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The Fine Line Between Ambiguity and Stupidity

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by Matt Singer
June 27, 2012 4:11 PM
7 Comments
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"Prometheus"

At Vulture, Kyle Buchanan asks an excellent question: "Why can't this summer's movie villains come up with a good plan?" Citing an entire season's slate of films from "The Avengers" to "Snow White and the Huntsman" to "Brave," Buchanan mounts a pretty compelling argument that cinematic baddies -- or at least Hollywood screenwriters -- haven't been making much of an effort lately. Here are some of his thoughts on the flaws in The Witch's plan in "Brave" (which contain SPOILERS for the film):

"Why does the Witch (voiced by Julie Walters) give Merida a cake that turns her mother into a bear? Just for cruel kicks? The Witch makes no attempts to capitalize on the ensuing chaos in the kingdom, since she takes off for a vacation shortly after that pivotal act, but is she friend or foe? On the one hand, she leaves Merida a helpful answering-service antidote for the bear cake ... and on the other hand, there's an elaborate knife-throwing trap triggered when anyone attempts to enter the cottage to even use that answering service. Make up your mind, lady: Do you want to help the girl out or kill her?"

All excellent points. To answer Buchanan's question: The Witch doesn't want to help Merida or kill her, because she doesn't want anything. She's not even a character; she's a walking plot device with a cartoonish nose and a talking bird sidekick. She exists purely to instigate the film's second act. Her plan doesn't make any sense because she doesn't have a plan period.

Buchanan's indictment also includes a section on one of the most problematic and widely discussed villains of the summer movie season: David from "Prometheus" (again, we're about to get into SPOILER territory). Specifically: why does David make the questionable decision to infect one of his shipmates with the black goo he finds on the planet? As an android with no human emotions, David should just be following his programming. But spiking some poor guy's drink with alien gunk without the least bit of beta testing seems a strikingly irrational decision. At first glance, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense. And even if it does, it is a very ill conceived bad guy plan.

The most popular audience reading of David's behavior goes like this: he's acting on orders from his creator, wrinkly old billionaire Peter Weyland, the man who funded the Prometheus' journey and who turns up miraculously alive in the third act. Weyland is obsessed with finding these aliens who he believes hold the secrets to the origins of life on Earth; if they created all life, perhaps they can give him just a little bit more of it. But, as Buchanan points out, if David is merely following Weyland's orders, why doesn't he give a rat's ass about the results of those orders, in the form of the squid baby that is borne of the infected astronaut's space seed? He goes from recklessly curious to terminally incurious in the span of about ten minutes. One wouldn't expect robots to be prone to such wild mood swings.

David's behavior is something people love to debate about "Prometheus" -- and the film is clearly designed with ambiguity in mind. I guess my question is: when does ambiguity become so pervasive that it's actually a disguise for stupidity? And how much of an audience filling in a movie's blanks is an audience simply doing a screenwriter's work for them?

I'm not theoretically opposed to a movie that leaves viewers guessing. "Sound of My Voice," another of this year's films about a villain with a barely coherent plan -- ends (SPOILERS, obviously) with absolutely no resolution of its biggest questions. Is Brit Marling's cult leader a time traveler or a con woman? Is the young girl she wants to kidnap her future mother or not? Who's that girl's father? Is he her father at all? We don't know. I admire "Sound of My Voice" anyway because its ambiguities put the viewer into the shoes of the protagonists, a pair of filmmakers who've gone undercover in Marling's cult. From the first scene to the last, those characters are asking questions, so forcing the audience to do the same makes perfect thematic sense. 

In the case of "Prometheus," I see a movie that claims to be about the big questions of the universe. But at a certain point, right around the time that squid baby appears, "Prometheus" stops asking questions altogether. And if you want to enjoy the last act of the movie, you kind of need to stop asking questions too. ("How does the guy with advanced mapping technology get lost in a cave within communication range of his ship? Why did Charlize Theron run in the one direction that would get her smooshed? etc.)

And that's the problem with all this summer's villains: they're all gods, witches, and robots. They should be operating on a higher intellectual level than their mortal enemies. And yet their plans are so riddled with holes you could project a hundred bad summer movies through them.

Read more of "Why Can't This Summer's Movie Villains Come Up With a Good Plan?"

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More: Brave, Prometheus, The Avengers

7 Comments

  • Corey Atad | June 29, 2012 9:26 AMReply

    It's an interesting argument. I think it doesn't quite apply with Brave since that witch wasn't really a villain. It's a bit of an odd treatment of a witch compared to most portrayals, but from what I gathered, her magic was purely a business operation and she wasn't very good at crafting spells. She does the wood carver thing because she makes for a bad witch, and the other times she's sold these spells they've gone really badly. She's kind of just in it for a quick buck when Merida offers her the necklace charm.

    As for the other villains, I feel like that's what those movies called for, particularly Prometheus, but I won't deny missing a villain who really knew what the hell he was doing and made it clear to the audience. Or at the very least, reveal it over the course of the film, as in Die Hard. Basically, I want Die Hard. Is that so much to ask?

  • Corey Atad | June 29, 2012 12:01 PM

    I agree that she's essentially little more than a plot device. I found it a reasonably effective plot device, and I liked the film quite a bit, so obviously we disagree there. All I was saying is that the witch in Brave doesn't even strike me as a villain, really. The film basically has no villain because the main drama is happening between the mother and daughter. The witch is a complicating factor, but not really evil or anything. The closest thing in the film to a villain is Mordu, the bear, but even then Mordu is treated more as a general threat to provide an obstacle and something for Merida to heed as a cautionary tale. Agree of disagree on the effectiveness of these "plot points" but I really don't think they are even designed to be proper villains.

  • Guest | June 29, 2012 11:50 AM

    I disagree. The Witch from Brave was the result of the screenwriters throwing a bunch of stuff against the wall but not bothering to see if things stuck. She's indicative of one of the film's biggest faults: the characters aren't characters so much as a means to advance a story. Even the denouement amounts to Merida basically saying 'I've developed as a character because I've developed as a character.'

  • film chick | June 28, 2012 3:26 PMReply

    While I agree much of Prometheus crossed the line in ambiguity, David spiking Charlie's drink made a little sense to me. I saw the film as being all about evolution. So when Charlie won't stop taunting and ridiculing David for not being human, David's reaction is a pure human one - revenge. He's beginning to evolve by showing human emotion and he decides he's had enough. His revenge isn't exactly eye for an eye, but he's a robot - and considering the entire crew was pretty expendable to David and Weyland - what does he care?

  • transtemporal | June 27, 2012 8:58 PMReply

    I absolutely agree Matt. Jeopardy is created by showing what's at stake, then giving us a baddy who might credibly be able to pull it off. I'm struggling to think of a single villain that's made me fear for the heroes in recent films - maybe the crazy captain in Pan's Labyrinth?

  • Tom | June 27, 2012 4:42 PMReply

    Give me some Bane...

  • Rick | June 27, 2012 4:24 PMReply

    I don't understand where those kinds of questions come from because if you wanted to you could take any film and ask the same. 2001 is full of things like "Why did Hal let him open the door to the ship near the end?"

    Also Prometheus is about questions and our questioning nature true, that doesn't automatically preclude it to give answers. Do you ever have the answer to every question? More often then not the answer to one question is a question itself.

    Expectation vs. Intent is a major problem with the current state of people getting hyped for films and Prometheus is the boiling point.

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