Part 2. Franchise, Wealth & Success
1979 >> Fast Forward >> Alien becomes a franchise, Aliens expands and continues the story admirably, making a combat film of exhilaration and terror. There ends the serious entries – remember the cat rule! – in the story. The rest, while of interest, are not of the same calibre – and once the Alien was vs things (I’m not saying it) it was a schlocky joke for late night popcorn eating. It is this unwieldy corporate property that now wanders the cultural landscape, the unintended consequence of an act of creation, as dangerous as any monster from the Baron’s laboratory. Scott perhaps wanted to rescue his legacy from this, perhaps in a way he saw returning to the Alien universe as a way to reconnect with his youth. Prometheus is a signifier of a great many emotional and psychological needs of the makers, all of which sit uneasily together in a fragmenting mess finally sank by a script that…well Ridley should have known better.
“And now, once again, I bid my hideous progeny go forth and prosper. I have an affection for it, for it was the offspring of happy days, when death and grief were but words, which found no true echo in my heart.”
– Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
Let’s get to the positives first. Prometheus is well shot, it has high production values, it has a great cast in Noomi Rapace and Michael Fassbender, though less in other departments (you know who you are!), while it wastes the godlike Benedict Wong (@wongrel for he is Errol) and Kate Dickie (so good in Red Road). The design of the spaceship Prometheus is splendid, the space suits, gadgets and vehicles less so, but you could tell they spent money on them, so there’s that. I suppose.
The profound sign things had taken a turn for the prosaic was when rumours from the set revealed the pilot/space jockey was no longer a biomechanoid organism (or organ) that had seemed to grow out of the vehicle it was in, as it was in Alien. As if it might simply be a specialised part of a living organism that functioned as a transport device, or a donor being to a Leviathan of the stars. No, when in doubt, they plumped for the least interesting least challenging alteration to Alien lore: in Prometheus the pilot/space jockey was actually…drum roll… a big humanoid in a spacesuit! (Now this is important in genre terms: historically science fiction has always suffered in cinema and TV because alien lifeforms for reasons of practicality/budget have to pretty well much be a person in make-up, a suit or a puppet of some nature. Admittedly the Giger xenomorph in Alien was a very tall thin guy in a suit, but the gestalt of tubes, mandibles and a sexualised smooth eyeless headpiece offset the limitations thrillingly. So with CGI and puppet technology advanced so much by 2011, they went for… a man in a suit, like the cheapest Dr Who episode you can imagine. So the possibilities of an Alien ecosystem, an incomprehensible vehicle and technology, became… a bloke in suit, albeit big and bald in a rubber muscle costume with some touches of biomechanoid suit cos hey, why not? A facile design cue to associate with the biomechanoid brand, like a Nike swoosh that winks – Wooh Giger, remember that freaky shit?)
This indicated a profound lack of ambition in the project. While wishing to examine the origins of human life on Earth may seem ambitious, once it was tied to ancient astronaut theory and Scott cited Erich von Däniken, faces were palmed globally. At a time when an assertive skeptic movement is growing worldwide (and finding its feet as it suffers through birth pangs of arrogance, bigotry and misogyny) to have a supposedly zeitgeist capturing science fiction film fall back on the most laughable theories of the 70’s was a disappointment to say the least… Not that exogenesis is scientifically implausible, but ancient carvings showing spacemen is. (Religions & human vanity may wish it otherwise but life on Earth may very well have begun with the equivalent of a syphilis virus hitchhiking here on an asteroid, perhaps if we were to meet our maker we will be disappointed to learn we are as valued as cancer).
Nevertheless, let’s keep an open mind. This film purports to occur at a time before Alien was set, just ignore the better technology of the Prometheus as compared to the Nostromo, explained to an uncritical fanbase as – “well it’s a top of the line corporate ship not an old freighter”. (Another example of the creative team taking easy options over new challenges, it would have been a design challenge to see them pull off tech that was exciting to a 2012 audience but also retained a continuity to the fictional word.) Prometheus was a prequel of sorts, and by the time the almost daily rewritten scripted (a rumour) feature film Prometheus reached us, it was retaining ‘Alien DNA’ but was not a prequel per se. I was eager to see it. (At this point can I just say how wonderful it is to have a decaying local cinema, the Empire Holyhead, that only charges £2.50 as a Monday & Thursday special, you feel so less cheated as you walk out … even if the carpet is home to substances far nastier than any engineer goo.)
Prometheus as a cultural artefact does hold great fascination and meaning, but as a movie experience it’s like a fart in a spacesuit. This film told us a great many things about the context of its production and the state of a certain type of filmmaking. It was also, I believe, a far more personal statement by Ridley Scott than has hitherto been explored. For an old man – Scott is 75 this month – to return to his most famous early work was always a risky endeavour. Once again the obscure relationship between the Alien and the Star Wars franchises should have been a warning, two words Ridders – Phantom Menace. Yet Scott always had something interesting to bring to the table, his darkness of disposition and visual sense would guarantee something worth seeing, and it has, but…
One of the themes of Prometheus is the deposing of power, the shattering of illusions. Weyland is a dying old man who seeks a way to avoid death, Shaw is a theist who seeks an answer to who made life in the universe (her partner, for some inexplicable reason, is a an alcohol abusing immature frat boy with zero mission safety skills, but don’t worry we’ll get to that). David, likewise as the artificial life-form, represents man acting as creator. That he betrays his makers and seems far more enamoured of the Engineers could have been better explored, but nonetheless it had a nice whiff of the panic heresy inculcates in the faithful. He chooses to reject his creator, free will within artificial intelligence, while the humans slavishly agonise over their origins. You can almost regard Prometheus as Ridley Scott’s Jurassic Park, bleaker, more viscous but some similar mainstream Hollywood level of discourse over creation and human ethics. It’s just, well, Alien hinted at more than that, Scott is smarter than that.
Scott is also a businessman, a role he stressed during promotion. He tried for the toughest film he could get while still ensuring it could be seen by young teenagers in most territories. This alone is cause for some rising bile among Alien lovers: Alien for its time was in the upper reaches of what could be shown on screen in terms of violence, Prometheus is happy to occupy a common mainstream band where violence can be shown but the consequences of violence is far too grown up for the target demographic. Every King has his day is a theme, as the Weyland familial dynamic replays King Lear, the theme of supremacy being overthrown. It is hard not to see Scott has admirably reflected on this and his own position within cinema mediated through Prometheus, yet such mature and thoughts of mortality again are mishandled in the muddled script.
Bear With Me…
Ok, I’m getting to it… look, the direction was proficient and expert but not mould breaking or inspired. Ridley must know his age is now weighing upon him, he said he’d used every trick in the book to bring scares to the audience, but we wanted something more than tricks learnt in Hollywood. The design is proficient, it is an A list blockbuster, but again uninspired especially in its depiction of non-human elements. They kept touches of Giger yet lacked another artist of his originality to come in and give the audience something truly alien to marvel at. The cast was pricey though most had little to do with very poor lines. Ok, ok I’ve pretty well much got there… it’s the script, apparently from an idea Scott discussed and redrafted many times before the Spaihts Lindelof version came to screen. So meet Damon Lindelof, the real villain of this piece. To Be Continued in…
Part 3: Lost in Space
Prometheus or How The Corporation Defeated The Alien
Part 1. Born Slimy
Part 2. Franchise, Wealth & Success
Part 3. Lost in Space