It's Not a Plot Hole Just Because You Don't Like It
Editor’s note: the following article discusses plot points from 2012’s Prometheus.
People love feeling smart.
For the most part, there’s nothing wrong with that — solving a tough problem at work or answering a trivia question correctly is, for me at least, immensely gratifying. However, as with so much of life these days, there’s an internet-specific corollary to that initial statement: people online love feeling smarter than other people. All you need to do to realize this is spend five minutes scrolling through twitter comments — odds are you’ll need two hands to count the number of “well, actually”s you’ll come across.
Basically any topic is fair game for this external manifestation of intellectual superiority, but movies stand out as a particularly frequent subject of discourse. An entire cottage industry filled with the likes of CinemaSins, Red Letter Media, and Neil deGrasse Tyson has been built on the concept of nitpicking cinematic “mistakes.” It’s not hard to see why: the very nature of filmmaking is such that (a) the amount of moving pieces is almost always likely to lead to some seams showing, and (b) home video allows for easy access and close examination, amplifying the likelihood that those seams will be highlighted.
Again, it’s not inherently problematic to identify problems with a film, whether they be aesthetic, technical, narrative, or logistical — on the contrary, in order to be a good critic you should be able to recognize and analyze a film’s flaws. But there’s a difference between weighing those flaws as part of a consideration of artistic value and imbuing them with such singular importance that any joy derived from watching the movie is subsumed by the attempt to outsmart the filmmakers at every possible turn.
Which brings us to Charlize Theron and Prometheus.
Ridley Scott’s 2012 Alien prequel — his first return to the universe of the xenomorphs since helming the franchise’s debut in 1979 — opened to mixed-to-positive reviews and moderate financial success, but over the intervening years has perhaps most notably served as a punching bag for the segment of the internet gleefully obsessed with pointing out “plot holes.” Now, I unabashedly love Prometheus (in all honesty, I wouldn’t be that surprised if I’m higher on it than practically anyone else who’s ever seen it) but I’m not going to go on record defending the Damon Lindelof- and John Spaihts-penned screenplay as a masterpiece of airtight plotting and characterization. Criticisms of the script’s twists, turns, and tropes are certainly valid, but for me those concerns just don’t particularly matter within the context of the film — I understand why it doesn’t work for everyone, but the ambition, scope, and visual stylings on display overshadow any narrative missteps.
There’s one sequence in particular that has garnered the ire of the internet in a manner that I simply cannot abide. In Prometheus, Charlize Theron plays Meredith Vickers, Mission Director of a scientific expedition to find humanity’s creators. The title spacecraft transports Vickers and the mission’s various scientists, crew members, and androids to a far-flung planet where — unsurprisingly — chaos and carnage ensue. In Vickers’ final scene, she and Noomi Rapace’s Elizabeth Shaw are planetside, attempting to escape being squashed by a crashing spacecraft. You can watch the scene in question here:
As you can see, Vickers doesn’t make it, crushed to death by the giant, rolling ship. Fairly typical sci-fi horror fare — cool design, fun set piece, gnarly death — right? Apparently not. This scene has for many become the poster child of the hated “plot hole.” From Movie Plot Holes (“Where Suspension of Disbelief Comes to Die”):
How can a 2012 movie still feature this old imbecile cliché of people running away from a falling building in length instead of sideways? Vickers ran in a straight line for a minute and Shaw only thought about doing something different after hitting her head on the ground. Her new concussion released her from the script’s cartoonish logic and made her realize she could survive by rolling 2 feet sideways.
They categorize this as a “Major Plot Hole,” and they aren’t alone in their classification — take even a cursory glance across similar sites, lists, and infographics and you’ll see this sequence pop up on a regular basis. But here’s my problem: just because a character makes a bad decision, that doesn’t inherently turn it into a plot hole! The term is one that has seemingly come to encompass anytime something happens in a movie that you didn’t think would or should have happened based on a preconceived notion of “reality,” but that does both film and film criticism a significant disservice. There are three key assumptions that over-application of “plot hole” tends to ignore:
First, not all films are intended to exist narratively in our exact world, making internal logic much more important than external logic. As long as the film doesn’t break its own rules, you can’t claim that a failure to abide by the viewer’s rules is a plot hole.
Second, the threshold for behavior should be set at plausible, not probable. If every character in a movie acted in the most likely manner, there would be no narrative tension — we’d reasonably be able to predict exactly where the story was going to go!
Third — and this is the most important understanding to have — human beings are often both stupid and irrational. If you’ve ever watched more than thirty seconds of cable news or America’s Funniest Home Videos you know in your heart that this is true.
And perhaps that final point is really at the core of the obsession with labeling these lapses in judgement as plot holes. We desperately want to believe that we’re suave and competent and not prone to obvious mistakes when, as the adage goes, to err is human. Sure, I may not have failed to outmaneuver a falling spaceship, but I’ve certainly walked into the same sliding glass door multiple times and I frequently forget my own age. In the end, these mistakes aren’t plot holes — in fact, they’re quite the opposite: they’re the little things that make these characters more believable. So next time you fire up Prometheus, spare some sympathy for Meredith Vickers’ tragic fate and remind yourself: there but for the grace of god go we.