For those who were worried Ridley Scott’s Prometheus would mindlessly follow the formula of the first Alien movie, you can rest assured: Prometheus has no idea what movie’s formula it wants to follow. Is it the original Alien, with its dank interiors and growing, unpredictable dangers in and outside the body; the menacing, callous, yet strangely human androids from Blade Runner; The Grey’s existential pondering, Avatar’s sense of awe and mysticism; perhaps even the gritty, immediate recording quality of a Blair Witch Project or Paranormal Activity? Prometheus tries to deliver a cohesive message through a compelling story using these disparate, often contradictory parts from better movies, and it fails on most counts. And it might be because of what’s often considered the movie’s most noble aspect, that it distances itself so aggressively from the Alien movies.
There are other problems too, including basic storytelling 101 flubs even mystery-obsessed speculative fiction should adhere to. Red Letter Media sums up the film’s plot holes and its disregard for clarity well enough. I’m less concerned with these specific, frustrating moments than how Ridley Scott doomed the project the moment he started advertising it.
It’s not an Alien movie?
For those unfamiliar with Prometheus‘s development, it was originally intended as a straightforward prequel to Alien explaining the “Space Jockey,” or the dead alien sitting in the crashed ship with the Xenomorph pods, along with other mythological issues directly connected to the film. Ridley Scott decided at some point in production to completely rework the plot and remove most references to Alien in hopes of telling a different story – that just happens to be set in the same universe as Alien.
Which sounds admirable, especially compared to prequels like The Thing and Halloween and Nightmare on Elm Street, shallow copycats of the original material, but if Ridley Scott wanted to tell a different story maybe he should have completely excised the Alien elements, made a more direct prequel, or at least not told the press Prometheus is not an Alien movie. It seems counterintuitive – shouldn’t Ridley Scott be honest about his work? – but it’s less about honesty than the expectations you create.
An example: parents and teachers often advise teenagers not to use drugs, drink underage, or have premarital sex. They usually justify it on the grounds it’s “not fun” but “destructive,” “not fulfilling” but “hollow,” all pretty true from their perspective. And yet teenagers often use drugs, drink, and have sex anyway. They ignore the positive qualities – as in the qualities adults attach to drug use, like “destructive” and “hollow” – and hone in on the negative qualities, or what these activities supposedly aren’t. Underage drinking is “not fun,” parents say, but now the word “fun” has been brought to the discourse and the question becomes, “Is drinking fun or not fun?” You can’t argue one side of a dichotomy without implicitly mentioning the other.
Likewise, Ridley Scott’s arguing that Prometheus is not, or more than, or separate from Alien begs the question “Is Prometheus an Alien film or not an Alien film?” Whether it is or not, it’s being discussed strictly in terms of its connection to Alien. An audience member walking into the theatre might wonder, “Is Sigourney Weaver going to make a cameo?” or “Will an alien burst out of someone’s chest?” or “When am I going to see how the first Alien happens?” My dad asked me what Prometheus was about and I said, “It’s like an Alien film but not quite.” You’ve probably said nearly the same thing at some point.
So Prometheus is built on a catch-22: even when it’s not explicitly an Alien movie, audiences are thinking of it as an Alien movie. How can Ridley Scott tell the story he wants to to when he’s bound to the franchise he’s trying to push away?
It is not an Alien movie! … Sort of
Ridley Scott resolves this problem, or thinks he does, by restricting the Alien connection to Prometheus’s infrastructure while altering the specific details inside it. Looked at broadly, the plot plays out as it did in Alien: a mixed group of researchers and blue-collar ship workers discover a crashed ship on a seemingly desolate planet filled with dormant alien life, and once awakened this life destroys the humans in increasingly creative ways until there is only one, an emotionally traumatized but nonetheless determined woman who can hold her own amongst the men. There’s also a robot, a member of the crew just as menacing as the alien, who works through manipulation and subterfuge until, in its destruction, the AI offers the surviving character backhanded help.
Except the ship in Alien was a commercial freighter answering a transmission from the crashed ship under mysterious orders, while Prometheus’s crew leaves Earth with the intent of finding a planet, its coordinates culled from patterns in prehistorical art, that might answer the age-old question, “What created life?” Prometheus emphasizes the scientists over the gruff, money-hungry pilots and engineers, so where Alien‘s no-nonsense team had no interest in philosophizing, the Prometheus crew are all about it, sorting through conflicts such as: religion vs. science, immortality vs. mortality, humans vs. AI, etc. Noomi Rapace’s Elizabeth Shaw is no Ellen Ripley: she’s not a cynical, hardened mother type but a young, untested, wide-eyed idealist whose firm notions of good and bad give her a reserve of strength to draw upon when threatened. The AI character, David, also stands apart from Alien‘s Ash. Michael Fassbender plays David as less villain and more curious, grown-up child, aware of its prejudiced treatment by humans, and not so much vengeful as fascinated by the idea of treating humans the same way humans treat robots.
These all sound like compelling distinctions, no? And they would be, if screenwriters Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof, under Ridley Scott’s supervision, hadn’t cobbled them together so sloppily, taking obvious cues from movies that took the time to use these elements carefully and correctly. You saw my list at the beginning; let’s go through some examples:
1) Prometheus wants to raise “Big Questions” by making Shaw a Christian scientist and her boyfriend Holloway an atheist/agnostic, with obvious existential undertones. In The Grey, the battle between faith and logic was fought by Liam Neeson and ravenous wolves in the Alaskan wilderness, and what a battle it was. Joe Carnahan knew what issues his movie was dealing with and he built his movie accordingly around these themes. Scott, Spaihts, and Lindelof aren’t so certain, and they end up tacking these themes onto a film structured like a horror movie: characters ask questions about spirituality and Darwinism that are quickly dropped once faces start melting and squid-monsters get yanked from stomachs. It doesn’t help the screenwriting is subpar, and the questions so heavy-handed they never feel natural, even in individual scenes.
2) At several points the film includes shots intended to represent the the camera feed on the researchers’ space suit, which are grainy, shaky, and plagued by muffled audio. You’ve seen this type of shot in every “found footage” film, from The Blair Witch Project to Cloverfield, and while you may have issue with the format it is undeniable these movies were serious about their choices. They stick to a shaky handheld aesthetic from start to finish. Prometheus picks up and drops the format when it wishes, without rhyme or reason, and always at inopportune moments. It could distinguish itself from Alien in a new, potent way by including several scares while we are trapped to the camera’s blurry, claustrophobic gaze, but the idea never crosses the film’s mind.
3) Even amidst the suspense and growing panic, Marc Streitenfeld’s score favors majestic, orchestrated numbers over the series’ more common soundtrack – shrill, atonal pieces with thundering percussion and shrieks. This works in fragments, such as the opening scene depicting the start of life on Earth: here a sense of grandeur, reinforced by panoramas of immature, primitive landscape borrowed from 2001 and Planet of the Apes, along with a pale, CGI alien more similar to Avatar‘s Na’vi than Alien’s revolving door of grotesque fiends, is appropriate to depicting an origin story. It becomes irrelevant once blood starts spilling, yet Streitenfeld never fully makes the shift.
In each case, Ridley Scott and crew reach an impasse. Because the audience, and I’m sure the studios, expect something like an Alien movie, they have to maintain the Alien identity, even if through indirect means like atmosphere and story structure. This semblance of identity would not be a problem, except when it comes time for Prometheus to distinguish itself it draws upon themes uniformly opposed to the Alien structure, themes easily recognizable from other more successful films. And once those connections are established along with the Alien one, Prometheus is doomed. It’s an Alien film as well as every other science-fiction film ever made, just with most of their strengths excised and replaced with a sense of copycat repetition, ineptitude, and emptiness.
(Before anyone object – yes, I’m aware there’s “nothing new under sun,” we are ruled by the postmodern reality of imitating everything that comes before us, and if Prometheus resembles twenty movies in its construction this is not inherently a mark against its quality. That is not the problem. The problem is that those influences cancel each other out, particularly with the biggest influence of them all, and it’s difficult to appreciate a film when the films I’m reminded of while watching it come back to me more vividly than what’s presently on screen.)
The Sequel / Standalone False Dichotomy
But how does Prometheus‘s inability to synthesize its themes and tones means Ridley Scott would have been better making either a straightforward prequel to Alien or an unrelated, standalone sci-fi film? This question seems counterintuitive – who would want to make just another Alien movie? – until you ask that same question differently: Did James Cameron make just another Alien movie? Was The Empire Strikes Back just another Star Wars film? A sequel/prequel/franchise installment, if it’s a good one, can follow in the footsteps of its predecessors, whether by continuing the narrative or maintaining some thematic elements, while retaining its autonomy. The Empire Strikes Back brought us the continuing adventures of Luke Skywalker and friends, but the adventures were darker now – the danger seemed more real, evil won some battles, and hope, so fresh in Episode IV, was old and decrepit by the time Empire’s opening crawl rolled by. If Alien gave us sci-fi horror, Aliens introduced the sci-fi action thriller. It pitted the Xenomorphs against shit-talking, gun-toting Marines, just to show how nobody, armed or not, is a match for the alien threat without the right mix of luck and determination. Cameron, like Scott, knew how to keep raising the stakes. He simply sped up the process, made the stakes even higher (a cavern with dozens of Xenomorphs, plus one Xenomorph Queen, plus time limit, plus captured, helpless girl – with no help), created fuller characters to invest in, and packed the film with nearly twice the content the first Alien had – yet through it all Aliens distinctly remains an Alien movie, and an endearing part of the franchise.
But what about the bad Alien movies? Fat lot of good following the leader did for Alien 3 and Alien: Resurrection. I can’t deny these are fundamentally flawed works, but was the problem with these films their Alien identity, or extraneous issues – storytelling, directing, the production process – removed from anything connecting it to Alien and Aliens? I’m going to make the maybe controversial claim that Alien 3 and Resurrection should not be so easily dismissed for their failures. At times they’re beautiful messes, making fascinating choices amidst the errors and frustration, and their place in the Alien franchise has no bearing on the strength of these successes. If one resists the knee-jerk impulse to condemn a sequel/prequel as merely dragging out a franchise, and steps back from the equally foolish notion that an original premise is enough to to give a film credence, one’s world-view of cinema expands dramatically.
Let’s see how my hypothesis holds up with the two films in question. First…
Of the bad Alien movies, Alien 3 is the most forgettable. Its uniformly brown palette, indistinguishable supporting cast, and mediocre Xenomorph effects fail to leave any lasting impression. Worse, Alien 3 breaks a fundamental rule of improvisation and storytelling: never say “no” to the previous action or decision. By starting the film with the deaths of the three surviving, non-Ripley characters in Aliens – Newt, Hicks, Bishop – Alien 3 gives audiences the middle finger for their sympathy. It breaks the chain of continuity between the movies, disrespects the characters’ substance, and ruins any chance at expanding upon Cameron and Scott’s world, forcing itself to start from scratch. And then it keeps making the same mistake. It kills off Clemens as he starts growing as a character. It revives Bishop briefly only to tack on a lousy excuse for why he must be killed off again. Alien 3 finds a way, at every turn, to subvert its own plot development.
Even with these failures Alien 3 does one thing right: it discusses religion in a subtle, seamless fashion, never forcing it, allowing it to exist at the edges in our periphery. Ridley Scott put all manpower into distancing Prometheus from Alien so he could discuss religion. Alien 3 accomplishes the same by adding a single, potent character: Charles S. Dutton’s Dillon.
Dillon is one of the inmates in the prison colony Ripley crash lands into, their main leader under the warden and a spiritual guide who’s helped foster Christian fundamentalism amongst the ex-murderers, rapists, and thieves. He leads the charge against Ripley’s presence amongst his men – they have not seen a women in years and have taken vows of celibacy – and is quick to rebuke Ripley when she approaches him. “You don’t want to know me,” he tells her. “I’m a murderer and rapist of women.” He appears at first as a man struggling to hold onto his faith against sin.
But then it becomes clear he has the greatest faith of everyone. He saves Ripley from being raped by the other inmates and supports her once the Xenomorph’s presence is proven. He rallies the group together around his singular vision of destroying the alien and concocts most of the plans to fight it. Like Elizabeth Shaw, Dillon is a devout character who maintains his spirituality against the alien crisis, but he has the advantage over Elizabeth in that his faith is often unspoken. He does not ask if there is a God or not. He never justifies his beliefs out loud. He doesn’t have to: he’s internalized it and built it at his core. It colors his every word, action, and thought.
So when Ripley finds out she’s carrying a Xenomorph baby and begs Dillon to kill her with it, we can spot the “abortion / pro-life” undertones. Dillon says nothing about it, Ripley says nothing about it, but it’s there and we know it. Instead of rambling about preserving all life, even the most evil (or something else painfully obvious), Dillon justifies keeping Ripley alive on the grounds her death would be a silent victory for the Xenomorphs. It’s really an ingenious dramatic device. Maybe Dillon didn’t kill Ripley because he’s uncomfortable with the abortion implication. The possibility’s there for us to ask, but the film knows better than to put neon signs around it, ruining the magic of seeing the subconscious dialogue between the characters.
Incidentally, Prometheus’s one knockout sequence, Elizabeth’s surgery to remove the alien-squid-monster she’s been impregnated with, would have made Alien 3 at least 10% better if included there instead. There the theme of carrying a monstrous fetus was half the movie, and rather than forcing Ripley to sacrifice herself in an overwrought, melodramatic display, the film could have brought her face-to-face with both the pain of childbirth and the fear that the infant will be plagued, sickly, or otherwise twisted (another film with this same theme, expertly done: Cronenberg’s The Fly) through a similar surgery. In Prometheus, the scene’s justification is provided only seconds before – with the sudden declaration of Elizabeth’s infertility – and it drops the theme once Elizabeth kills the alien. A disappointing waste of one of this decade’s greatest instances of body horror (Human Centipede doesn’t count).
Resurrection does nothing nearly as genius as Alien 3 did with Dillon, but unlike the bulk of Alien 3, I remember most of Alien: Resurrection thanks to its sheer audacity. It barely resembles the first three Alien films in tone. Its villains are more blatantly villainous – the scientists a batch of amoral automatons, the soldiers brainless, the corporate suits all of the above – its horror is laced with Evil Dead style black comedy, and its overall arc resembles high fantasy, with its ensemble cast of eccentric, unlikely heroes (a whiny android, an abrasive cripple, Ron Perlman), more than horror or an action-thriller. You can thank or curse Joss Whedon’s comic-paced script, along with Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s cartoonish direction, for the tonal switch.
But unlike Prometheus the change is consistent, and it remains, with Ripley’s return and the omnipresent Xenomorph threat, an Alien movie. A dumber, sillier, at times misguided Alien movie, but an Alien movie nonetheless. If you enter the film with that mindset, then for all its flaws – shallow plot, weak characterization, a major let-down of a climax – it provides as much entertainment as your average B-horror flick. Where else will you find Dan Hedaya scooping out bits of his brain, or Ron Perlman shooting a tiny spider because it scared him, or this?
There is a lesson to be learned, though, behind the exaggerated violence and nonsensical plot turns, about good filmmaking. A throwaway line by Winona Ryder’s character – “These things will make the Lacerta Plague look like a fucking square dance” – establishes a broader universe beyond the events portrayed on screen. It’s one of Whedon’s hallmarks and a nice touch to show, yes, Resurrection takes place a long ways away in the future, and a lot has happened between then, the previous Alien films, and the present. Prometheus takes place at the turn of the next century, and yet its characters still talk like it’s 1990: the ship’s pilot owns a squeezebox once belonging to Stephen Stills and sings “Love the One You’re With,” while David watches Lawrence of Arabia and readily quotes it. Both are great, characterizing touches, and I don’t intend to suggest they be removed, but there is nothing, beyond the obvious upgrades in space travel and technology, to suggest a century has elapsed in human art, culture, or politics. It’s not impossible to convey: Resurrection did it with just two words, and Blade Runner bases its most famous speech on a list of unknown locales and events.
And, I will admit, despite the criticisms leveled against it by Doug Walker’s review and the inherent creepiness in Brad Dourif’s acting, the scene between his scientist character and the captive Xenomorph is the one part of Resurrection I appreciate as actual cinema and not just fun schlock. It’s a simple, silent moment, consisting largely of two camera angles and clearly defined suspense – can the Xenomorph break through the glass? – but most importantly it works. And that’s all I ask of any scene in the Alien series or elsewhere.
Alien 3 and Alien: Resurrection remain bad works of art despite my reevaluation. There is no denying the weight of their flaws against the few things they do right. Still, it is invaluable to note in both cases the distinction between how they fit into the Alien franchise – an element irrelevant to the work’s quality – and how they take the pieces of their story, whether connected to Alien lore or another science-fiction work, and craft creative themes from it. In some cases, I hope I’ve shown, the bad Alien movies make better decisions using their source material (and cinematic common sense) than Prometheus does splitting itself off from the franchise. The first three Alien sequels never stressed about whether they could be good movies despite following another film’s lead, and if Ridley Scott acknowledged this and worried less about Prometheus’s connection to Alien, I’m sure the film would have evolved a more organic, cohesive framework during production. As is, it’s a walking identity crisis, made more sour by poor screenwriting and a lack of thematic focus.