Prometheus, Panic, and Hubris

I must confess: I took up the flag and waved it like everyone else, criticizing several plot points of Prometheus. Sometimes we all watch a film and think we could have written it better. There are plenty of movies where this may indeed be true (I’m talking to you, Spider-man 3). While I’m not about to say Prometheus has no flaws, however, I did my homework and had to repent of one criticism. It showed some keen layers of hubris in my own heart toward not just storytellers but humans in general.

The internet is lit up with people complaining mostly about Ridley Scott, or screenwriter Damon Lindelof, about a scene where the ship is falling out of the sky and characters are running from it (and that’s not a spoiler, that’s in the trailer). We laugh or shake our heads at the one-dimensional thinking when a character is running in the direct path the object is falling. The same is true when something is rolling or running toward a character, or a car is chasing someone down the street. We chalk this up to bad movie writing to obtain cheap thrills, and in some cases it may be.

Turns out, however, some of us may owe those screenwriters an apology.

Why doesn’t that character just run sideways and dodge the falling tree? Why doesn’t that person dash off the road where the car can’t go? Why don’t the astronauts avert the deadly crushing crisis in Prometheus much more easily? Isn’t one of them a scientist? Hmmph. They’re stupid. In fact, they can’t be that stupid. The writers are stupid. I could write a better story than this. And so the mental progression goes…

I bumped into this quote first on tvtropes.com:

“In real life, many animals (including humans) have a natural ‘herding’ response to danger, so having a terrified character run directly away from an approaching threat may not be tactically sound, but it does make sense psychologically.”

“Savvy military conquerors have exploited this fact for centuries to herd panicked civilian crowds to where they want them, although they need to keep the crowd in a state of panic so that no one has a chance to consider the tactical advantages of veering off to the side.”

It’s so easy to sit in the comfortable theater seat and armchair quarterback the actions of characters who, hmmmmm, MIGHT just be panicked… since in this case, a gigantic building-sized ship made by none other than humanity’s creators (who, we also just learned, want to kill us) is literally FALLING OUT OF THE SKY IN OUR GENERAL DIRECTION.

I don’t see any reason to panic, do you?

Yeah, I’m “so smart” sitting safely in my padded chair, munching my popcorn and soda, “laughing at the idiots”. Why are they running in line with the long, skinny spaceship when they could just jump sideways? In fact, I give those fictional characters more credit and blame the storytellers (next time a spaceship-the-size-of-a-building is falling toward me, we’ll see how rational I am).

Also, if by “skinny side” we’re talking about a building being skinny one way and long the other, I get it… but even that skinny side ain’t “skinny”.

Before we conclude, let’s look at the definition of panic:

“Panic is a sudden sensation of fear which is so strong as to dominate or prevent reason and logical thinking, replacing it with overwhelming feelings of anxiety and frantic agitation consistent with an animalistic fight-or-flight reaction. Panic may occur singularly in individuals or manifest suddenly in large groups as mass panic (closely related to herd behavior).”

So I find myself like a self-declared Emperor of rationality surprised to find I am not clothed in reason… I’m not frustrated with bad writing, I’m frustrated with human frailty.

I’ve not only maligned screenwriters for using a device that totally correlates with human behavior and psychology, I’ve effectively if indirectly scoffed at every panicked person who has died horribly under the weight of a falling tree, a collapsing section of building, every person massacred in a panicked civilian crowd: people paralyzed by a real state of panic that I’m conveniently NOT experiencing while seated in a state of passive, comfortable, entertainment consumption.

Worst of all, I’ve basically declared myself smarter and more capable than any of them, so absolutely certain am I that – should I find myself in an equally nightmarish and mind-bending dilemma – I’d nonchalantly and rationally hop to the right spot and evade destruction with a smirk. Calm, cool and collected, that’s me… even when the universe as I know it has just been upended and now the chariot of the gods is crashing down on top of me.

If they were giving out awards for unabashed hubris, I’d be taking the podium right now. How about you? 

“For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment…”
- Romans 12:3

When our world comes tumbling down around us, how rational will we be? Are we seated in the theater seat of scoffers when we should be embracing the real tension of our own fallibility? We might each take a moment to consider that, in some cases, our certainty regarding characters in fiction being “stupid” (or that the screenwriters are equally vapid) actually says more about how prideful we are about our own mind and might.

Still, petting the alien Cobra? Now THAT guy was just stupid.


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