NB: this is a preview of my Sight & Sound review – it contains some slight spoilers, so don’t read it if you’ve not seen the film yet.
Alien (1979) had many creators. Screenwriters Dan O’Bannon and Ron Shusett originally thought that, in the wake of Star Wars, they could sell Roger Corman a script called Star Beast, a gloss on a couple of well-remembered quickies, Edward L. Cahn’s It! The Terror From Beyond Space (1958), a monster movie about a stowaway vampire creature picking off the crew of a spaceship en route from Venus to Earth, and Mario Bava’s Terrore nello spazio/Planet of the Vampires (1965), a ‘shaggy God’ story about astronauts exploring a fogbound world – where they find a crashed alien spaceship and its skeletal pilot – and eventually become the ancestors of humanity. Some similarities with sections of A.E. Van Vogt’s novel The Voyage of the Space Beagle, a title which resonates even more with the purpose of the good ship Prometheus, led to an out-of-court settlement in Van Vogt’s favour – though it seems that O’Bannon and Shusett drew on a clutch of sources in an attempt to create an archetypal horror-in-space picture rather than craftily poached from Van Vogt’s book. After all, they must also have seen various episodes of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea or Star Trek in which sundry monsters get aboard the submarine or the spaceship and slaughter lower-billed characters before being defeated by the stars.
It’s unlikely that the screenwriters were as familiar with Doctor Who as Ridley Scott, who was originally set to design that show’s second serial but had to drop out (and thus missed the chance to create the Daleks, a job which earned pop culture immortality for Raymond Cusick), but the life-cycle of the Alien organism has parallels with the Wirrn, the parasitic giant wasps which incubate in cryo-frozen humans in the 1974 serial ‘The Ark in Space’. As a franchise, Alien is as enamoured of chases through spaceship corridors as the BBC’s flagship s-f horror show, and fans can list other points of similarity. It is certainly odd that Dr Elizabeth Shaw, the Noomi Rapace character in Prometheus, has the same name as the assistant, played by Caroline John, who co-starred with Jon Pertwee in his first season as the Doctor. Alien Resurrection revealed the humanoid robots who feature throughout the series like to call themselves ‘autons’, presumably not after the animated shop-window dummies featured in ‘Spearhead from Space’, the serial which introduced Pertwee and John.
The structure of Alien has prompted many readings of the film which note its parallels with the ‘body count’ slasher films initiated by Halloween (1978) and it’s often referred to as ‘a haunted house movie in space’. However, as James Cameron’s Aliens (1986) underlined, the format is older and more versatile. The plot about the unit separated from a home base, picked off one by one by a mostly-unseen enemy and riven by tensions within the group which make one or more of the men as much a danger as the external opponent goes back to Philip MacDonald’s 1927 novel Patrol, set in Mesopotamia during World War 1 (yes, modern-day Iraq) and drawn from the author’s personal experiences. The book was filmed as a 1929 silent and a 1934 John Ford talkie under the title The Lost Patrol and has been remade officially and unofficially as a variety of western, war, action, adventure, jungle, horror and science fiction picture ever since. If variations on this one story have a genre tag, we should call them ‘lost patrol’ films. John McTiernan’s Predator(1987), for instance, is an Alien imitation which is even more obviously fitted over the grid of MacDonald’s plot thanAlien. No wonder that spawned a franchise which wound up intertwining with the Alien films, even if Prometheus huffily renders Paul W.S. Anderson’s AvP Alien vs Predator and related films uncanonical by contradicting their version of the origins of the Alien species.
It’s possible that Prometheus even contradicts Aliens, Alien3 and Alien Resurrection too, which lumps it in a little sub-category of sci-fi reboot/remake/prequels which includes Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, Star Trek, The Thing (2011) and Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Like all these films, it’s as much fan fiction as it is a re-adaptation of original material. It’s weirdly concerned with filling in gaps and answering long-standing mysteries which might have formed the topic of pub conversation after viewings of the previous films but which, in the context of the drama, were as irrelevant and to-be-skimmed-over as the Great Whatsits of thrillers which Hitchcock called McGuffins. When asked after Alien was a hit what he would like to explore in a sequel, Scott picked on the so-called Space Jockey, the dead giant humanoid alien pilot with a burst chest found in the crashed spaceship where the alien eggs are found, and said he’d like to know where he came from. Well, if he’d asked the screenwriters, they could have told him that the alien pilot came from a Mario Bava film. In Alien, we’re to assume that this whole story has happened before to the Space Jockey’s people, just as The Thing (1982) plays a joke on its status as a remake by implying that what happens to the American Antarctic base has already played out at the Norwegian facility (prompting last year’s redundant remake-cum-prequel).
Cinema still isn’t ready, outside of animation, for a movie in which the lead characters are all inhuman aliens, soPrometheus isn’t about what happened on that crashed ship, but about an Earth expedition that happens on the site before the events of Alien and finds out what happened. Or not. Today’s fans can debate, thanks to inconsistencies left in between drafts, whether or not the Space Jockey of Prometheus is the same one the Nostromo found in Alien. If not, there’s an awfully big coincidence out there; if so, then the continuities don’t quite match up. J.J. Adams’ Star Trek rewrote the space-time continuum, wiping out all previous versions of the series, to answer any niggles. Scott, who’s been hemming about whether Deckard is a replicant or not on the strength of a line about the number of rogue androids on the loose in Blade Runner which was left in after a character was cut from the script, is less fussy about details. So, Prometheus answers FAQs about Alien while raising new queries which can more usefully be explored in IMDb comment threads than in any further sequels.
Here are some to be going on with … Why does Ellie Shaw (whose questing in space for answers to big religuous questions that also relate to her dead father echoes another Ellie, the Jodie Foster heroine of Contact) say ‘caesarian’ when she plainly means ‘abortion’? So as not to offend pro-lifers, even as the film’s theories about the alien seeding of life on Earth write the Bible and Darwin off the books. Who drives the truck back to the ship when the storm strikes, stranding doomed characters in the pyramid, and why aren’t they in trouble for it? Could it be that even the mission controllers don’t expect redshirts played by Rafe Spall and Sean Harris to make it home safe? Is the mummy-look aged Australian trillionaire Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) of this Fox franchise, locked in a struggle to attain immortality at the expense of would-be corporate successors, some sort of avatar of Rupert Murdoch? What was it humanity did over two thousand years ago to persuade the bald, muscular giants who created us that we needed to be wiped out – but not to the degree that they send a second kill-ship out when the first crashes? Ellie and the film are insistent on asking this question, but resist the interesting answer – that humanity is such a threat to the universe we need to be rendered extinct the way Ripley obsessively tries to wipe out the last of the xenomorphs in three earlier sequels Scott feels no obligation to include in his continuity. When the Space Jockey, whose job was to erase pre-industrial, earthbound human civilisations whose greatest achievement was pyramid-building, wakes from cryo-sleep surrounded by men and women in spacesuits who have left their planet and crossed the universe to find him, he is simply a brutal baddie who wants to kill. But is he terrified to be suddenly surrounded by such clever little monsters?
Corman would happily have made Star Beast – part of me wonders if, with a rewrite by John Sayles, handed over to Joe Dante or Jonathan Demme, it might not have been a minor classic on its own. Later, with expected irony, he would produce several of the many alien imitations, Humanoids of the Deep, Galaxy of Terror and Forbidden World. James Cameron, whose first film was a sequel to Sayles and Dante’s Corman pic Piranha, worked on these quickies before moving up to The Terminator and Aliens. But O’Bannon and Shusett’s script was passed along the Hollywood chain of command, purely on the strength of the facehugger/chestburster concept, and benefited from a tough, gritty rewrite by producers Walter Hill and David Giler, who remain credited on Prometheus but are long gone from the show. As a director, Hill specialised in ‘Lost Patrol’ films (The Warriors, Southern Comfort, Streets of Fire, Extreme Prejudice and Trespass are all variants) but didn’t feel confident with s-f. He cast around for a newcomer with something to prove, landing Scott just after his impressive, if minimally commercial first feature The Duellists. Scott carried over a few things from his debut, a Conrad adaptation, by naming the Alien spaceships the Nostromo and the Narcissus. Scott also brought the other great creator of the Alien universe aboard, by hiring the Swiss surrealist HR Giger to design the xenomorph (the name comes from It Came From Outer Space, 1953) which added biomechanics, sinuously sexual subtext and a Lovecraftian vision to the monster’s aesthetic that is overwritten in Prometheus by notions of ancient alien genetic engineering of humanity out of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Quatermass and the Pit, Eric von Daniken and Contact. Compare the Giger jumble of sex organs and insect parts of the Alien eggs and aliens with the simple canisters, manta-snake and rapist octopus of Prometheus, and there’s a sense of devolution – a missing streak of insanity which the movie really needed.
Alien was one of those masterpiece-by-committee films, fathered by writers, director (it’s probably Scott’s only film as a director-for-hire), producers, designers and cast. The subsequent development of the series, even in its despised entries, has taken a similarly wayward path, with Hill and Giler calling in talents like Cameron, William Gibson, David Fincher, Vincent Ward, Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Joss Whedon to add in elements to the universe (even noveliser Alan Dean Foster was responsible for elements which became canon) and Sigourney Weaver becoming a more dominant and involved voice in the crafting of successive films. Prometheus is just a Ridley Scott film, and comes along a good few years after that was enough to be an exciting prospect. It’s built around a cold, familiar concept Scott seems to think more original than it is – he hasn’t made an s-f film since Blade Runner (1982), but may also not have seen one or (more importantly) read any s-f books – and has already been treated as a joke by Douglas Adams in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and the Doctor Who serial ‘City of Death’.
In restaging bits of Alien, Scott gets to do things he must have footnoted in 1979 but not shot (or else they’d be in his recut of that film): the robot passing the time curiously on the long voyage while the humans are all asleep, the character accused of being a robot who turns out to be human (though Charlize Theron mostly plays boardroom bitch in space), Michael Fassbender’s robot David (breakout star character of the film) spying on the heroine’s cryosleep dreams (Foster had the crew monitor the cat’s dreams for entertainment). Bluntly, Alien was a simple film about people whose most pressing question was would they live through the next five minutes, while Prometheus is a complex movie about people asking big questions about the nature of the universe. It’s just that Alien‘s lost patrol/body count/runaround story takes place in a universe that has been thought about deeply and which contains mysteries that connected with audiences – we loved the film because it had a sense of knowing more than it told, which added to its horrors and mysteries. Alien is awesome in the old-fashioned sense of ‘with awe’. Prometheus seems to feel that any exciting genre elements are token, even as its deep thoughts are ultimately shallow.