Prometheus and the Perils of Didactism


Prometheus was my most anticipated blockbuster of the year. It had a very visceral trailer and an amazing viral campaign, which included this fake robot ad. Maybe I just love Michael Fassbender, but this stuff gave me a lot of hope. I thought Prometheus was going to be an intelligent, thought-provoking, hard science fiction film in the same vein as Alien or Moon. In reality, Prometheus is kind of a mess. It feels like someone threw a bunch of ideas at a wall and made whatever stuck. Does it want to be a generic horror film? A big summer blockbuster? An art film that asks “big philosophical” questions? A trilogy? An Alien Prequel? Does it even matter? The studio behind the film obviously knew how to market it… There are a lot of things that really frustrated me about Prometheus, including: the never-ending contradictions, plot holes, one-dimensional characters, etc, but I do believe the film helped me realize something very important. You can’t force your themes and ideas onto the story you’re trying to tell.

Damon Lindleof is obviously trying to get us to think about god, and how we came to be. What’s frustrating is it’s actually an interesting theme. But the fact that it is so obvious is a problem. He tackles these themes without any subtly or nuance. Instead, we are forced to hear characters ask over and over, “WHY AM I HERE!?” It’s on the nose and kind of annoying. Worse, it becomes preachy. Ah, preachy, one of the worst things I could ever hear about one of my own screenplays. A word I’ve had to address over and over again as a filmmaker. I want to make films that critique our society and reveal the struggles real people deal with every day, but I want my films to be subtle and poignant. I don’t want to hit my audience over the head with a hammer (something I believe Prometheus does). So how does one address themes and ideas they think are important or personal? Well, one of my favorite people on the internet said something that made everything click:

HULK ALWAYS THINKS BACK TO HOW THE WIRE WAS A PERFECT DISPLAY OF SOCIOLOGICAL IDEAS, BUT IT ONLY MANAGED TO ACHIEVE THIS AND AVOID BEING DIDACTIC BY GROUNDING ALL THEIR IDEAS IN CHARACTERIZATION. IT’S THE ONLY WAY TO GO REALLY. ENTERTAINMENT AND THE LAWS OF EMPATHY ALMOST GOVERN THAT THE MOST RESONANT THINGS ARE SIMPLY STORIES ABOUT PEOPLE. -Film Crit Hulk

Personally, this is such an important lesson/reminder. At the beginning of film school I definitely lost sight of this idea. I was way more concerned with the theme or idea I was trying to “reveal” to people. I put quotes around the word “reveal” because in retrospect I realize I was kind of cramming my themes down the audiences throat. My themes were hovering over everything and it affected every decision I made. In turn, my characters weren’t real people. They were my puppets. Their decisions supported my thesis. They weren’t made because of their own motivations. And this is exactly what Damon Lindleof does in Prometheus. What I’ve learned as I’ve mature as a filmmaker is how important characterization is. It’s why I’ve spent months and months creating detailed character trees and getting to know the characters in my first feature instead actually writing the screenplay. Doing this has really allowed me to create a plot that is propelled by the decisions real people make and has allowed me to discover some amazing plot points I never would have thought of when I was trying to prove my point. And guess what? I haven’t lost the ideas and themes I want to address. They’re still there, but they linger under the surface in a much more subtle and profound way, and they’re more powerful for it.

Prometheus Final Grade: C-

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2 thoughts on “Prometheus and the Perils of Didactism

  1. […] I can look past the bad screenwriting and filmmaking choices that would normally ruin a film for me (just look at Prometheus). It’s a reminder. Watching a film is an incredibly subjective experience. You never know when […]

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