Part 2 of last week’s post is going to go up a bit later – instead, I had to take a diversion.
You know the scene. Don’t lie, you know exactly the scene I’m talking about, the most infamous scene from 2012’s execrable Prometheus. If you actually don’t know what I’m talking about or have blocked it out of your memory entirely, here’s the scene in question:
I did not know when I first pulled this video they had added the Benny Hill theme. The fact that they did…kind of proves my point.
It’s become infamous since the film aired. You see, these characters who the film kept telling us were smart were acting incredibly stupid in this scene – they were being chased by a giant rolling wheel, and they kept running in a straight line. At this point in the movie, “these characters who the film kept telling us were smart were acting incredibly stupid” had driven pretty much the entire plot, so everyone had to roll their eyes and groan.
Then CinemaSins happened.
CinemaSins is a movie YouTube channel that points out flaws in films, mixed in with nitpicks, dry observations, and deliberate misunderstandings of what’s happening in the film. They have a few recurring jokes. When the movie title is said, the voice over announces “Roll Credits,” when an incredibly attractive actress is on scene, the voice over sins the movie by saying “[Actress Name] is not my girlfriend in this scene”, and when someone is running away from something, they are said to have gone to the “Prometheus School of Running Away From Things.”
From there, the legacy of Prometheus was cemented. I’m willing to bet that, aside from that scene and the fact that Michael Fassbender was in it, most of you don’t remember anything else about the movie. Hell, I had to think really hard for any other details to come back to me, and I’ve seen the film three times.
But…that scene isn’t actually bad.
Now, I want to be very clear about something: I am in no way trying to defend this damn film. The only reason I saw it more than once was because the second time a friend really wanted to see it in spite of my warnings and I didn’t want to let them suffer alone, and the third time I watched it to win a stupid argument. The person I was having the argument admitted I won, but since I watched Prometheus again to win, was it really worth it?
No, it was not.
However, I’m tired of people ragging on that particular scene, especially when literally every other scene in that movie is more hate-worthy, because that scene has become emblematic of a larger problem in how we critique literature and film and shows.
People do not behave rationally when panicked, yet so many people get angry at films and movies when they show people not behaving rationally in situations where they should be panicking.
Imagine, if you will, you are walking down a dark alley. Suddenly, you feel something hard pressed against your back. “Give me your wallet, or I’ll shoot,” a voice growls. Imagine what your next move is.
Do you picture yourself spinning around and snatching the gun from your attacker? Do you imagine yourself cooling pulling out your wallet, responding to the threat with composure? How about shouting for help and counting on the fact that your attacker likely does not want to escalate from theft to murder? Which of these reactions do you see yourself taking?
Well, unless you are highly trained in crisis management and handling life or death scenarios, your real reaction is likely going to be sobbing, shaking, and desperately trying to get your wallet as your life flashes before your eyes.
This is because the human brain is a terribly designed thing. We are the most intelligent animals on the planet, but that intelligence was not particularly useful in immediate danger scenarios faced by our ancestors. When a saber toothed tiger has decided to make you food, it doesn’t do you much good to be able to see all the possible ways you’re about to die. That’s why we have the fight or flight response, which would more accurately be called the fight, flight, or freeze response. It bypasses our rational thought process and spurs us into action – or inaction, in the last case.
And that action isn’t rational, because those actions are based on the dangers our ancestors faced – and the most common trigger there that we could survive was likely predators.
The defensive measures we evolved for predators, however, do very little for protecting us against modern day threats. The correct response to a man with a gun – or even a man with a bow and arrow – is not something evolution had time to account for. The same goes for explosions, fires within buildings, vehicles, or indeed, a giant wheel spaceship rolling towards you.
In this scene, the characters went with the flight response, because even instinctive responses can process there very little a single human can do against a threat that large. And they ran in a straight line.
Was that stupid? Yes. Was it something real people do in the real world all the time? Also yes.
I’m not going to show any videos of it, because I made myself depressed watching them, but if you don’t believe me you can look up videos of people in disaster scenarios. And what are they almost always doing? Running away in a straight line. That’s because, for most natural disasters, that’s the best option our ancestors had. You don’t try to dodge to the side in the face of a tidal wave or a landslide, you don’t juke a lava flow, and you sure as hell don’t sidestep an avalanche. You run like hell, and you hope to God you get far enough away before the disaster catches up with you.
I’d argue that a person being crushed to death by a rolling spaceship is the most realistic death in the entire movie, since – unlike every other avoidable death in that stupid, stupid movie – there was not a series of stupid decisions leading up to. No one poked the alien snake, no one took off their helmet to breathe in an alien biosphere, no one infected anyone else with black goo for reasons that were never adequately explained.
It’s easy for us, sitting in the theater and wishing this damn movie would end, to roll our eyes at people doing stupid things like this. But that’s because we vastly overestimate our own competence in disaster scenarios. Unless you are trained to deal with them, you are probably going to end up panicking and either freezing in place or running in terror. Training can override that instinct, replace it through what basically amounts to brute-force reprogramming with a better response, but absent that instinct is all you have – and instinct would, in this case, say “run like hell.”
So please, don’t judge characters for responding irrationally in the face of danger, especially if it’s a danger they had no training in. Allow characters to behave like real people and occasionally do things that a really stupid. And if you’re writing, understand that you can have characters do stupid things in the face of danger, and as long as you’ve read a bit about how fear responses work, you’ll be fine. And we can help stop this mindset by, in part, no longer poking fun at this scene in Prometheus.
After all, there’s so much more to mock there.
Want to read something more enjoyable than watching Prometheus? Try literally any book on Amazon,but especially mine!