Thursday, June 21, 2012

Inception vs. Prometheus – Ambiguity vs. Confusion

(SPOILERS: Inception, Prometheus)

There’s a saying in filmmaking: ambiguity is good, confusion is bad. The meaning of this might seem obvious, but I’ve had difficulty explaining the difference when trying to help a student with a confusing script. I recently saw Prometheus (written by Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof) and found it a horribly confusing mess. And since I’ve been breaking down Inception (written by Christopher Nolan), famous for its ambiguous ending, I thought comparing the two would be a good illustration of the difference between confusion and ambiguity.

Clearly the makers of Prometheus intend to raise some questions that won’t be answered. That’s okay – that’s ambiguity. But there are also some flat out logic holes in the movie.

For example, why is the medical bed in Vickers chamber only calibrated for men? I’ve heard people suggest this is a clue that Vickers is a robot (or more comically, a hermaphrodite). Even so, if she brought the med-bed then it should be useful to her, which really invalidates both those suggestions. And she’s also not the only female crewmember… does she consider all women expendable? Not likely. More likely the writers simply thought this would make the scene more dramatic and didn’t consider the logic implications.

A sampling of other logic problems in the movie: If the Engineers created all life on Earth, and this is why we share their DNA, why is the DNA of all other life on Earth different? Why would the Engineers leave a map on Earth to their weapons facility (instead of, say, their home planet)? Why did Weyland pretend to be dead?

Those are flat out logic holes, but more common in Prometheus are characters behaving in extremely unlikely and stupid ways. For example, two scientists get lost in the alien base. Despite the fact that they are being tracked on a big 3D map in the ship. And they have radios.

Now, I suppose the captain and Vickers could be so incredibly incompetent they don’t noticed two of the crew they’re supposed to be tracking got left behind. And the other crewmembers are all too clueless to notice that none of the vehicle have been taken from the alien base. And maybe it doesn’t occur to these two scared, lost guys to radio and ask for directions. But that’s all pretty unlikely.

The first problem here is that when the basic plot beats and character motivations don’t make sense, I’m left wondering about things like why didn’t Shaw tell anybody she left a living alien baby in the escape pod when I should be left contemplating the nature and origin of humanity. I never get to the big questions because I’m too busy trying to figure out the pointless ones.

The second problem is that when a movie does dumb things like these, it’s hard for me to give credit to anything in it. If I’m to contemplate bigger mysteries, I have to believe everything in the movie is there for a good reason. If it’s possible the filmmakers just screwed up, that becomes the answer to every question. Some of the big questions in Prometheus are certainly intentional, but some are probably just places the filmmakers made a mistake. It’s hard to know the difference. In Inception, even if I can’t quite figure out what’s going on, I have faith that Christopher Nolan knows what he’s doing.

Inception may not bring up a lot of complex questions, but it does leave us with one doozy – is this all a dream? Now on the one hand, this is simply an unanswered plot question (though, crucially, it’s not a logic flaw because either answer would make sense). But it also brings up the thematic point of the film: how do we know if what we’re experiencing is real? What is reality? And the reason that ambiguity is so compelling is because the question is so clearly intentional.

So how do you avoid the kind of confusion found in Prometheus? First, make sure that everything that you don’t want to be ambiguous is perfectly clear. Earn the audience’s trust through rigorous plot logic and believable character behavior. Make sure the questions you’re not answering are clearly intended to be not answered.

Another little way to earn audience trust is by planting something early in the film and paying it off fairly quickly. And bring up a few questions and answer them early in the film. Show the audience that when something is on screen, you mean for it to be there.

The truth is most movies have a few small logic holes, but in the good movies we don’t notice. The industry mantra is, “if they notice that you’ve got bigger problems.” A good example from Prometheus is when people ask how the alien in the escape pod grew so big with no source of food.

It is a logic hole, but it’s one that was also in the first Alien movie (story by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett, screenplay by Dan O’Bannon) – and I’ve never heard anyone complain about that. That’s because we’re caught up in the story. But apparently Prometheus has bigger problems because people noticed. And I think one of the big differences is that in Alien the overall plot makes sense and all the characters behave in rational ways. But in Prometheus, once the audience starts to get confused, they notice every flaw.

So let me try to reduce these to simple definitions of the terms for screenwriters:

Confusion occurs when the film has conflicting plot information or inexplicable character behavior that does not ask a philosophical question.

Ambiguity occurs when the film clearly asks but does not answer a philosophical question.

I do have to give Prometheus some credit – everyone is talking about it. And how many movies do that? For that reason alone perhaps it’s a valuable film. But it’s certainly not a well-written one.

(By the way, if you’re a Twitter user, my handle is @dougeboch)

1 comment:

jaycee said...

Excellent: those two main points really do nail the problem with bad story logic. Another anti-Prometheus is 2001: you don't have to ask why the monoliths uplifted the apes - there are obvious possible answers (eg the aliens are nice guys) but you don't have to choose between them. The same goes for Hal's attempt to murder the astronauts. The human brain is happy putting aside the question of *which* possibility is true - it's impossibility that jerks it to a halt.