Anghus Houvouras explains why the success of Damon Lindelof is troubling for the future of science fiction…
I’ve been struggling with the work of Damon Lindelof (Lost, Prometheus) for some time. He comes across like a passionate, energetic guy. As a writer and a creative force, I’m beginning to wonder if he hasn’t done some fundamental damage to the sci-fi genre.
I was a fan of Lost. At least, in the beginning. When it was new and fresh and seemed to be going somewhere. Great characters, infinite mysteries, and the possibility of being something truly epic. Eventually, as we all learned, nobody was steering the ship. Every mystery was nothing more than a red herring designed to lead us deeper into the rabbit hole. Lost became a cultural phenomenon because it kept audiences guessing. It presented viewers with mysteries layered on top of conundrums. Everyone kept watching waiting to find out what the numbers meant. Or to discover the purpose of the computer in the hatch. Or to learn what was behind the island’s magic abilities that cured cancer and let the crippled walk.
By season four it seemed painfully obvious that we were never going to get those answers. That the architects of Lost had no idea where it was going. Lost was a concept that was never developed into a coherent story. It was just a playground where anything could happen and fantastic ideas could be introduced, but there would never be any real resolution. There were a hundred unanswered questions when Lost limped into its series finale.
And there are fans of the show who will ardently defend the lack of explanations. That the show was about the characters and that the island and its mysteries were never designed to be anything other than a chaotic landscape designed to keep the cast perpetually uncertain.
That’s a defense?
I understand the impulses behind those thoughts. Lost was a serialized adventure. And like all good stories, it was about strong characters. First and foremost, Lost was a story about people. However, to brazenly introduce so many lofty concepts and never deliver on them is exactly what is wrong with Lindelof’s creative sensibilities. I feel far more confident in saying that after Prometheus.
Prometheus was terrible in many ways. But no more apparent than in its script. Lindelof used the same techniques he employed in Lost, piling question on top of mystery on top of conundrum, without ever delivering a single satisfying answer. And unlike Lost, we did not have six years to get to know the cast. The characters were disposable caricatures. Great actors like Michael Fassbender were able to remain interesting thanks to their god given acting talent, but the writing gave us no explanation to their motivations.
Lindelof seems unable to achieve coherency in his work. He can pose an interesting question, but he seems incapable of delivering a coherent answer. Prometheus may be the most salient example of a movie that is destroyed by its inability to deliver on it’s premise.
Then today, I saw this quote from Lindelof about Star Trek Into Darkness and the amount of secrecy around the film’s villain.
“The audience needs to have the same experience that the crew is having. You’re Kirk, you’re Spock, you’re McCoy, so if they don’t know who the bad guy is going to be in the movie, then you shouldn’t know. It’s not just keeping the secret for secrecy’s sake. It’s not giving the audience information that the characters don’t have.“
This quote made me very nervous.
Lindelof’s two biggest contributions to the genre have been science fiction pieces that turned out unfulfilling due to their secrecy. Am I supposed to be encouraged by the idea that Star Trek Into Darkness will hinge on a series of audience reveals?
I like the idea of what Lindelof is saying. In theory it’s interesting. It’s the source that I find so troubling. I liken it to hearing the CIA talk about transparency, or Lindsay Lohan waxing philosophical about the benefit of restraint.
The success of Lindelof is troubling for sci-fi because it presents the idea that the set up is more important than delivery. That a movie can end with an ellipses and never deliver on the promise of the premise. Creatively, anyone can pose a question. The real skill is delivering a competent answer to the creative question you have asked to an audience. Obviously this Star Trek fan will be lined up to see Into Darkness. And I’m hopeful that Lindelof can craft a coherent narrative. But history is often the best prognosticator.
I’ve had this debate with various friends and film writers. And I hear criticism like, “It’s just a movie… enjoy the ride.”, but I’m having difficulty watching movies transition from ‘story’ to ‘an experience’. Can’t we have both? Can’t a movie contain a great, coherent story, and be a rewarding experience? Why do we have to sacrifice one for the other? Every pass people give to a movie like Prometheus helps calcify the idea that coherency is unimportant to the success of a movie. And while that should seem obvious to anyone who has watched the Transformers movies or anything ever directed by Brett Ratner, it begins to worry me when it’s applied to properties that were once known for their intelligence.
I don’t mind seeing Star Trek become an experience, but not at the sacrifice of the story, or coherency.
Anghus Houvouras is a North Carolina based writer and filmmaker. His latest work, the graphic novel EXE: Executable File, is available from Lulu.com.