Alien Prometheus

All right. I am about to indulge in some full-throttle nerdery.

I’ve been watching over the last 3 days the trailer-trailers for Prometheus, the new science fiction film from Ridley Scott. It is set in the same world as his hugely influential film Alien.

The trailer-trailer displays a continuity of physical design, with people in Moebius-like spacesuits trudging through Giger interior spaces; the sound mix throws in the shocking and intense Alien note that anchored the very first trailers for the 1979 film. Heck, even the typeface is the same as that from the first Alien (and the Prometheus title echoes Jim Cameron’s 1986 sequel Aliens).

The early news of an Alien Prequel didn’t seem to fill many people with joy. The alien creatures seem played-out thanks to two lacklustre crossover films, and Ridley Scott himself is famously uneven in his output. But Scott’s approach has generated interest. He is exploring other aspects of the mysteries raised in the first film – namely, the nature of the “space jockey”, the enormous elephantine fossil encountered by the doomed explorers. The famous phallic-headed dual-jawed chest-violating alien, Scott says, will play no part in the new film.

Complaints about his uneven filmic record aside, it must be understood that Ridley Scott is the only person who could make this story happen. No other filmmaker could get blockbuster money behind a science fiction film that is “a prequel to Alien but without the alien”. From the perspective of the Hollywood system, this would be an anti-movie, almost a Zen koan, an idea that utterly negates itself. Only for Ridley does it make sense. He can muster the finances with his reputation, and assert a new direction for Prometheus because he is the creator.

(At least, he is seen as the creator. Alien was of course a group project. O’Bannon, Giler & Hill all have a very strong claim to creation of the ideas explored herein. Giler and Hill are on board as producers, and O’Bannon – who always lamented the lack of recognition he received for his part in the film – passed away two years ago.)

I find the concept of Prometheus, as so described, incredibly enticing. The first Alien film was a monster-in-a-dark-house flick, but undertaken so grandly and in such a violatory manner that the alien creature seized a place as a cultural nightmare. But the film raised many other questions; there was a whole biologicial technology in evidence that was truly alien, whose provenance and purpose was left unexamined. Thematically, this was the ground on which the B-movie monster stalked. The idea of alien-ness – the beauty and terror of the deeply different – was portrayed in a dense ecology of incomprehensible detail, all clearly part of some unreadable plan. A monster rose up and killed the film’s lonely humans, but the message was not that alien life is inimical to human life; the message was that alien life is not measurable against human life. These are different orders of nature, existing at right angles to each other. And, by extension, the message was that humans are not the masters of all they survey. Even these star-spanning future humans command only a small and humble domain. It’s a message of warning against hubris. We humans are just one limited mode of seeing in a universe which makes no room for us. Or, shorter: we do not matter.

(There are clear parallels to the (heavily picked over) Lovecraftian Cthulhu mythos, where the fundamental secret about the dark alien gods is that they do not care about humanity; our inability to comprehend our cosmic insignificance tends to deliver us into madness.)

All of these elements were left unexplored in the other films in the series, which instead took the route of using the implacable alien creatures as symbolic engines, on which to layer this or that human-vs-? metaphor. In the second movie, they became the fourth-generation soldiers who eschewed a traditional battlefield and thereby negated military power and all the structures of hierarchy and control so embedded (referencing Vietnam & Afghanistan in the 70s). In the third movie, they became the idea of contamination, both in the sense of infectious disease, and of dangerous and wrong thoughts. In the fourth movie, they became (curiously enough) nature, or more precisely biological systems that through sheer complexity do not submit themselves to human control; and reproductive systems, the propagation of the human race, most of all.

There’s much to value in this approach, but the power of the first film was very much located in the directness of its meaning: the alien elements represented themselves.

Scott has noted in his discussion of Prometheus that the space jockey was untouched by the other films. Truth. But the mystery of the space jockey has been addressed in a number of ancillary stories. Of course none of these “matter”, but they can serve as examples against which we can measure Prometheus and speculate about what ground it might cover.

Thanks to licensing requirements, in all of these stories, the “Aliens” title is dominant, and as a result, the Giger creatures are inevitably prominent. In the extremely good 1980s comics written by Mark Verheiden, the space jockey is a conquerer, using the aliens to subjugate worlds (and this fate ultimately befalls our earth). In the less-well-known novel Aliens: Original Sin, the space jockey is one of a species of negotiators, entering a mutually beneficial trade deal with a human network. And in the even less well-known (and abandoned unfinished) comic series Aliens: Apocalypse – The Destroying Angels, human explorers discover that the space jockeys once dominated the galaxy using aliens as tools, with pre-human earth as part of their domain.

It will be curious to see how Scott charts his own course outward from the space jockey data given in the film; and
more pointedly, the way he uses these elements in a thematic and symbolic way. It’s also worth noting that the designers of the first Alien film deliberately loaded the space jockey with a specific symbolic weight. They tried to evoke positive feelings, sympathy and respect. It wasn’t meant as a threatening image, and had a kind of nobility to it. These were deliberate design choices, to contrast with the cold, unyielding threat of the other, nastier kind of alien.

(In the original schema for Alien, the space jockey was to be clearly portrayed as an innocent victim of the aliens; but script simplifications transformed this poor victim into the pilot of a craft carrying a cargo of deadly aliens, the very creatures that destroyed it. The ambiguity around the space jockey’s relationship to the cargo adds greatly to the sense of mystery, and immediately complicates any moral message. The original story would have been a lesser film on this count at least.)

So. As noted above, I find the concept enticing, and recognise that there is much to explore with the elements Scott has chosen as his focus. However, I am feeling great trepidation.

Because of the face.

It’s the central image in the poster, and was the first image released as a publicity still: a giant human face in an alien environment. This sets off enormous, raucous alarm bells for me.

See also the tagline from the poster: “The search for our beginning could lead to our end.” Our beginning? In another interview Scott namechecked Eric Von Daniken, whose Chariots of the Gods supposed that alien beings came to earth and taught us new technology. Is that what he’s doing here?

The face is not alien. The face denotes a different order of mystery, one that loops tightly back to earth and history of the human race – a tiny segment of time on one tiny planet in one corner of a vast universe. The face is hubris. The face asserts that in the vast deeps of space, among species whose nature we can only guess at, we still matter. We are not nothing – we are everything.

This, to me, is the biggest danger posed by Prometheus. Put another way: the message of Alien is, not everything is about us. I fear that Prometheus will show that Alien was about us, after all.

That would be a tragic reconfiguration of the 1979 film. And while the Alien films will always sit there pristine (if they can survive a Predator giving a helicopter ride to an Giger Alien, they can survive this), whenever I engage with them from now on I will hear Prometheus talking at me.

I hope it says the right things.

4 thoughts on “Alien Prometheus”

  1. The often referenced Aliens/Vietnam analogy I find true to a point, but also flawed, in that it reflects the popular image of the Vietnam war rather than the historical reality.

    The analogy of the Soviet experience in Afghanistan (contemperaneous with the movie itself) is a better one.

  2. Just seen the trailer – looks great! And no more ‘trailer teasers’, let’s kill that trend right now Hollywood.

    Cool article Morgue. It reminds me that it was twenty years ago this year that the hand-written essay ‘Alien, Blade Runner and the Monstrous Feminine’ (Adamson, 1991) was thrust upon an unsuspecting film studies tutor. I think I still have it somewhere…

    Aliens as Nam metaphor I was aware of, but did you ever read the thesis that it was also read as a Reagan Era witch hunt against welfare-dependant African American single mothers? Oh yes.

    Re: Scott as the one producer capable of this sort of movie project, got me thinking about the series’ other directors/producers and whether they could have achieved anything like that. I’d still say no to Fincher, Oscar or not, as having that industry weight. Jeunet? In France, maybe. Cameron? Actually, depite me thinking him one of the least-deserving recipients of the Best Movie Oscar (you don’t give a bonus to a manager who blows the budget, so why should you give an Oscar to a producer who doubles his in expenses? Even if the BO return is huge!), post-Avatar I reckon he could. Sorry about that sentence, by the way.

    Finally, and apologies if I’ve asked this already, but did you ever hear about a mooted Aliens vs Species comic project? I’m sure I came across it in one of the early SFX magazines, but as years go on it seems more and more the product of fevered fan imagination!

  3. “The famous phallic-headed dual-jawed chest-violating alien, Scott says, will play no part in the new film.”

    Yeah, we’ll see.

  4. Samm: Jim Cameron was definitely thinking of Vietnam as he was writing – he was working on Rambo 2 at the same time. I don’t know that he had any special knowledge of the true nature of the war; the mass viewing audience certainly didn’t.

    Jet: yes, trailer teasers can go and die please. Can you recall the basic points of your ’91 essay? I’m curious. Never heard the welfare-queen reading of Aliens before, though I can see how the argument would be constructed!

    Aliens vs Species – hmm. It does ring a bell, but I remember it more as a letter-column wish rather than anything officially hinted at. Are they even both Fox properties? (Check wiki – nope, MGM. Not an impossible obstacle, but.)

    David: 🙂

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