I’ve long been a devotee of the “Alien” film series: the original 1979 motion picture provided a stark contrast to the optimism which suffused Star Trek and the boyish zeal of Star Wars. Rather, it presented the cosmos as vast, lonely and only the financially strapped or emotionally bereft would dare to venture into its depths. The picture’s strapline was “In space, no one can hear you scream”: the film was effective not just due to its relentless, ravenous monster but as this slogan indicates, it expertly conveyed the terror of facing such a threat alone.
“Aliens”, the follow up, was a more traditional action film but nonetheless entertaining; “Alien 3” again returned to the theme of humanity existing in isolated pockets, alone and in the dark. After this third episode showed the death of the main character, Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), I wondered how they could possibly continue with the series. As an experiment, I wrote a piece of fan fiction which suggested that the rapacious “Company” which had featured throughout the films would continue its search for Alien specimens to sell as biological weapons; perhaps the most original idea I had was that they would send another ship to a cluster of stars called “The Maelstrom”. I also wrote about a revived Ripley; in my tale, a clone was created and infused with her memories by a machine that poked a miniscule hole in the space time continuum and sucked her electrochemical brain patterns through the vortex. I added this element because I could not accept that a biological clone would automatically possess Ripley’s mind. I abandoned the project after I discovered that setting up the “Rebirth” scene and explaining the technology involved had swallowed up most of the narrative.
This endeavour represented the end of the line for me; I watched “Alien: Resurrection” with more scepticism than enjoyment. I have not bothered to watch the “Alien Versus Predator” series. It seemed that this particular fictional universe had been tapped out and any further stories would be derivative and tedious.
Sometimes the only way to move forward is to go back: such was the case with the Batman films. By the time the dire “Batman and Robin” appeared they had become a cartoonish parody of themselves. Only reinterpreting the origins of the tale offered a way forward. Ridley Scott wisely chose this approach in his reboot of the “Alien” series, “Prometheus”. He may have ensured its success by making its relationship to “Alien” mostly tangential.
“Prometheus” is set in the latter years of this century: while technology is shown to have moved ahead by leaps and bounds, this relative proximity to our time provides the narrative with a stronger connection to the audience; it is entirely possible that some of those watching it will live to the year 2089. This link is enhanced by one of the extras on the DVD, a “TED” talk (dated 2023) given by a younger version of one of the main characters. The film also builds upon an idea first postulated by the Swiss author Erich von Däniken, that ancient civilisations such the Mayans and Nazca were contacted by aliens; von Däniken has suggested this thesis is proven by some congruities in archaeological finds. This idea is very questionable as fact but more than workable as a science fiction concept.
Noomi Rapace, whose previous claim to fame was as Lisbeth Salander in the “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”, is almost unrecognisable as the archaeologist Elizabeth Shaw. She and her partner Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) find star maps hidden among the ruins of ancient human civilisations and postulate that aliens were humanity’s creators. They subsequently persuade the Weyland Corporation to spend a trillion dollars in order to take them to the planetary system identified as being the home world of the alien visitors. They find these aliens (which are dubbed “Engineers”), but the “gods” are not all they are cracked up to be. Rather, they are altogether human in being fickle, in their capacity for cruelty and their inability to master their own technology.
These are profound themes; if this film has one particular weakness is that it is rather heavy handed in its treatment of them. The characters purposefully remind us about the “shock and awe” of finding the species which created all that we are and know; somehow the narrative should have found a way to convince us of the magnitude of this event without painting its scenes with such broad brush strokes.
If the discovery of the “Engineers” is a disappointment, it is more than made up for by the performance of Michael Fassbender as “David”, an android. Fassbender apparently ignored Ian Holm’s performance as the android “Ash” in the original “Alien”, and that of Lance Henricksen as “Bishop” in “Aliens”. Rather, he apparently focused his studies on the replicants in “Blade Runner” and Hal in “2001: A Space Odyssey”; as David is a predecessor to Ash and Bishop, this was perhaps wise. An android constructed now would no doubt be subject to these cultural influences, even on a subconscious level. Additionally, Fassbender plays David with perfect ambiguity: is he more machine than man, what precisely does he feel, does he have anything which could be called a moral compass? David’s “inner life” is difficult to fathom and thus the questions are never fully answered: his own creator says that David doesn’t have a soul, yet he has human preoccupations. For example, enjoys films like David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia”, even modelling his hair style after that of Peter O’Toole. Also, in a disturbing, somewhat Freudian exchange, he states that he wishes his creator was dead. The viewer can’t help but have mixed feelings about him; however the paradoxes presented by his character perhaps leads one to understand why the “Engineers” would have a less than wholesome view of humanity. An unpredictable creation may be something to be feared.
The film also contains the usual “Alien” mix of terror and isolation: we are presented with the possibility of characters expiring alone under alien skies. The immediate threat, however, is more mutable and perhaps all the more dangerous for being so. We are provided just enough information to be able to understand how the “Alien” came to be. The end leaves us with more than enough questions to justify a sequel: this follow-up apparently will be ready in 2014. I am looking forward to it: while “Prometheus” wasn’t a perfect film, at least it took an enervated franchise by the scruff of the neck, shook the dust off it and gave the viewer something new and interesting to consider. If the original “Alien” was about the loneliness of deep space, “Prometheus” reinforces the idea of an isolated humanity in a universe which is more diverse than previously thought, but also even more hostile.