Hollywood loves a good franchise. The movie-going public does too. Horror, action, comedy, sci-fi, western, no genre is safe. And any film, no matter how seemingly stand-alone, conclusive, or inappropriate to sequel, could generate an expansive franchise. They are legion. We are surrounded. But a champion has risen from the rabble to defend us. Me. I have donned my sweats and taken up cinema’s gauntlet. Don’t try this at home. I am a professional.
The Franchise: Alien — concerning the expansive universe of a deadly species of creature known as a xenomorph. The creatures have thus far appeared four feature films, as well as two spin-off films, literature, comic books, and video games. For the purposes of this column we will be focusing on the primary Alien franchise – detailing the saga of Ellen Ripley’s involvement with the xenomorphs and the equally nefarious Weylan-Yutani corporation – and 2012’s Prometheus.
The Installment: Prometheus (2012)
When open on an unspecified world at an unspecified time, as a ghostly white humanoid alien eats some crazy shit that dissolves its body and send its molecules into a river stream. Then we hop over to specified Earth, 2089, when two archaeologists, Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green), discover some ancient cave paintings that feature a star map. Cut to 2093, when Elizabeth and Charlie are leading a mission sponsored by the Weyland Corporation to investigate the planet indicated in that star map. They arrive on the distant planet to discover the remnants of what Elizabeth and Charlie believe are the aliens who created life on Earth. It seems as though our creators all died when something went wrong at their facility, and wouldn’t you know it, the moment our peeps show up things start going wrong for them too. Mysterious black goo oozes out of mysterious black cylinders located in the mysterious alien relic, and soon everyone starts dying either from monster-infections or violent creatures that spring forth from the mysterious black goo. But what does it all mean!?!?
Viewed solely on its own terms, Prometheus is an intriguing – if caviler – experiment. It is a metaphysical gumbo of science-fantasy that works much in the same way actual gumbo does, with an overload of ingredients filling out the overall flavor, masking the fact that its made up from whatever randomness the cook had on hand. It is messy, but one thing you can’t deny Prometheus — it is utterly batshit ridiculous for an A-list tentpole motion picture. Even in an era where superheroes, vampires, and boy wizards comprise the majority of our big summer blockbusters, this movie feels outlandishly genre, and exceedingly strange. In this sense, it is a fitting return to the Alien franchise for Ridley Scott, who blew minds in 1979 when he treated Dan O’Bannon’s sicko b-movie script as though it were 2001: A Space Odyssey. Prometheus doesn’t feel a whole lot like Alien, but it has a similar creative spirit. Scott is deadly serious in his presentation of Prometheus‘ trippily whacked concepts. And that is fun in its own right. Plus, the film looks fantastic. Visually it is a big win.
Narratively the film is a frustratingly mixed bag, but the set-up is lush with possibilities and anticipatory power. Following ancient cave maps in pursuit of our alien creators, only to find our creator’s doom — this is Arthur C. Clarke by heavy way of Lovecraft (even Guillermo del Toro seems to feel the film has stolen his At the Mountains of Madness thunder). It is an intriguing premise in and of itself, but all the more so knowing that Prometheus is a prequel to the Alien franchise. We’re already in a familiar world, beginning the proper story phase yet again with our human heroes in stasis, aboard a ship owned by someone named Weyland. As far as prequel additions to the Alien universe: we now know that in 2093 the Weyland Corporation had yet to merge with Yutani, and that Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) was apparently gone and dead when the merger happened. And there is an exhilaration as we begin to hit the familiar Giger-inspired designs in the film. Most fans view prequels dubiously, but getting your first look at the Engineers (or space jockeys, as the giant dead guy from Alien has been referred to by fans for years) in motion is surely a thrill. Much of the first half of the film is a thrill, when the story can coast by on our desire to keep things ambiguous just a bit longer to protract the sense of dread and mystery.
Michael Fassbender as David the android. Fassbender owns the whole movie. His introduction is brilliant; I could have watched ten minutes more of it without getting bored, I’m sure. There is something wonderfully creepy about an android staying awake, alone, during the lengthy period in which all the humans are in cryo-sleep, made even creepier by the fact that we see David monitoring the dreams of Elizabeth. But there is a human quality to David too. He has a routine, he plays basketball, he loves Lawrence of Arabia so much he dyes and cuts his hair to look like Peter O’Toole. Is he watching Elizabeth’s dreams to spy, or for the same entertainment reasons he seems to enjoy Lawrence? We don’t know, but already David is a fascinating character, morally ambiguous, neither friend nor foe. He’s the kind of character you want more of, but are better off not getting what you want — because the secrets David keeps are a key part of the film’s elusive nature. The confidence and dexterity with which he navigates the Engineers’ facility and machines is novel for this type of film, and put into intentional contrast with the human crew members who more realistically blunder in awe and terror through everything they see in the alien ship.
The whole cast is fairly good, even though most of the characters do not rise to the potential of the casting.
What Doesn’t Work:
First let’s talk franchise:
Prometheus and the Alien franchise would have been better served if Ridley Scott had made this as an original, stand-alone film. He surely couldn’t have gotten as much money to make something so flagrantly abstruse, but regardless, Prometheus feels hindered by its obligations to the xenomorph, while feeling equally unconcerned with appropriately expanding the xenomorph mythology. Possibly Scott was pulling a fuck you to Cameron and those who followed, because if we completely ignore everything after Alien, then Prometheus does not feel too wildly out of step, considering how little had been established about the xenomorph or the greater Alien universe. But this stopped being Scott’s franchise in 1986. Bottom line is, Prometheus does not fit into the Alien universe very snuggly — neither conceptually nor tonally.
As the franchise worn on, we learned that the Alien was a hive-minded, social species. Based on its looks, its invulnerabilities, and its presence on the horseshoe ship in Alien (which we’re told is ancient), part of the horror of the xenomorph was the sense that this species had evolved into the perfect killing machine long before we were the dominant organism on our planet. Prometheus does not change this, as Janek (Idris Elba) deduces that the Engineers’ black goo is a weapon of mass destruction meant to wipe out an entire planet. This fits the threat that Ripley had always been so confident of in the previous sequels. But it tinges things. Before, the xenomorphs were a wild creature from the unfathomable frontier of space that man foolishly thought he could harness for his own whims and gains. The Corporation wanted to weaponize the xenomorph. Here it is already a weapon (at least that’s what our characters believe). And ironically, the Corportation does not what to weaponize anything, but rather harness the Engineers’ wisdom to make us immortal — which, while having its own folly, isn’t exactly that nefarious. In Greek mythology, Prometheus is a god who first creates humans from clay and is then punished by the other gods for giving us fire (wisdom/technology). We’re just a supporting player, a cog, in that myth. There are a variety of ways to interpret Prometheus, and the significance of the film’s title, but it still feels like our heroes are merely a cog here too. And that isn’t the attitude of the Alien franchise. It also means (if we take this film into canon), that the xenomorphs are not an ancient species, but in fact manufactured-lifeforms that sprang into being when the Nostromo landed on LV-426. Which frankly doesn’t make them as super dangerous as they have always been presented (though it does explain why The Corporation was never able to find any more xenomorphs out there). But this brings me to Prometheus‘ xenomorph…
It was an unusual choice to have the creature that bursts out of the Engineer at the end of the film not be our classic Alien. While the evolutionary themes in the film certainly can force us to read between the lines and say that those blue creatures probably then laid the original xenomorph eggs, which then, when funneled through our systems, turned out looking like the Alien we all know. But that is more work on our parts than this movie has earned. And that is a loose deduction at best, considering that the tentacle creature that implanted the blue creature into the Engineer was the “offspring” of black-goo-infected Charlie and Elizabeth. So obviously no such exact tentacle creature could have been aboard the horseshoe spaceship the Nostromo discovered in Alien. Possibly that unusual series of DNA combinations is why the blue xenomorph came out looking different, and that normally an infected Engineer would produce a classic xenomorph. Who knows. It seems like there are an endless series of permutations when the black goo encounters other lifeforms, which makes the fact that it remained in a relatively static form with a complicated life-cycle in the previous four films rather unusual. Scott and his team very intentionally decided to color outside the lines, far more so than Cameron or other filmmakers ever did.
For a man who wanted to make a prequel, Scott does not appear very concerned with making Prometheus feel like a predecessor to Alien. The original film takes place some time after the events of Prometheus, yet the technology on display in Prometheus greatly surpasses what was possibe in Ripley’s time. This is of course a fanboy-style complaint – which I’m not making with any true seriousness – as Scott would have had a hard time convincing the studio that his big budget sci-fi movie should feature computer monitor technology from the late 1970’s and wall panels lined with blinky Xmas lights. But his attitude extends well beyond the gizmos the Prometheus crew uses. It is a matter of world-building. Alien felt like now, which further emphasized how weird and alien the horseshoe ship was. Prometheus does not feel like now, it feels like a sci-fi movie future where the technology works like magic. Scott simply isn’t trying to make a film like Alien. Prometheus has Lovecraftian elements, but lacks the Lovecraftian tone the first half of Alien had — and based on Scott’s own claims for doing a prequel, if Prometheus was to be an exploration of the big mysteries presented in Alien, than it should have basically been a remake of Alien in which John Hurt didn’t get facehugged. And we mustn’t forget that this is a creature-feature franchise. But the creatures only get Scott’s peripheral attention here. They are there, they play a role, but the most inspired aspects/moments of the film all involve David. It seems like Scott really just wanted to make another Blade Runner film. The franchise and Giger’s design influence get what feels like lip service. Giger is everywhere, yet no where. It has no impact. Scott was clearly far more taken with the themes of creation than he was in the creation of the xenomorph. To me it feels like hooking Prometheus onto the Alien franchise was just a savvy gimmick Scott used to get the funding to make an exploration of theology and existentialism.
But franchise requirements aside…
Prometheus fails on its own terms too. I think the movie actually makes a little more sense than its current reputation holds, but that doesn’t mean it works. The pairing of Scott’s A-list sensibilities with Dan O’Bannon’s b-movie ideas forged a powerful end result. Now Scott is paired with Lost‘s Damon Lindelof, whose mind works in a very different way than O’Bannon’s did. I liked Lost quite a bit, but the things I disliked about the show are very present in Prometheus. Lindelof has a way of presenting undercooked concepts as though they’re profound. His most refined writing skill is actually how he weaves his “you need to figure it out for yourself” information gaps in such a way that you can be tricked into thinking there are definitive answers out there. Alien‘s nightmarish power had a lot to do with what it didn’t tell or show us. But it was allowed to do that for two reasons: 1) it gave us all the information we needed. 2) it was at its core a slasher movie, and slasher movies aren’t about answers. The things we don’t get in Prometheus are different. This isn’t about, “Oh I didn’t get a good long look at the Alien.” Or, “What was up with the ship the eggs were on?” The crew of the Prometheus aren’t a bunch of space truckers who have the misfortune of picking up the Alien. They are scientists on a very specific quest for some very specific information. While Scott is not obligated to make every movie for every audience, as far as basic storytelling goes, any movie about a quest for something specific is going to feel unsatisfying if our hero fails to reach that something. We reach the Engineers, but we’re very literally after answers, and we don’t get them. Possibly the film would have been more satisfying if it was told from David’s perspective, as you get a sense that he reaches the end of an arc. Plus, he seems to get what the hell is going on.
But like I said, I don’t think the film’s problem is that it doesn’t make sense. It makes enough sense. The problem is that it doesn’t make sense in the ways it needs to in order to be a good story. The film opens with an Engineer pulling some manner of biological seppuku on himself. Based on the themes of the film, and info we’re given later, we can presume that probably this Engineer was dumping his DNA onto Earth to springboard our own evolution. We’re then later told that we’re a 100% genetic match for the Engineers. This doesn’t exactly make tons of sense – an ongoing problem for the script, which is dealing with very heady concepts but isn’t as intelligently conceived as it thinks it is – but for the kind of intelligent viewers that Scott clearly intended the movie for, there is enough there for us to get the gist. They’re our creators, we get it. But then there is the mysterious black goo. It is a problem for the film that casual viewing makes it seem like the black goo has absolutely no rules whatsoever, but there is a hint of rhyme and reason. The black goo seems to affect every organism it touches differently, with the shared consequence of transformation and pointless aggression. Worms in the giant head chamber become those weird vagina-phallus snakes. Fifield (Sean Harris) gets some in his face and turns into a weird hulk zombie. David puts a single drop into Charlie’s drink, which Charlie then passes to Elizabeth in his semen, creating a huge tentacle monster in her belly. It all makes sense covered under the Lindelofian umbrella logic that the black goo can do whatever. I personally think that’s stupid and uninteresting, but it at least holds some water. The problem is that making the bare minimum of sense is extremely uncompelling narratively. And this extends to every facet of Prometheus.
My problem with the black goo wasn’t that its rules were never laid out for me, or that it functioned more by fantasy-logic than scientific logic. This is a sci-fi fantasy movie. I can accept a lot of weirdness. But it feels grounded in nothing. And aside from David, none of our other characters ever seem to grasp its magic-like implications. And even David only seems to get that the black goo does something (I think he poisoned Charlie with it as an experiment to see what would happen, as his primary objective was to unravel the Engineer mysteries to save Weyland from dying). The Alien in Alien worked because the movie was so simple. All we needed to know was that the Alien wanted to kill everyone on the Nostromo. So they had better kill it first. There is so much going on in Prometheus, absolutely none of which we have any definitive answers for, that it overwhelms the film. Why did the Engineers create the goo? Is it a weapon? Is it just an experiment? Is it meant to do something beneficial? Why did they give our ancestors instructions on how to find their black goo moon lab, and not their home planet? Based on the cool 3-D security/memory footage our heroes find in the Engineers’ ship, it seems like they all accidentally died because of the black goo. But is that what happened? Why are the horseshoe ships buried in those rock formations? Why does the Engineer David unfreezes at the end acting so violently? They think the Engineer is leaving to go destroy Earth, but why is that so important that he doesn’t seem to give a shit that his entire race has possibly been wiped out?
Like Lost, the whole movie reeks of set-ups that don’t really have legit conclusions, of neato and intriguing starting points — “What if our characters walked into a room to find ____! The audience will be all, ‘Whoa! What is that all about?!'” I believe the filmmakers have answers, but I don’t believe they worked backwards from those answer. And it shows. Maybe the most succinct way to make my point is this: Scott presented us with unknowable mysteries in both Alien and Prometheus. As a visual analogy, we can view Alien as a dark room, with light illuminating very little. What we can’t see makes us uneasy and scares us. Prometheus is a well-lit room with a box at the center; a box that we aren’t allowed to open, and what we can’t see frustrates us. Kubrick got away with such aloof presentation in 2001 because he was making a contemplative art film. Prometheus – which owes a conceptual debt to 2001 – can pretend it is a high-minded exploration of big ideas all it wants, but it is still a movie that ends with a 10-foot-tall bald white alien fighting a giant squid-beast. I think that calls for a bit more perspective on what this film’s goals should have been. And I guess that is what chaps my hide about the film. It is too pretentious for what an objectively absurd movie it is.
And I think there is a big difference between a story that doesn’t give us all the answers, and a story that just doesn’t give us answers. Why does Vickers have an automated medical suite in her room that turns out to only be programmed for male anatomy? Was it for Weyland? How does not telling us make the movie better? At the end of the day a movie based on mysteries is bullshit. Hiding things from the audience is smoke and mirrors; it is weak storytelling. Such as hiding Weyland on the ship. Why? That’s pointless intrigue. How did that make the movie more interesting? I don’t even get why Weyland wanted his presence kept secret. And regardless, wouldn’t the movie have been more interesting with him around the whole time? So his death had greater impact? And as long as we’re talking about Weyland, why is Guy Pearce playing him? I hope there are some deleted scenes featuring a young Weyland that made the casting choice make some sense, because the old man make-up Pearce is given, while not shoddy, is no where near convincing enough to hide the fact that he’s a 44-year-old man. I’ve read that Max von Sydow was originally selected to play the part, until script changes were made to the character. So presumably there were some young Weyland bits originally involved. At least I hope so, because I found it distracting. I really hope it isn’t the other rumor that I read, that this was all set-up for another sequel (one we surely will never get).
But back on topic, Prometheus‘ screenplay is coming from an annoying position. Because none of the characters understand what is happening, we’re forced to make our own interpretations based on their interpretations. But the film fails to convey that the characters might be wrong. In Tremors when the characters theorize that the graboids might be aliens or might be dinosaurs, we 100% understand that they’re just guessing. Is Janek just guessing that the black goo is a weapon? I bet that’s what Lindelof would say, followed by, “So who knows what it really is?!” Fuck that though. Adjective-loving Lovecraft is notorious for often writing about nothing and beating around the bush when it comes to explaining what is happening to his characters. But he was also getting paid by the word. I don’t think that was the case here.
Kills: 13 (guestimation; hard to keep accurate count in a movie theater)
Best Kill: Vickers getting squashed by the falling Engineer ship is satisfying.
Best Scare: The entire sequence in which Elizabeth is trying to remove her “baby” is solidly terrifying, and easily the best bit of horror in the film.
Charlie: What we hoped to achieve was to meet our makers, to get answers why they made us in the first place.
David: Why do you think your people made me?
Charlie: We made you cause we could.
David: Can you imagine how disappointing it would be for you to hear the same thing from your creator?
How ‘The Corporation’ Fucked Up: Weyland’s whole plan is rather poorly thought out. Also seems like he could have achieved his goal with far greater ease if his entire crew was made up of androids. He’s clearly pretty goddamn rich. How much can they cost? At least get like three or four more, man.
Should There Be a Sequel: Whatever. I’d probably see it, but with little excitement. We have begun an alternate timeline. There is little sense that another Prometheus would actually bring us closer to Alien. Most likely we would continue moving farther away.
This is a great franchise. Every complaint I’ve had has only made this clearer to me, because it demonstrates just how high up in the quality-stratosphere we were after Aliens. Alien Resurrection feels like stank garbage, but compare it with other fourth installment horror films — Hellraiser: Bloodline or Jaws IV. Even Prometheus looks phenomenal when placed within the greater genre landscape. Scott and Cameron brought the franchise to a position where the studio felt it was worth it to keep tossing in real money, getting top tier directors and Shakespearean-trained actors willing to get their skulls chomped by a walking penis-nightmare.
Viewing it as a whole, I think it was a mistake for the longevity of the franchise to keep Ripley around so long, without at least spawning a contemporaneous spin-off franchise. This would have diluted the money-earning potential for the Weaver films (if they attempted to continue them), but the separation between the Ripley Quadrilogy (as it should be called) and the AVP series is so stark that it doesn’t even feel connected to me. Plus, it just isn’t a satisfying story arc for the character of Ripley, the way it is handled. If Weaver had to stick around, some foresight would have been beneficial, planning a couple sequels at the same time to tell a bigger story for Ripley, instead of giving us random one-offs.
Prometheus gets ranks low below because it doesn’t belong in the franchise, and that’s how I always grade these. You could argue it is a better movie than Resurrection, but for anyone looking for xenomorph good-times, it is a shitty disappointment. Calling Prometheus an Alien prequel feels about as accurate as calling Enemy of the State a sequel to The Conversation.
Franchise ranked from best to worst:
Alien 3 | Alien Resurrection
Up Next: Predator