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Prometheus and the Alien Saga: Revisited

Posted on the 15 June 2012 by Conroy @conroyandtheman
by Conroy
Prometheus and the Alien Saga: RevisitedA few months ago I posted on the then upcoming film Prometheus and how it may or may not relate to the Alien movie franchise. While I was excited to see a film where director Ridley Scott went back to the “Alien universe”, I was nervous that Prometheus might fail to live up to Alienor Aliens or even undermine some of the mystery that was crucial to the first film. Now having actually seen Prometheus and having thought about it for a few days, I can discuss what the film does and doesn’t accomplish.
[SPOILER ALERT…CRITICAL DETAILS ABOUT PROMETHEUS FOLLOW]
Prometheus and the AlienUniverse
The story of Prometheus “exists”, without question, within the Alienuniverse [1]. For instance, in Prometheus a science mission travels far across space to a moon (LV-223) in search of the “Engineers” a humanoid species apparently worshipped several millennia ago by primitive cultures all over Earth. The Engineers turn out to be the Space Jockey species glimpsed aboard the derelict spacecraft in Alien. And the spacecraft of the Engineers is of the same design as the Space Jockey ship seen in Alien. The humans are soon confronted with a host of creatures that share characteristics with the iconic alien, including an unremitting hostility, caustic blood, and a terrifying lifecycle. There is even a xenomorph-like [2] creature “born” at the end of the film. One of the more interesting aspects of the Alien movies was the existence of androids and their relationship to humans. Prometheus continues this, and indeed one of its most interesting characters, David portrayed excellently by Michael Fassbender, is an android whose nuanced but company-first behavior hints strongly of the android Ash in Alien. And while I'm on characters, Prometheus continues the Alien franchise’s tradition of strong female leads, this time with Noomi Rapace playing Elizabeth Shaw as a scientist turned survivor.
Beyond these direct connections between Prometheus and the Alienmovies, there are the stylistic and thematic similarities. Like all Ridley Scott movies Prometheus is wonderfully rendered, but it maintains the dark tones and sharp division between dirty grays, browns, and blacks, and crisp almost sterile whites that are such hallmarks of the Alien movies. This isn’t to say that there isn’t ample color in the movie (there certainly is, especially inside of the ship Prometheus) but the movie more or less adheres to the color palette established by Scott in Alien. Perhaps the most incongruous thing is that Prometheusin 2012 includes a vision of late-21st-century technology (holographic survey models, advanced smart-phone/iPad like computers, robotic surgical capsules, etc.) that were entirely (and intentionally) absent from Alien in 1979, a story which ostensibly takes place long after the events in the later film [3].

Prometheus and the Alien Saga: Revisited

David, the complicated android

Many of Prometheus’s themes align with Alien and Aliens. In general, the Alienuniverse is a hostile place. Individuals like Ripley and the other major characters have few or no friends, love is distant or hidden, trust is fleeting, and ultimately, survival becomes the entire focus of Ripley and those around her. These themes, along with others, are all front and center in Prometheus. In the purest sense of the word Prometheus isn’t a prequel to Alien, the end of Prometheus does not lead to the beginning of Alien or even demand that the story ultimately get there. But it is a movie that takes place in the Alienuniverse sometime before the events of the first film.
Unanswered Questions
Prometheus is a thoughtful film in that is raises questions about the creation of man in an original way. The film suggests and then later seems to confirm that humans were created not in the image of God (at least not directly) but in the image of the Engineers, an advanced extraterrestrial species. Following clues unearthed in archeological finds all over Earth, a team of scientists determines that the Engineers came from a distant star system invisible to early man, and interprets this as a message from the Engineers to find them when man is ready [4]. A scientific expedition funded and directed by the Weyland corporation [5] travels to the star system in the hopes of finding the Engineers and gaining answers to some of the eternal questions that have haunted man throughout history. Where did we come from? Who made us? Where are we going?
The expedition arrives at moon LV-223 only, seemingly, to find a long abandoned station with no living Engineers left. However, like the eggs in Alien, things inside the station are in fact dormant, not dead. As events unfold it becomes clear that the station isn’t a place to find answers but a place entirely toxic – hostile, to hammer home a theme of the Alien universe – to humans. And the Engineers aren’t interested in teaching man but seem to have been planning for man’s eradication. The original questions remain unanswered and many more arise. Why are the Engineers ready to eliminate the human species? Where are they really from? What went wrong at this “dead” station?
Readers of this blog will know that I like this type of uncertainty and unknowing. The more I study the universe the weirder and more indifferent to humanity it seems [6]. Questions of man’s origin, be it God or nature or the product of alien Engineers, should be left obscured in art so they can better reflect the obscurity of reality. Several reviewers have criticized Prometheus for leaving too many unanswered questions, a point-of-view that I fundamentally disagree with. Humans have learned so much in the last several thousand years, but there is vastly more that we don’t know. I appreciate a movie like Prometheus that asks a lot of big questions and shows us an original idea but that doesn’t pretend to have an insight on all the secrets of the universe.
 
Criticisms
In addition to unanswered question, critics have suggested that the plot of Prometheus is predictable. I don’t think that’s true. Rather than critiquing the plot, a better question to ask is whether the characters stay true to their motivations and behave like human beings. And in this movie they do. But shunting these criticisms aside doesn’t mean the movie is flawless.
So, I will levy a couple of criticisms at the movie. First near the end of the film there are a couple of action sequences that while spectacular are, for lack of a better description, too big. In the movie's most expansive sequence two spacecraft collide and then fall to ground in an over extended crash. You’ve seen these types of scenes in countless big budget action and science fiction movies over the last decade plus. At a film’s climax too much action happens too quickly and on too large a scale. Characters end up getting dwarfed in the moment when they should be the focus of the movie’s attention. The most riveting action sequences of all time, think of the assault on Omaha Beachthat opened Saving Private Ryan or even the alien battle sequences in Aliens, stay close to human reality. When giant spaceships are exploding and crashing to ground a viewer can’t feel much because what’s being viewed can’t be related to any past experience or intuitive reality. Alien and Aliens avoided any moments like this and Scott probably could have kept them out of Prometheus. I’m keen on noting that an effective action sequence should thrill you and an effective horror scene should scare you. If at a moment of high stress you can ask the question, “If I were the character what would I do now?,” and your answer is just what the character is doing, the movie has succeeded. These too big action sequences don’t even let you ask that question.

Prometheus and the Alien Saga: Revisited

Shaw soon after her emergency "cesarean"

My other criticism relates to another aspect that has seeped into 21stcentury movies and television, what I’ll term the invincible human. An example is when a movie or TV character is shot but somehow quickly recovers to fight bad guys and soon thereafter shows no ill effects from a bullet mutilating part of their body. This happens to Shaw in Prometheus. In the movie’s most intense and gut-churning scene [7] she undergoes a radical cesarean section. Literally only minutes later she's able to run and jump and avoid falling spacecraft; I don’t think so.
These elements all occur in the third act of the movie and ultimately keep it from being a science fiction masterpiece along the lines of Alien or Scott’s Blade Runner or that similar space-based, big-question movie 2001: A Space Odyssey.
A Sequel?
There is already a lot of speculation about the chances of a sequel. Neither Ridley Scott nor writer Damon Lindelof have committed on way or another except to note that a sequel to Prometheuswould not dovetail into Alien. As the movie is constructed it could stand alone or be the first in a series. Although if a sequel follows the survivors of this movie (like Aliens and Alien 3 did), it would have to be a very different movie. Prometheushas presented some interesting questions and ideas, a sequel could explore these further.
It’s also very speculative to assume that Scott would direct a sequel to one of his own films [8], something he’s never done over his long career. So far (as of mid-June) the movie has grossed more than $150 million worldwide. If it continues to make money, the executives at Fox Studios may push for a follow-up. As movie viewers we can only hope that a sequel would bring on a creative team to match this original [9].
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NOTES:
[1]And in this context that not only means the timeline or major events that occurred in the four previous Alien movies (Alien vs. Predator movies excluded), but also the dark visual style and tone of the earlier films.
[2]This was a term introduced in Aliensfor the alien monster.
[3]My dad often pointed out to me – starting at least 20 years ago – that the one aspect of Alien that dated very fast was its depiction of computers and ship controls and terminals. Of course I was and am willing to give this a pass, but there’s no denying that Prometheus’s vision of future tools and computers is more convincing and more interesting than that of Alien. Scott may have been going for a “truckers in space” dirty version of space travel in Alien, but there’s no getting around the fact the space travel is a costly, high-tech endeavor. In this regard Prometheus is a more realistic ship than the Nostromo.
[4]As I mentioned in my first post on this movie, I hate these aliens visiting early man plot lines, but Scott handles it well in Prometheus by suggesting not that early man was taught by extraterrestrials, but rather that man was created by them. This is an original idea and Scott deserves credit for enlivening (or avoiding) what is a tired concept.
[5]Is it possible that the Weyland Corporation, which at some point becomes the Weyland-Yutani Corporation, is one of the largest and most nefarious corporations ever depicted on film? Now over four Alien movies, Prometheus, and even the Alien vs. Predatorfilms, we have seen this company funding massive science missions, as a major off-Earth mining operation, terra-forming far away moons, exploring/exploiting ancient discoveries on Earth, all the while seeking desperately to capture the hostile alien for part of its “bio-weapons division”. Not to mention its role in say, artificial intelligence, long-range space travel, “hypersleep”, artificial gravity, and the many other as-yet-to-be-developed technologies presented in the Alien universe. An interesting movie or book could probably be dedicated just to this fictional company.
[6]Consider for instance that physicists have no proven explanation (or even satisfying theories) for the dark energy and dark matter that make up 96% of the “stuff” in our universe.
[7]No pun intended.
[8]He did direct the wretched Hannibal, the very poor sequel to Silence of the Lambs.
[9]Like what happened with Aliens.

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