Friday, 19 October 2012

Any Questions?

I watched the film Prometheus for the first time this week, and it was an experience that left me pondering the use of confusion as a story mechanic. Make no mistake, Prometheus is confusing, and it's the kind of confusing that makes you wonder how much is intentional and how much is just bad filmmaking. Part of this is because the film ties in with the Alien series and there's a natural impulse for the viewer to try to slot the pieces of the franchise jigsaw together as they watch. But for every moment of recognition ("Hey look, it's the ship they found in Alien!") there is another ten minutes of wondering about the bizarre character motivations or trying to reconcile the evolutionary lifecycle of a hostile alien species.

What's strange about Prometheus is that, viewed from the right angle, the confusion actually adds to the experience. The whole film is filled with characters asking questions about the origin of life, creation and evolution, to the extent that the viewer's questions start to form a continuum with that. And mystery is a compelling thing – it's the narrative engine that drives a vast number of stories. What's tricky is finding the right level of mystery to keep your reader or viewer engaged, without driving them away.

One look at the credits for Prometheus should have tipped me off to what was going to follow, as the co-screenwriter is Damon Lindelof, creator of that giant TV puzzle-box Lost. From the very first episode of the series - when the characters crash landed on a mysterious island - it was clear that Lost was going to give rise to many more questions than answers. I don't think any TV show before or since has required so much from the viewer in terms of memory and analytical thought. The show featured flashbacks from different points of view that dovetailed and overlapped – it was almost like being given a weekly assignment as you tried to assemble the fractured chronology of the characters' backstory. As if this wasn't enough, later seasons piled on the pain by adding flashforward sections and then (to cap it all) time travel. But until the whole thing collapsed under the weight of its own complexity, watching Lost was a uniquely exciting experience.

Perhaps part of the problem Lost had was its very popularity. The need to keep such a lucrative show on the air meant that the writers were simply unable to answer some of the big questions that viewers had. It's also instructive that when they did solve many of them in the final series, a lot of the audience were disappointed by the answers they gave. Making the resolution of a mystery as compelling as the mystery itself is a difficult thing to pull off, it's also a major reason why stories can falter badly in their third act.

So is confusion in storytelling a good or bad thing? I think it depends, to a very large extent, on how you position your story and set the expectations of the audience. Prometheus followed (while chronologically preceding) a set of fairly straight-ahead genre sci-fi movies. When watching a film like Aliens you are focused on very immediate action movie questions like: "What's that noise?" or "Are they going to die?" or "Why can't I get a job as a human fork-lift truck?" And although you do have some of the same questions in Prometheus, it's easy for those to get buried amongst the pseudo-philosophical debate. Perhaps we'll have to wait for the inevitable sequel to see if there really are coherent, satisfying answers out there in the depths of space, or if Lindelof and Ridley Scott are making it all up as they go along. For now though, I'm happy to think back to those first few series of Lost, and remember that, sometimes, it's fun to be confused.


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