid of the mystery – explaining the unknown – is a tempting and very dangerous trap. George Lucas fell into it when he ‘explained’ the Force by introducing the idea of midichlorians. No longer were Jedi Knights noble and magical warriors – they were biological freaks. The same problem cropped up in Highlander, when the lonely immortals wandering the Earth in the first movie were ‘explained’ in Highlander II as aliens from the planet Zeist. It’s a kind of magic? No, no it really isn’t.
And just to be clear, having characters who make inexplicably stupid decisions and a plot that makes no sense does not create mystery. It creates confusion and frustration, and in space, no one can hear you scream WTF?
This is the reason that fans are so outraged by some sequels: they actively weaken the power of the earlier film.
I suspect I may be preaching to the choir on this one.
So if you’re reading this and you’re in charge of a major Hollywood movie franchise, you know what not to do now.
But these principles also apply to transmedia storytellers – particularly to transmedia storytellers – because we love finding gaps in stories and filling them in. We love telling backstory. We love weaving our explanatory tales around an existing narrative. But in doing so, we run the risk of fucking up the big picture.
For the record, I enjoyed the teaser films that were produced in the run-up to Prometheus’s release. Hats off to Johnny Hardstaff and the RSA guys who put those together. They set up the story well and generated excitement in exactly the way they should have.
However, I have a horrible feeling (i.e. unsubstantiated speculation) that those very teasers may have weakened the film itself. Guy Pearce was miscast as Weyland – a character at least twice the actor’s age in the movie – solely so that he could play the younger version of Weyland in the TED video that RSA produced as part of the teaser campaign. Scott could easily have cast an older actor (how awesome would it have been to have Peter O’Toole in that role, for example?) but didn’t. If that was because of the teaser campaign, then it’s an instance of the campaign weakening the movie.
That aside, what I’m getting at is this: when we play with an existing narrative, we’re playing with fire. The extended narrative can weaken a story as well as expand it. Sometimes we have to recognise what stories not to tell, when to hold back and when to leave room for the imagination. That’s where the magic is.