Of course you have. Ridley Scott released Alien in 1979, the year I was born. From what I can tell not only did he launch a new sub-genre of horror film, but he launched a franchise. The franchise did not necessarily remain in that horror sub-genre, but the original Alien was a big deal. Ridley Scott did not make any of the sequels. He went on to make other movies, including some of the most critically acclaimed movies ever. He’s also made some crap.
But Scott not only returning to science fiction, but returning to the Alien universe that he created is a big deal.
There has been a lot of talk about whether Prometheus is actually a prequel to Alien. Scott and his production team have tried to distance the movie from this notion so that it could stand on it’s own, and not just be another cog in the Alien machine.
It’s an interesting thing. We’ve been getting some original attempts at movies lately. Prometheus attempts to be a movie set in the same universe as another movie, but only be minorly connected to that movie. Avengers takes the main characters from a bunch of separate movies, and places them into one action-fest. Things like this have never been done before. Is this a new trend we’re going to see in movies? After Lord of the Rings and the Matrix movies, the trend was to try to make trilogies out of everything, and so we get three Batman movies, three Transformers movies, Spider-man, Pirates of the Caribbean, etc… Will the new trend be separate movies in the same universe that have minor points of crossover, ultimately leading to a big one? Will we get a movie set in the same universe as Inception, but doesn’t deal with Cobb or dreams? Who knows. It’s an interesting notion though.
But back to Prometheus. It is a prequel to Alien. The movie would be a side story to Alien if not for one scene at the end which connects it directly to Alien in a sloppy, contradictory sort of way that it would require a sequel or two to unravel and properly connect it to the original movie. That scene could have been left out and everything would be fine because Prometheus is not about what happens previous to Alien. There are connections, and enough was implied that the two could have truly stood apart.
Remember how I said Ridley Scott has made some great movies, but also some crap movies? That is what Prometheus is. It has great elements, some crap elements and overall the movie is sloppy. If you like it, great. If you don’t, I understand. I was disappointed. And those disappointments don’t have anything to do with Alien, while a lot of people are disappointed probably because it isn’t Alien.
To clarify, for me this isn’t about comparing Prometheus to Alien. Nobody should see it expecting to be thrilled the way Alien thrilled you. They aren’t the same movie. At all. They are as different from each other as 2001: A Space Odyssey is from Night of the Living Dead. The problem is that sometimes it tries to be both.
Alien thematically is about rape. It is a sci-fi horror movie all about rape. Every bad thing that happens is meant to evoke the terror of that kind of situation. People involved with it have even said part of their goal was to make males feel that particular form of terror.
Prometheus thematically is about Parents vs. Children. Or is it about the questions of why we were created? Or is it about filicide?* Or is it about patricide? Is it about scientific responsibility?
That is the other problem. It tries to be about all of those things, and leaves it all confused.
The basic plot of the movie is that two archeologists find paintings around the world of giants pointing at the stars. Elizabeth Shaw (played by Noomi Rapace, the hipster version of the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo**) believes they are our creators, and they’re inviting us to find them.
Old Man Peter Weyland (played by Guy Pearce in shoddy old man make up) funds an expedition to space to find them.
The ship (of the same name as the movie) arrives at the planet.
They go to investigate.
They find the bodies of the giants (called Engineers,) and canisters filled with goo (a magic substance that…gives life to life?)
Bad things happen.
It’s revealed the Engineers are indeed our creators, but they apparently hate us and this group of them died developing weapons to destroy us (though it is unclear how they died.)
They find one asleep.
Weyland reveals that he’s alive and aboard the ship, and funded it so that he could ask our creators to cure him of old age and death.
They wake the sleeping Engineer and he kills everyone present, activates his spaceship with the intention of going to Earth and eradicating us.
The pilot of Prometheus crashes the ship into the Engineers ship causing it to crash, keeping the Engineer and his weaponized goo from oblitarting us.
The Engineer survives the crash, and tries to kill Shaw (who by this point is the only human left alive.) He gets killed by something accidentally created by the goo (more on that later.)
Shaw finds the disembodied head of android David (played brilliantly by Michael Fassbender, also known as young Magneto) who reveals there is another spaceship, that he knows how to pilot it, and Shaw decides not to go home to Earth but to the home world of the Engineers to ask them…”why? Why you hate us? Why you wanna kill us?”
And then the big twist ending—an early version of an Alien is birthed out of the corpse of the dead Engineer (again, more on that later.)
So it goes without saying that a synopsis of the plot doesn’t do the movie justice. Sadly, the movie doesn’t do the plot justice.
In a way many of the films questions about why we were created, and maybe even why they decided they wanted to destroy us are answered through metaphor and subtext. Weyland builds the android David to be his tool, his proxy. There is a creator/creation metaphor there, and a father/son type of relationship there as well. Engineers created man, man created androids. When David asks one of the humans why he was created, the human answers “because we could.” This is then might sub-textually serve as the answer to why the Engineers created us. When David infects a human with the goo, that might sub-textually be why the Engineers want to destroy us. David over-stepped the intention of his creators and caused one to be destroyed. At some unknown point in our past, we may have over stepped the Engineers intentions and accidentally destroyed one of them.
And if the movie had backed off some of the horror elements and told a slightly more self-contained story, this subtext might have been enough. People might not walk away from the movie with questions. When dealing with metaphor and subtext, the actual events of the plot don’t necessarily warrant specific answers. But the movie doesn’t do that.
It shows us past recordings Engineers running from something. We’re never shown ANY evidence of what that might be. We see tons of Engineer corpses, but not a shred of evidence of what killed them. It isn’t the goo. The goo is their tool to create life, as made clear in the opening scene. The goo does not become active until air is introduced into the chamber holding the canisters. It wasn’t the hammerpede that killed a human, that was created by the goo hitting worms in the ground. Oooooh…was it worms? One would think that would have been seen in the recordings.
Through another moment of subtext it’s made clear that this isn’t the Engineers home planet; it’s a weapons lab. The Engineers were making biological weapons there, and while never shown what killed them we’re left to assume one of their creations got the best of them (not unlike David.) But, why did all those cave paintings point there? Why were we being invited to a weapons installation? Why not invite us to the home world?
It’s made clear that prior to things going wrong the Engineers were planning on coming back to Earth to kill us all. Why invite us to the weapons installation where they’re making weapons to kill us when you are planning on going back to Earth anyway?
As previously noted, Alien was about rape. The horror elements reflected that. The design of the face-hugger. The way it impregnates you. The tongue/second jaw that the Alien has. Prometheus horror elements don’t share in the subtext the movie is presenting. The goo creates a big worm/snake thing called a Hammerpede that attacks a human, and dives down his throat…but that’s it. When they find his body, the Hammerpede jumps back out of his throat and slithers away never to be seen again. The goo infects a human and turns him into a monster to be killed later.
The closest the movie comes to Alien’s metaphorical horror is when it touches on the ability to create life. David uses a drop of the goo to infect Holloway, the other archeologist and Shaw’s lover (played by Logan Marshall-Green, also known as I-can’t-believe-it’s-not-Tom-Hardy.) His reasons for doing this are not clear, but it’s likely an experiment to see if the goo is the answer to Weylands wish for immortality. In a clever play of logic David is able to circumvent the directive that he not harm humans by basically getting Holloway’s permission to infect him. After being infected he and Shaw have sex (but not before we’re told that she can’t have kids—SUBTEXT PEOPLE.)
Over 12 hours Holloway mutates and has to be killed to keep from…well, we don’t know. He might have become the same thing the other infected guy did, but he might have become something else. He’s killed to prevent contagion. But—plot twist!—turns out while making infected love he impregnated Shaw with something. She uses a future medical pod to have the rapidly growing monster removed from her. It’s a horrible scene but it’s also like “damn, good thing that medi-pod was there and had those abilities.” Anyway, the thing that comes out of her looks like a funky octopus. She seals it inside the medi-pod and leaves it there. So, you know, subtext people. The goo allowed her to create life. Horrible, terrifying life but even so. I don’t draw comparison to Alien to illustrate why it’s not a good Alien movie, but to illustrate that Scott did not do as good a job at something that he once did fantastically.
Later, ironically that little monster saves her life. When the ships are crashed and everyone but Shaw is dead she tries to get inside a lifeboat that was jettisoned from the ship prior to crashing. It has enough power to get her home—or at least get her into stasis and on her way home with a distress signal. But the medi-pod is inside. Her offspring is shut away in the medi-pod room, but we get enough of a glimpse of the monster to see that it has grown enormous. A fine tentacled beast in the grandest tradition of Japanese demon-rape anime. Anyway, the Engineer has survived the crash and is on his way to kill her. It breaks in and as it’s about to strangle her, she opens the door to the medi-pod room and her offspring attacks the Engineer. It subdues him and shoves a huge tentacle down his throat, and as the Engineer loses consciousness it overtakes him and both go still. Shaw hears from David’s still operational severed head (in the grand tradition of other severed-headed androids in the Alien movies) and he tells her that there is another Engineer space ship, and he can help her pilot it. Rather than going home she decides she wants to go to the Engineers home planet to ask them why they want to kill us. She says that she deserves to know why.
Ridley Scott has said that for this movie he wanted to play with big ideas, big questions. For him it’s what separates Prometheus from Alien. Big ideas vs. a horrible rape metaphors. The problem is that as soon as Shaw states she’s going to the Engineer home world to ask them why, the big idea is ripped out of it’s comfy subtextual cloud and shoved specifically into the plot. Now we know that to get the real answers to these “big questions” we’re going to have to wait for the sequel. And that is a cheap shot. If this was meant to be a stand alone movie, then how come Shaw deserves to know the answers, but the audience doesn’t? I put most of this on Ridley Scott, but the shooting script was written by Damon Lindelof of Lost fame. The way it tries to pass off a plot device as a big question and put things off for the next episode is STRAIGHT out of Lost. It was frustrating there and it’s frustrating here. It’s disengenuous. It says “hey, we have big ideas and big questions here!” And then when you look for answers, all you get is “well, maybe that is the answer. If it works for you, then it’s the answer. C’mon people, it’s art! But wait for the sequel to find out for sure!”
And that is why for me this movie was disappointing. It tries to deal in subtext but when it tries to ratchet up the horror, the subtext becomes muddy and unconvincing. The horror does a poor job playing off the subtext.
Guy Pearce plays a role purely in old man makeup instead of casting an actual old man. The reason for this is that the role he played changed to an old man from the first script, to the draft that Lindelof wrote, and they started casting before Lindelof’s draft was complete. Pearce was locked in so they couldn’t recast. Lindelof didn’t finish that draft until right before they started filming. That one fact encapsulates what is wrong. If they had waited for the second script before casting and filming, then maybe they would have realized some of these short comings and done a third, final draft. They could have backed off on the horror a tad and focused more on the so-called big ideas. They could have backed off on the metaphor a tad and really tightened up the sci-fi horror plot. But instead they were starting filming and went with what they had. And the results are sloppy.
I didn’t hate the movie. It was just disappointing. I appreciate the attempts at big ideas. I have a feeling that this is going to be the reverse of Avatar for me. I really liked Avatar when I saw it, and over time I’ve come to find it uninteresting and flat. I think with a few more viewings and a chance to let my irritation subside that I’ll end up liking Prometheus just fine. It does do a lot of things really well. David is BRILLIANT and easily the best part of the movie. The visuals are spectacular, and don’t rely on CGI. The characters are mostly enjoyable (despite some really, really dumb actions.) While I didn’t find it particularly scary, the crowd in the theater I saw it in sure as hell jumped at a number of parts.
So, what connects it to Alien?
Well, the Engineers are right out of Alien. They are the beings that the crew in Alien finds dead, right before discovering the eggs that get the party started. The Engineers ship is the same type of ship that the Alien crew steps aboard and ultimately finds those eggs in. And given what we learn about the Engineers, it would be very easy to assume that our favorite acid-blooded monster is just a bio-weapon gone wrong. That would have been enough for me. Wouldn’t contradict any bit of so-called Alien continuity that multiple movies and fights with Predators have established. It would have truly separated the two movies, only sharing human involvement and the fact that humans and Aliens have the same creator. But that ain’t what happened.
Remember how Shaw’s offspring subdued the Engineer and shoved a tentacle down it’s throat to kill it? Turns out it was a giant early version of a face-hugger, and the tentacle’s purpose was to impregnate the Engineer. The final scene of the movie shows an early version of an Alien birth from the Engineer’s corpse. The creature isn’t exactly the same, but let me make one thing clear. The planet that Prometheus takes place on is NOT the same planet that Alien takes place on. So now even though Scott wanted to distance the movie from Alien we need a sequel to explain how we get from that point to the evolution of the creates we know and love. As much as that scene irritated me there is an interesting to consider. Engineers create life by drinking the goo which tears them down, creating the building blocks of life. An Alien was created by first infecting a human (an Engineer creation) with the goo. The altered human impregnates another human, and it’s offspring impregnates an Engineer. So it has Engineer DNA kind of tripled-folded onto itself. Then consider that the one discovered in Alien clearly burst forth from an Engineer, that means the DNA is at least quadruple folded onto itself.
It means the Alien is a true perversion of the Engineers ability to create life. And given the way it reproduces by subjugating living beings and subverting their DNA, not only is it a perversion of the Engineers work; it’s actually the Engineers dark mirror.
You know, just in considering that and typing it I’ve come to reconsider my opinion of Prometheus a bit. If the idea I just posited is expanded on in a sequel then I’ll be ready to forgive this movie of some of it’s failings. Perhaps the creation of the classic Alien happened thousands of years ago through man getting it’s hands on the goo. Maybe that is why the Engineers want to eradicate us. They’ve seen this before. And as my friend Tomm pointed out, that would create a scientific cosmology. Engineers being angels, and Alien’s being dark-angels—demons. It may be that the answers we seek for the movies questions are indeed all right there.
Overall, my hope for people is this. If you see this movie and you are disappointed, be so for the movies own failings. Not because it isn’t Alien. It was never going to be just another Alien movie. Judge it on it’s own merits and failings.
* Filicide is the term for a parent killing the child.
** Noomi Rapace plays the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo in the european versions, not in the recent David Fincher version. It’s a “I was the girl before it was cool” joke. haha, I’m so clever.