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Prometheus and the Alien Saga

Posted on the 23 March 2012 by Conroy @conroyandtheman
by Conroy
Prometheus and the Alien SagaThis past weekend there was quite a bit of buzz emanating from theWonderCon [1] convention in Anaheim as revered director Ridley Scott revealed more detailsabout his upcoming movie Prometheus.There have been rumors for years that Scott was working on a “prequel” to his landmark1979 movie Alien, a much-loved,critically-hailed, and very influential film. But Scott and his creativepartners have been rather coy about their plans to revisit the Alien “universe”, and so fans were leftto wonder whether Prometheus would bea true prequel or only tangentially related to the original. The jury, evenafter WonderCon, is still out. Scott indicated that Prometheus is definitely related to Alien (“in the same universe”) but it asks different questions andfocuses on new themes. At the same time he debuted the film’s trailer [2],which allowed audiences their first glimpse at the actual film. I’ll leave itto others to dissect what can be learned from the two-minute trailer, butsuffice it to say it does appear to be both related to and different from theoriginal movie.
I’m a huge fan of both Alienand its first sequel Aliens (more onthis below), so Prometheus fills meboth with excitement and hesitation. On the one hand, we have an accomplisheddirector revisiting a universe he shaped with the promise of answeringquestions that have been asked by fans for the past 33 years, along with addingto the mythology of a celebrated movie franchise. This has been donesuccessfully, consider how Francis Ford Coppola expertly fleshed-out the riseof Vito Corleone in The Godfather, PartII. On the other hand, we may get a movie that tacks on a backstory thatdetracts from the original. Just look at the execrable Star Wars prequels to see how wrong revisiting earlier movies can go.
Still, Prometheus can’t helpbut kindle anticipation because even a generation later, the first two Alien movies remain deeply compelling.Not only have they been influential, but they stand out for their intelligenceand fundamentally as excellent examples of filmmaking craft. They’re greatmovies.
The Alien Saga
I’ll assume that if you’ve read this far you’re at least somewhatfamiliar with the Alien moviefranchise. But here’s an overview. As noted, Alien was released in 1979, the sequel Aliens, directed by James Cameron, was released in 1986. Alien 3 [3] came out in 1992, and wasfollowed by Alien Resurrection in1997. There are also two crossover movies, Alien vs. Predator (2004) and Alien vs. Predator: Requiem (2007). These last two don’t exist in the same movie universeas the first four. [4]
Prometheus and the Alien SagaAlien is set sometime in thefuture in deep space. The crew of the commercial spacecraft Nostromo isawakened prematurely from suspended animation during their return voyage to Earthto investigate a signal from a nearby moon. There they find a derelictspacecraft and a cargo hold full of live pods, or eggs. One crew member isattacked and incapacitated by an alien parasite. Later, back on their returnvoyage and after the parasite dies, the crew member, Kane, appears to haverecovered. However, he is soon violently killed as an organism bursts from hischest. The creature escapes, grows rapidly, and kills other members of thecrew. Finally, as the survivors become more desperate it is revealed that Ash,the science officer, is in fact an android and has been ordered to ensure thesurvival of the alien for the profit of “the company” (the ship’s owners),Ripley (Weaver) leads the remaining crew in abandoning the ship. However she’s the onlyone who makes it off the ship alive, and is forced to confront the alien afinal time as it has taken surreptitious refuge in the escape shuttle.
This is a horror movie with sci-fi trappings; a monster movie on aspaceship. But it’s executed masterfully: from its measured pacing; setting inspace on a large ship full of dark corridors and cavernous mechanical spaces, amurky planet, and a mysterious alien craft; the juxtaposition of light andshadow; a great cast [5] and the let’s-just-get-the-job-done-so-we-can-go-homeattitude of their characters; and its hostile and half-seenalien whose lifecycle is truly terrifying. It is without doubt one of the best horror movies ever made.
Aliens is set 57 years afterthe first movie. By fortune Ripley is rescued after having having passed thedecades in suspended animation. She learns that LV-426, the moon from the firstfilm, is now in the process of being terra-formed. Not long after herawakening, contact with the terra-forming colony is lost and a rescue mission,led by colonial marines and including Ripley is dispatched. Once on the moonthey find the colony abandoned. The marines are routed by a horde of aliens.Eventually Ripley, again left nearly alone, confronts an alien “queen”. This isan action movie with sci-fi and horror trappings. The sequel uses the firstmovies visual style and measured pacing. The cast is again superb [6](Sigourney Weaver was nominated for Best Actress for her role). The change fromone hidden alien to many quick-moving, visceral aliens is a great contrast tothe first movie, as is altering the basic structure from horror to action.Indeed, Aliens is one of the best action movies ever made.
Here are some details that illustrate why these movies are so good:

Prometheus and the Alien Saga

Ellen Ripley - the first female action hero

  • A female heroine. Weaver’s Ellen Ripley was probably the first real femaleaction hero. She is smart, tough, and a survivor. Today female action heroesare common place, but Ripley may be the archetype. 
  • Naturalistic characters, be they engineers, mechanics, bureaucrats, orsoldiers, which lend believability to what are, in the end, plots far from anyactual human experience. Most of this credit goes to the actors who imbue theircharacters with a lot more depth than the scripts provide (especially for Alien). 
  • Settings in dark space (ships, moon stations, etc.), that convey asinister and lonely tone. The viewer never gets a full sense of the geographyor extent of these places, which adds to their mystery and the strong sense ofthings unknown. Everything in the movies is bright white and fluorescentlighting or shades of black, gray, and brown. Wherever the action takes placeis not comforting, it’s not home. 
  • One of the most iconic of movie monsters. The aliens (or “xenomorph” asit’s called in Aliens) are strong,fast, hostile, and look really scary. Aliens are implanted in hosts byface-hugging parasites (hatched from large eggs) that can’t be removed withoutkilling the victim, and are born by horribly bursting through a host’s chest.They bleed highly caustic yellow-green acid blood, rapidly grow to adulthood,have two mouths, and are really hard to kill. 
  • Memorable scenes like the reveal of the “facehugger” and firstchest-bursting in Alien [7],and the alien-marine battles and attempted face-hugging of Ripley and Newt in Aliens

Prometheus and the Alien Saga

A facehugger in action

  • A large, powerful, and nefarious corporation that acts as the internalthreat to the protagonists. In both films the Weyland-Yutani company (not nameduntil the second film) is prepared to sacrifice its own employees to get analien (purportedly for its “bio-weapons division”). This theme is morethoroughly developed in the second movie, probably because the anti-corporatisttrope is very much in James Cameron’s bag of tricks. [8] 
  • A deep universe that includes not only aliens and the Weyland-Yutanicorporation, but the “Space Jockey” species from the derelict alien ship; theunknown origin of the aliens; sci-fi technologies that allow for inter-stellarspace travel, suspended animation, and artificial gravity; and true artificialintelligence in the form of androids nearly indistinguishable from humans and“Mother” the CPU of Nostromo in Alien
  • The strong sexual violation overtones in Alien (especially male sexual violation) in the nature of the alienlifecycle, and the Vietnam War allegory in Alienswhen a high technology military force is decimated by a low-tech enemy [9].

Unfortunately, neither Aliens 3nor Alien Resurrection is of thequality of first two films. Alien 3 is dreary and the fourth film iscartoonish. Fortunately, I don’t think either film affects the first two, thatis, neither of the movies changes the facts or context of the earlier movies.Or in the amount that they do, those facts can be (and I think by fans are)ignored when viewing the first two movies. [10]
However, Prometheus would bea different story. It takes places before the first film and is directed by theman who started the franchise, and therefore, carries more authority to changethe context of the Alien universe. Plus,it’s now been 33 years since Alien,so why revisit the movie, even tangentially, if you’re not going to addsomething really worthwhile to the franchise? So that begs the question, if Prometheus [11] is a true prequel to Alien what can it add to the series?What could it detract?
On the add side, Prometheuscould flesh-out the history of the Space Jockey, the briefly glimpsed creatureand its derelict space craft that was carrying the alien eggs. Where did itcome from and why was it carrying aliens? Are the aliens just another speciesfrom the planet where the Space Jockey came from or were they discovered atsome other location? How did it come to crash (or land) on LV-426? Was itsbeacon, the one that caused the Nostromo to wake up its sleeping crew, sendingout an SOS or a warning? Did the Weyland-Yutani corporation know about thesignal before the Nostromo crew was awakened? Did they know about the ship andits cargo?
On the detract side, Prometheuscould provide answers to the questions above that are unsatisfying. I’d prefer tohave the mystery of the derelict space craft, its crew, and cargo rather than bad,uninteresting explanations. And the trailer leaves me thinking that the movie could go either way. From its brief cuts and snippets ofdialog there definitely seem to be hints about the nature and origin of theSpace Jockey, but there also seems to be a lot about ancient humancivilizations contacted/influenced by aliens, as well as broader involvement bythe Weyland-Yutani corporation in major events long before the timeline of Alien. The latter two elements don’tleave me optimistic.

Prometheus and the Alien Saga

The unstoppable alien

Despite the plotlines involving spaceships and aliens and terra-formingother worlds, Alien and Aliens were really focused stories aboutsmall groups of overmatched humans desperately trying to survive. Prometheus looks to have a canvas farwider than that, and if so, it may be out of step with the original films.(And aliens influencing early man is one of those ideas that I can't swallow, even in a fiction context.)
However, there’s also the positive that Scott obviously values thefirst Alien and has proven himself inthe science fiction genre [12], so maybe he’s done the story right. Andhopefully he doesn’t follow the path that made his other “big” movies, like Gladiator and Robin Hood, such mediocrities. The movie’s release date is set forearly June, summer blockbuster time. We’ll learn whether it’s good or badstarting then. But for a preview, here’s the full trailer.
[1]A smaller version of the annual Comic-Con fanfest.
[2]Actually multiple versions of the trailer.
[3]I refuse to write the 3 as a superscript (i.e., Alien-cubed) as is done in theofficial movie title.
[4]After the sci-fi-action-horror movie Predatorcame out in 1987 there emerged a genre of comic books and novels that pittedthe ferocious aliens versus the advanced predator hunters. This ultimately ledto the Alien vs. Predator movies thatfreely mixed the mythologies of both movie franchises. It’s also worth notingthat Predator 2 featured an alienskull among the Predator’s trophies. On a personal level, Aliens and Predator wereamong the first R-rated movies that I was allowed to watch (as a 7-year-old –my parents had a liberal attitude toward what was appropriate viewing for ayoung child). My dad had video-taped both from HBO and I watched them sofrequently that I wore out the VHS tapes. I think this early childhood exposurehas given me a deeper appreciation of what are two of the best action movies.
[5]Which consisted of Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, Yaphet Kotto, John Hurt,Harry Dean Stanton, Ian Holm, and Veronic Cartwright.
[6]Which included Sigourney Weaver, Michael Biehn, Bill Paxton, Paul Reiser (in arare straight-man role), Jenette Goldstein, and Lance Henriksen.
[7]Which really must have been shocking at the time…it’s still pretty shocking.
[8]Not only the Weyland-Yuntani corporation from Aliens, but also Cyberdine from Terminator2, and the RDA Corporation from Avatar.Cameron also seems to dislike the military, considering their treatment in Aliens, The Abyss, and Avatar.
[9]That’s one perspective on the Vietnam War anyway.
[10]For example, in Alien 3 Ripley hasbeen impregnated with an alien, which apparently was possible because an alienegg was on the Sulaco at the end of Aliens.However, that was in no way shown or hinted at, or really even plausible in Aliens. So I choose to ignore this plotpoint. All the aliens are dead at the end of the movie.
[11]In mythology, Prometheus was the Titan who stole fire from the gods and gave itto mankind. For this betrayal of Zeus he was bound to a rock and had his livereaten by an eagle, only to have it grow back every day to be eaten again. Andmankind in accepting Prometheus’ gift is denied the favor of the Zeus and isforced to endure the daily hardships of life. The lesson is: don’t incite thewrath of the gods. I have no idea whether Scott titled his movie to draw on themythological themes, or whether he just thought the name was cool and adds someliterary weightiness to the movie. Also, it’s worth noting that the ship in themovie is called Prometheus, which is very much in keeping with the seriestendency to name space ships after literary sources. In Alien the ship, Nostromo, shares its name with a Joseph Conrad novel. In Aliens, the Marine ship Sulaco shares its name with the capital cityof the fictional republic of Costaguana where the action of Nostromo takes place. (Note that Idiscovered this correspondence when reading Nostromo,many years after seeing both Alienand Aliens, which must be some sortof commentary on how literary connections and correspondences are communicatedin our age.)
[12]In addition to Alien there is themasterful Blade Runner.

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