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The Fine Line Between Ambiguity and Stupidity

The Fine Line Between Ambiguity and Stupidity

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.

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