Notes Toward a Consideration of Prometheus

Posted: June 11, 2012 in Uncategorized
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Alien is my favourite movie.

I don’t know if I could tell you my favourite novel, song, video game or play. But I have no trouble pointing to one movie and saying, “There. That one. That’s my favourite.” As I suspect is the case with most people who have a definite fave, how and when I saw the film play a significant role in shaping its importance for me. My father took me to see it on my 13th birthday. Once the face-hugger popped out of the egg, and especially once Kane had that bout of indigestion, I was curled into foetal position for the rest of the picture. It was an experience of terror that I have treasured ever since. My love for the film has never abated. Over thirty years on, I appreciate the film’s accomplishments in a new, but no less fond, light. Earlier this spring, for example, as I was teaching a course on remakes and sequels, Aliens was one of the films we looked at. And much as I love Cameron’s film, too, I was struck by how some of its special effects are showing their age, while those in Alien remain almost seamless.

All this is by way of preamble. On Sunday, I saw Prometheus. I’m still sorting out exactly what I think of Ridley Scott’s return to the Alien universe, so what follows is where I’m at with it now. Spoilers are present throughout, so I would strongly recommend not reading this until you’ve seen the film. Should you see it? Absolutely. Whether you like the end result or not, it is a significant moment in the genre. People are going to be arguing about this one, that’s for sure.

Likely one of the most ferocious bones of contention will be to what degree Prometheus is a true-to-the-letter prequel to Alien. While we certainly end with many of the elements in place for the other story to begin, the connections are not seamless. There are precisely the sorts of discontinuities that will drive SF fans to distraction. My sense is that an attempt to make a completely logical narrative connection between the two is an exercise in futility, bound to lead only to ridiculously convoluted plot patches, and to trivial arguments tantamount to debating the correct length of Batman’s cape. Instead, I think it best to see the links between Prometheus and Alien as impressionistic and thematic. This is the story of the dream that became a nightmare, and the movement between the movies is the shift from science fiction to horror.

A few things I wasn’t wild about:

  • Was it wise to give the events a precise year? I don’t think it was. The indefinite (but distant) future setting of the other movies served the franchise well. Opting for the late 21st Century strikes me as very optimistic, from a technological point of view.
  • The zombie/ghoul/whatever attack. It was exciting, yes, but did it make any sense at all?
  • The Ocarina of Time and (as my stepdaughter put it) playing Simon with glowing eggs in the control room of the alien ship. More silly than evocative.
  • There are also some gender and racial issues that are, at the very least, troubling (but perhaps deliberately so — I’m still going back and forth on this one).

Then there’s the reworking of the space jockey and his brothers into the humanoids that we have now, with an accompanying de-emphasis of the biomechanics of the alien ship. The psychosexual nightmare of Alien is largely absent now (barring one tremendously intense sequence). As well, I would normally have little patience for an Erich Von Daniken-style god-is-an-astronaut tale. This is one of those deeply ridiculous backwaters of pseudo-science that should have died a dismal death decades ago, but is kept alive by human credulity. In the realm of fiction, though, it can work quite effectively (Jack Kirby’s The Eternals being one example, Ursula K. LeGuin’s Hainish Cycle being another). And I think, on balance, that it works here, too, because it is used as a metaphysical device. More about that in a bit, but that thematic concern does rather require these aliens to look human. And is it just me, or do these beings look quite a bit like the James Arness alien in 1951’s The Thing from Another World? If so, some interesting implications there.

Let me also say a few words about the pyramid. On the one hand, it is a return to a concept originally developed for Alien, but never used. Let me quote from The Book of Alien by Paul Scanlon and Michael Gross, as they describe an unused subplot:

“[T]he Nostromo’s search party finds the derelict ship and the remains of its pilot. But that’s all, except that the space jockey has managed to scratch the image of a triangle in his ‘dashboard,’ apparently his last act. The searchers return to the ship, mystified. A short time later, the planetoid’s endless dust storm has briefly settled, and the crew can see a huge pyramid on the horizon. Another crew is sent to explore. They scale it, find an opening on top, and a volunteer lowers himself down the hatch.

“He finds a giant chamber that seems like a tomb, or maybe a place of worship. There are weird statues and some sort of hieroglyphics (which later prove to be representative of Alien reproductive cycles). This, of course, is where the Alien spores lie waiting for someone to come along.”

The sequence was cut for budgetary reasons, but here (from the same book) are some concept art images from when it was still part of the plot. Scott and company would appear to have returned to this earlier idea and reworked it, to somewhat mixed effect.

On the one hand, the human appearance of the aliens diminishes the Lovecraftian aspects (pointed out by Stephen King) of the original film. Things are just a little less weird. Endlessly anthropocentric universes can be tiresome. On the other hand, though, there is that stunning bit of art in the temple as we now see it, where there is a distinct hint of a crucified Alien. That’s pretty damn cool.

Finally, the fact that the space jockey turns out to be humanoid permits the film to ask its central thematic question. Can or should one keep faith in a god that either doesn’t deserve to be worshipped, or doesn’t exist at all? Heady stuff for a summer movie, and kudos to Prometheus for not only placing this question at its centre, but for having the nerve to hint at answers. A dying Guy Pearce mutters, “There is nothing,” repeating Charles Vanel’s horrified last words in The Wages of Fear (1953). “I know,” answers Michael Fassbender, his robot son who already knows that whatever Creators are out there are selfish, petty bastards, and are certainly not divine. And the film ends with Noomi Rapace flying off to demand answers from the gods that do exist: those Promethean titans who mysteriously decided to wipe out their own creations.

In fact, the more I think about this last point, the more I believe it is consistently articulated throughout the film. Even as I have been writing this piece, I’ve been finding my opinion of the movie becoming more and more positive. I can certainly understand the dislike many have (and will continue to have) for the film. But as for myself, I have suddenly been seized by the desire to see it again.

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