Prometheus, Damon Lindelof, and The Problem of the Mystery Box

I was a huge fan of the show Lost for its first couple of seasons. The first season is still a spectacular piece of television with its innovative use of flashbacks, strong characterizations, and the mysteries the survivors of Oceanic Flight 815 face as they look for a way to escape. But with each passing season, Lost became a show of diminishing returns, turning previously interesting characters into one-note stereotypes (Jack screams, Sawyer schemes, and Michael wanders around yelling “Walt”) and piling on mystery after mystery without any resolutions. It was really sloppy storytelling and  it was frustrating, but worst of all, it became boring to watch. However, the lasting legacy of Lost is that it created a vibrant and robust community of fans who dissected and analyzed every frame of the show – coming up with their own complicated theories, pointing out references to classic novels and philosophies, and ultimately just trying to come up with a cohesive explanation for the meaning of the images flashing on screen. Unfortunately, its also created a filmmaking era of meaninglessness masquerading as profundity.

Damon Lindelof, one of the creators of Lost and one of the writers of this summer’s disappointing (in my opinion) sci-fi epic Prometheus, has become trapped in “Mystery Box” screenwriting – which amounts to raising a lot of questions with few, or any, answers (the answers are supposedly to come in the sequel, or the next episode, but just look at the history of Lost to realize this isn’t always the case). J.J. Abrams did a TED talk about the idea of the Mystery Box and how it guides his films and TV series. It’s an interesting talk – if a little bit meandering at times (the Kleenex box, really?). The central theme of Abrams talk is that “mystery is the catalyst for imagination.” Unfortunately, thats where the substance of the talk ends as he jumps from watching his favourite scene from Jaws, ruminating on how easy it is for today’s generation to create their own films, and then finally ending the talk with a bit of trivia about the filming of Mission: Impossible 3. The talk is supposed to be about infinite possibilities through “mysteries” (the word is used very liberally) – like through a writer’s blank page or a film department’s special effects technology – while Abrams tries to make the case that there is nothing more beautiful or inspiring than a blank piece of paper because Citizen Kane could eventually be written on it. Fine, boundless potential and possibilities are great for the creative process – but stifling when used for the entertainment itself. I think a lot of Abrams’ point about the Mystery Box was lost, or incorrectly identified, as being: “mysteries – in any shape or form – are good.” I think Damon Lindelof in particular is guilty of this.

Prometheus is a film awash in mysteries. We have the two lead scientist characters who discover mysterious cave drawings on Earth that show a large alien creature pointing to a distant galaxy formation. Within that basic premise we have at least three different mysteries – who is the large alien creature, what is the distant galaxy formation, and what will the characters find when they get there? Prometheus isn’t interested in rich characterizations or anything incidental to the mysteries, so the next scene of the film is the two scientist characters being awakened on route to the distant galaxy formation with a eclectic crew and an android – where they face even more mysteries. Yawn. This is the worst formulation of the Mystery Box theory of filmmaking – question on top of question, with nothing else of substance. Oh, there are infinite possibilities all right – but remember, nothing (i.e. a blank sheet of paper) has infinite possibilities too.

The “Mystery Box” isn’t even an original idea, though it has obscured the original idea’s purpose. Hitchcock originally came up with it – a MacGuffin. Something that is meaningless in and of itself but drives the plot forward. Think of the briefcase in Pulp Fiction, or any object that Indiana Jones chases after, or every world domination plot that James Bond foils. The problem of the Mystery Box is that filmmakers focus on explaining why the MacGuffin is important – even though this is a completely unnecessary and fruitless endeavour. In Prometheus, the concept of the “Engineers” (who they are, etc.) is a MacGuffin to get the crew on the planet and then ruthlessly kill them in a myriad of ways. It isn’t – nor should it have been – the entire plot. That’s the problem with Prometheus – the entire film is based on questions that are meaningless. Sure, it’s a mystery who these alien creatures are, it’s a mystery how they got to the planet, it’s a mystery why they want to SPOILER ALERT kill us, it’s a mystery why the android on the ship who apparently has no emotion reacts with spite, anger, and other emotions as the plot sees fit, and it’s a mystery why the two scientist characters are married when the husband is absolute douchebag and they otherwise can’t stand each other, but who cares? This slavish devotion to mysteries and the Mystery Box creates a plot that is a MacGuffin – in other words, there is no MacGuffin to move the plot forward because there is no plot to move forward, besides talking and philosophizing about meaningless things. It’s why these films – and Lost – frequently feel like they are in suspended animation.

I wouldn’t have much of a problem with this if this type of entertainment was recognized as the colossal waste of time and giant “screw-you” to the audience that it is. But people take this seriously and that’s what makes this form of filmmaking unforgivable. There’s probably over a million words of text dissecting the minutiae of Prometheus already, offering theories about what the film means, etc. and I find it infuriating. Where’s the million words of text describing why the Crystal Skull was so important to Indiana Jones and the Russians – or why E.T. has special powers and likes Reese’s Pieces – or how the technology of the Ghostbusters works plus the philosophical and moral implications of trapping a supernatural being? Because the answers to these questions are frivolous and irrelevant. Prometheus masquerades as a pseudo-intellectual film with “big” questions about the existence of God and how human beings were created but it’s just another lacklustre popcorn picture. Our time discussing and analyzing entertainment should be devoted to pieces worthy of it. This one ain’t.

That’s where Prometheus, Damon Lindelof, and the Mystery Box fail – the script is essentially the equivalent of a sheet of paper with an alien drawn on it. Sure it’s got infinite possibilities, but after all the theories and intellectual deconstruction, all you really have is a sheet of paper with an alien drawn on it.

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