Thursday, March 22, 2012

Prometheus and the Alien Saga

by Conroy

This past weekend there was quite a bit of buzz emanating from the WonderCon [1] convention in Anaheim as revered director Ridley Scott revealed more details about his upcoming movie Prometheus. There have been rumors for years that Scott was working on a “prequel” to his landmark 1979 movie Alien, a much-loved, critically-hailed, and very influential film. But Scott and his creative partners have been rather coy about their plans to revisit the Alien “universe”, and so fans were left to wonder whether Prometheus would be a true prequel or only tangentially related to the original. The jury, even after WonderCon, is still out. Scott indicated that Prometheus is definitely related to Alien (“in the same universe”) but it asks different questions and focuses 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 it to others to dissect what can be learned from the two-minute trailer, but suffice it to say it does appear to be both related to and different from the original movie.

I’m a huge fan of both Alien and its first sequel Aliens (more on this below), so Prometheus fills me both with excitement and hesitation. On the one hand, we have an accomplished director revisiting a universe he shaped with the promise of answering questions that have been asked by fans for the past 33 years, along with adding to the mythology of a celebrated movie franchise. This has been done successfully, consider how Francis Ford Coppola expertly fleshed-out the rise of Vito Corleone in The Godfather, Part II. On the other hand, we may get a movie that tacks on a backstory that detracts from the original. Just look at the execrable Star Wars prequels to see how wrong revisiting earlier movies can go.

Still, Prometheus can’t help but 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 intelligence and fundamentally as excellent examples of filmmaking craft. They’re great movies.

The Alien Saga
I’ll assume that if you’ve read this far you’re at least somewhat familiar with the Alien movie franchise. 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 was followed by Alien Resurrection in 1997. 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 universe as the first four. [4]

Alien is set sometime in the future in deep space. The crew of the commercial spacecraft Nostromo is awakened prematurely from suspended animation during their return voyage to Earth to investigate a signal from a nearby moon. There they find a derelict spacecraft and a cargo hold full of live pods, or eggs. One crew member is attacked and incapacitated by an alien parasite. Later, back on their return voyage and after the parasite dies, the crew member, Kane, appears to have recovered. However, he is soon violently killed as an organism bursts from his chest. The creature escapes, grows rapidly, and kills other members of the crew. 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 the survival 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 only one who makes it off the ship alive, and is forced to confront the alien a final time as it has taken surreptitious refuge in the escape shuttle.

This is a horror movie with sci-fi trappings; a monster movie on a spaceship. But it’s executed masterfully: from its measured pacing; setting in space on a large ship full of dark corridors and cavernous mechanical spaces, a murky planet, and a mysterious alien craft; the juxtaposition of light and shadow; a great cast [5] and the let’s-just-get-the-job-done-so-we-can-go-home attitude of their characters; and its hostile and half-seen alien whose lifecycle is truly terrifying. It is without doubt one of the best horror movies ever made.

Aliens is set 57 years after the first movie. By fortune Ripley is rescued after having having passed the decades in suspended animation. She learns that LV-426, the moon from the first film, is now in the process of being terra-formed. Not long after her awakening, contact with the terra-forming colony is lost and a rescue mission, led by colonial marines and including Ripley is dispatched. Once on the moon they find the colony abandoned. The marines are routed by a horde of aliens. Eventually Ripley, again left nearly alone, confronts an alien “queen”. This is an action movie with sci-fi and horror trappings. The sequel uses the first movies visual style and measured pacing. The cast is again superb [6] (Sigourney Weaver was nominated for Best Actress for her role). The change from one hidden alien to many quick-moving, visceral aliens is a great contrast to the 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:

Ellen Ripley - the first female action hero
  • A female heroine. Weaver’s Ellen Ripley was probably the first real female action hero. She is smart, tough, and a survivor. Today female action heroes are common place, but Ripley may be the archetype. 
  • Naturalistic characters, be they engineers, mechanics, bureaucrats, or soldiers, which lend believability to what are, in the end, plots far from any actual human experience. Most of this credit goes to the actors who imbue their characters with a lot more depth than the scripts provide (especially for Alien). 
  • Settings in dark space (ships, moon stations, etc.), that convey a sinister and lonely tone. The viewer never gets a full sense of the geography or extent of these places, which adds to their mystery and the strong sense of things unknown. Everything in the movies is bright white and fluorescent lighting or shades of black, gray, and brown. Wherever the action takes place is not comforting, it’s not home. 
  • One of the most iconic of movie monsters. The aliens (or “xenomorph” as it’s called in Aliens) are strong, fast, hostile, and look really scary. Aliens are implanted in hosts by face-hugging parasites (hatched from large eggs) that can’t be removed without killing 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 first chest-bursting in Alien [7], and the alien-marine battles and attempted face-hugging of Ripley and Newt in Aliens
A facehugger in action

  • A large, powerful, and nefarious corporation that acts as the internal threat to the protagonists. In both films the Weyland-Yutani company (not named until the second film) is prepared to sacrifice its own employees to get an alien (purportedly for its “bio-weapons division”). This theme is more thoroughly developed in the second movie, probably because the anti-corporatist trope is very much in James Cameron’s bag of tricks. [8] 
  • A deep universe that includes not only aliens and the Weyland-Yutani corporation, but the “Space Jockey” species from the derelict alien ship; the unknown origin of the aliens; sci-fi technologies that allow for inter-stellar space travel, suspended animation, and artificial gravity; and true artificial intelligence 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 alien lifecycle, and the Vietnam War allegory in Aliens when a high technology military force is decimated by a low-tech enemy [9].

Unfortunately, neither Aliens 3 nor Alien Resurrection is of the quality of first two films. Alien 3 is dreary and the fourth film is cartoonish. Fortunately, I don’t think either film affects the first two, that is, 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 be a different story. It takes places before the first film and is directed by the man who started the franchise, and therefore, carries more authority to change the 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 add something 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, Prometheus could flesh-out the history of the Space Jockey, the briefly glimpsed creature and its derelict space craft that was carrying the alien eggs. Where did it come from and why was it carrying aliens? Are the aliens just another species from the planet where the Space Jockey came from or were they discovered at some other location? How did it come to crash (or land) on LV-426? Was its beacon, the one that caused the Nostromo to wake up its sleeping crew, sending out an SOS or a warning? Did the Weyland-Yutani corporation know about the signal before the Nostromo crew was awakened? Did they know about the ship and its cargo?

On the detract side, Prometheus could provide answers to the questions above that are unsatisfying. I’d prefer to have 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 of dialog there definitely seem to be hints about the nature and origin of the Space Jockey, but there also seems to be a lot about ancient human civilizations contacted/influenced by aliens, as well as broader involvement by the Weyland-Yutani corporation in major events long before the timeline of Alien. The latter two elements don’t leave me optimistic.

The unstoppable alien
Despite the plotlines involving spaceships and aliens and terra-forming other worlds, Alien and Aliens were really focused stories about small groups of overmatched humans desperately trying to survive. Prometheus looks to have a canvas far wider 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 the first Alien and has proven himself in the science fiction genre [12], so maybe he’s done the story right. And hopefully 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 for early June, summer blockbuster time. We’ll learn whether it’s good or bad starting 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 the official movie title.

[4] After the sci-fi-action-horror movie Predator came out in 1987 there emerged a genre of comic books and novels that pitted the ferocious aliens versus the advanced predator hunters. This ultimately led to the Alien vs. Predator movies that freely mixed the mythologies of both movie franchises. It’s also worth noting that Predator 2 featured an alien skull among the Predator’s trophies. On a personal level, Aliens and Predator were among 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 a young child). My dad had video-taped both from HBO and I watched them so frequently that I wore out the VHS tapes. I think this early childhood exposure has 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 a rare 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 Terminator 2, 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 has been impregnated with an alien, which apparently was possible because an alien egg 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 plot point. 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 it to mankind. For this betrayal of Zeus he was bound to a rock and had his liver eaten by an eagle, only to have it grow back every day to be eaten again. And mankind in accepting Prometheus’ gift is denied the favor of the Zeus and is forced to endure the daily hardships of life. The lesson is: don’t incite the wrath of the gods. I have no idea whether Scott titled his movie to draw on the mythological themes, or whether he just thought the name was cool and adds some literary weightiness to the movie. Also, it’s worth noting that the ship in the movie is called Prometheus, which is very much in keeping with the series tendency 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 city of the fictional republic of Costaguana where the action of Nostromo takes place. (Note that I discovered this correspondence when reading Nostromo, many years after seeing both Alien and Aliens, which must be some sort of commentary on how literary connections and correspondences are communicated in our age.)

[12] In addition to Alien there is the masterful Blade Runner.

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