The fool’s experiment
We can allow satellites, planets, suns, universe, nay whole systems of universe, to be governed by laws, but the smallest insect, we wish to be created at once by special act.
— Charles Darwin
If I had a dime for every time I’ve watched Aliens (1986) I’d have, well, a lot of dimes. It remains a staple of my childhood, when I had an army of G.I. Joe action figures and Star Wars spaceships, which I used almost exclusively to play Aliens. Recently, I even sat through it on Syfy, commercial interruptions and curse word cover-ups be damned.
As I grew older I began to gravitate more towards the original film in the series, Alien (1979), which is a psycho-sexual horror film masquerading as science fiction. I responded more to the slow burn, the anguish of knowing that it was coming, but not when. Alien uses shadows similar to the way another great monster film (1975’s Jaws) uses water — to help disguise the fundamental flaws of the creature FX while simultaneously forcing the filmmaker to be more creative when deciding how and when to reveal the monster itself.
I remember the first time I saw the transport ship Nostromo touch down on a remote planet in response to an S.O.S. signal, only to find a giant humanoid alien with a hole in its chest. I remember wondering, “Who is that thing? Where did he come from? What’s he all about?” That was right before I was interrupted by the film’s actual, kick-ass story full of terror, fantastic sets, innovative creature design and rock-solid acting. So yeah, after the initial reveal, I didn’t give two shits about that giant humanoid alien. It appears as though I’m in the minority, though, as Prometheus (2012), Alien’s quasi-prequel, opened last weekend and purports to explain said alien’s origins as well as a whole slew of other things. (Like, the origins of man, for example. You know, nothing major.)
It shouldn’t surprise me that its connections to the Alien series are mostly superfluous. As previously stated, I couldn’t care less about the fan-named “space jockey” at the beginning of Alien. I had always assumed that it was just a remnant of whatever species had occupied that planet before being collectively chest-busted by our parasitic friends. It turns out that this “space jockey,” — now re-named “engineer” — may have been involved in the very creation of all that we know and all that we are. Oh, and they may have accidentally created the parasitic race of aliens I have grown up loving, as well. You wanna make an omelet? You know what that involves.
That isn’t the only connection between the films, though. There are smatterings of the original films’ production design everywhere and the company funding the expedition, Weyland-Yutani, is the same company Ripley later works for. . . twice. Here’s the thing: none of it really matters. Not in context of Prometheus, at least.
What we have in Prometheus is two films struggling against each other. One of those films — the one about a possible explanation for man’s existence via some sort of directed panspermia — is pretty fascinating and unique. The other is an alien monster film, which has already been executed with such expert precision as to have invented its own subgenre. While the first half of the film puts forth a series of interesting ideas, the later eschews them in favor of more traditional faire.
And that’s not even the biggest problem. While no one in their right mind would argue that any of the Alien films is a character study (Alien3 probably comes closest and people HATE that one. I’m not one of those people, for the record), those scripts at least allowed us to spend a decent enough amount of time with everyone to feel something for them. Once Prometheus gets rolling it hardly takes a breath. Remember all of those scientists who had all of those big questions? They can’t talk about them right now because their faces are melting. Or an alien is slithering out of their mouth. Or they’re mutating. Or self-performing a c-section! Yeah, that happens.
I don’t mean to make it seem as though Prometheus is completely without merit, so I suppose I should start mentioning something resembling a good quality? Well, everyone’s mentioned it already, but I’ll jump onto the bandwagon: Prometheus is a beautiful film. The intro, which involves one of the “engineers” ingesting some black, gooey genetic material, only to completely break down and disperse DNA identical to our own into an unnamed planet’s water supply, is visually stunning. And Michael Fassbender’s performance as “David,” the ship’s android, is fantastic and deeply unsettling.
I think that a solid argument could be made that Prometheus would have been better off having nothing to do with Alien in the first place. It will be interesting to see what happens in the inevitable sequel. The last surviving character is traveling in space in search of the “engineer’s” origin. (The old “who made the watchmaker” argument.) What we’re left with is a largely barren planet infested with parasitic aliens. How, exactly, did Prometheus have any real effect on what’s to come?
Kevin Mattison is co-editor of The Idler, and a filmmaker and videographer. You can follow him on Twitter at @kmmattison.