By Paul Anthony Jonze
Erm…actually, Miss Shaw, I’m not so sure I am.
Never have I left the cinema with such mixed feelings. After being such a huge Alien fan pretty much all my life, Prometheus is the film that initially promised to answer a lot of questions raised in Alien in the form of a prequel, then to evolve into something new, and, to be honest, left me feeling slightly empty afterwards initial viewing.
And here is why, from the beginning. And before I start, those who have not seen the film yet should go now, because I will explore this film with the assumption that the reader has watched it already. There be spoilers ahead.
When I was 13, I got my hands on a graphic novel called Alien: The Illustrated Story. That was 1990. At the time, I had never seen the first Alien film, or the sequel, but I was hooked on the graphic novel, which pretty much followed me everywhere. Then, in the same year, my mom got Aliens from the video rental store on VHS. That was when my obsession really kicked in. I quickly became a hardcore fan – the originality, the horror, Ripley, The Queen! All of these things were amazing to me. So, subsequently I soon watched Alien, which surpassed expectations ten fold. I have always been a believer that Alien > Aliens, a topic that was once a hot debate for the majority of fans, however since then, people seem to have a clear view of which they prefer. When Alien 3 was released, my initial reaction was “it’s ok”, but it wasn’t in the same league as the first two. Since then, and since researching the films for my final year project at university, Alien 3 is now my second favourite in the series, having themes and allusions towards early 1990s anxieties surrounding infection, AIDS and homophobia that I had not recognised previous to becoming a film student and researching the series’ themes of reproduction.
Then came Alien: Resurrection. I’m going to be honest: While I love the themes of cloning, the return of Ripley and even the idea of the Alien and human genetic crossing of DNA and Ripley’s “gift” of a human womb to The Queen, I hated the film. I don’t dislike it. I actually hate it. As far as I’m concerned the films ended at the end of the third one. One of the reasons I refuse to recognise the film as part of the series is the look of the Alien itself. It had become so far detached from Giger’s original masterpiece, that it was more like some distant monster, merely inspired by the original. It was brown. It moved like a velociraptor from Jurassic Park. This is an issue I also had with Aliens. While The Queen was magnificent, I disliked the look of the Alien. It wasn’t the graceful, mysterious creature from the first film anymore. It consisted of a hideous ridged head, stick thin arms, and had become basically what Giger described as “cannon fodder”. No mixture of flesh and metal, no domed head which really made it look like an alien spaceman. Just some bug-type creature, kind of similar to the original one. (Note: I actually love the creature in the third one, it’s a shame the slightly dodgy superimposed shots tarnished the film.)
With all this in mind, when rumours of a prequel were announced a few years ago, I became excited, but also retained caution. `if it was going to be a prequel, there was only one person who I personally would have wanted to see direct it: Ridley Scott. I knew he would bring back the atmosphere, the aesthetics and the tone that everybody loved from the first film. Also, more importantly, he would restore the Alien to it’s original, biomechanical glory. Then, when it was announced Scott was to direct it, it nearly exploded.
Sadly, it wasn’t long after that Scott announced it wasn’t going to be a prequel. I felt crushed. I didn’t want just another sci-fi film, or a film that was vaguely related to the same “universe”. I wanted questions answered:
- Why was the Space Jockey there? And who/what was he?
- Why did he have those eggs in the lower chamber? What were they for?
- If they were for a weapon as fans had speculated over the years, who were they going to be used on? Humans? Another race of aliens?
- Why did the walls like like they were made out of bone? And, in the middle of what looked like a ship that appeared organic in construction was there a (still operational) blue light on the eggs? Was it preserving them?
- Did someone else find the ship before the Nostromo did and try to preserve or steal the eggs?
- What would a Space Jockey Alien look like? Is it still alive somewhere?
- Is there another chamber with more eggs? Maybe not containing Facehuggers, but something else?
- Did the Jockey create the eggs or did he create The Queen?
- Was he really fossilised or had he only been dead a few hours or weeks, and he could look like that anyway?
- How does Ash have so much prior information on the Alien? And how does Weyland-Yutani know about it?
- Why did the Alien cocoon Brett and Dallas and not just eat them or leave them for dead?
- Why was Lambert (seemingly) naked after the Alien attacked her and Parker? Did it try to rape or impregnate her?
Some of these are the questions that, like Ridley, I always wondered why the other films never tackled. I can understand why the first three never approached the back story of the Space Jockey: They wanted to focus on Ripley, which was fair enough. She was a strong enough character to carry three films. However, after her death, why the story of the Space Jockey was never fleshed out is something that I don’t understand. Ripley’s story was over, she was dead. The series could have evolved into something else, something that would still include the Alien, but start again down a different path. This is what I was expecting Ridley to do with Prometheus, and while he has done that to some extent, he has also managed to raise more questions, while sadly not (for me at least) answering one single question raised in the original Alien film.
It’s obvious that the reason for this is to leave space for a sequel, maybe two. Prometheus has merely set the ground rules for more to come, however I can’t help but feel dismay at the fact I may never get the answers that I want. Prior to seeing the film, but having known a little bit about the characters, in my head I had thought to myself that maybe it was maybe the crew of the Prometheus that had left the blue light on the eggs, to preserve or contain them once they had discovered the derelict ship. I had also told myself that maybe it was Shaw who used the Space Jockey’s technology to send out the distress/warning signal that the Nostromo picked up some years later. I actually thought that the Space Jockey that was discovered by Dallas, Lambert and Kane was going to appear in this film. But none of the above.
But let’s focus on some of the good points before some of the negatives. The film is beautifully shot. No question of that. The opening scene showing the Engineer (pfft, Space Jockey) looking up at the (non-derilict shaped) ship from the waters edge are stunning, as are the sweeping shots of the landscape and the frankly stunning soundtrack that accompanies. Fassbender is brilliant as David, a pre-Ash android, who it is clear Weyland Industries is not only very proud of, but also is in the earlier stages of becoming the more advanced model that is Ash and Bishop, both of whom effortlessly blend in with humans. Theron is also perfect as Vickers, the “suit”, and who in my opinion is undoubtedly an android and my favourite character in the film. Pre-release reports theorised that Shaw, played by Rapace, was going to be the new Ripley. While in my opinion she is nowhere near the iconic, “first-female action hero” that is Ripley, she plays the part well, as does Logan Marshall-Green as Holloway, a character not at all likeable. Idris Elba as ship’s captain Janek is the character who most resembles the “truckers in outer-space” that we love from the original Alien, and again a likeable character. Guy Pierce as Peter Weyland is for me somewhat confusing. When watching, I was always aware in the back of my mind that I was watching a younger man in prosthetics, and would much rather have seen someone closer to the age of Weyland playing the part. The supporting cast, while there are some standout performances, mostly disappear into the background, some of which even now after three viewings of the film I’m not 100% sure what some of their names are. That aside, all in all, the visuals of the film are pretty stunning. When watching the second time in 3D at IMAX, the film becomes alive, and is visually more stunning that Avatar. However, by half way though the film, the fact it was in 3D was almost forgotten about, which for me made it slightly pointless. On one hand, there wasn’t the confusion of trying to focus on something like I had to when watching Avatar. On the other, I felt towards the end I may as well have watched it a second time in 2D, which was just as beautiful to watch. The films engulfs you. You feel like you are there, although having said that, I felt the same in the 2D showing as well as the 3D showing.
As the battle of whether to accept that this film was or wasn’t a direct prequel to Alien, and while people complained endlessly at the amount of footage being shown in trailers and TV spots, I for one needed to see as much footage as possible to feel assured that it was the prequel I wanted to see. Despite the fact that it wasn’t, I don’t think Ridley helped matters in interviews. I read one article which Ridley stated that “the last 8 minutes tie in with Alien“. GREAT I thought. That’s all I needed to hear. Well, besides wanting to know if there was going to be a ‘Giger’s Alien’ in it. Then, another interview with Lindelof implied that an Alien was gong to appear towards the end of the film. Again, GREAT! Even better! But, when watching, I kept looking out for these links, and when the film finished and the final credits started to roll, I not only wondered where these 8 minutes were, but where was the Alien Lindelof all but hinted at. Also, what hadn’t helped was the trailer which featured the same menacing noises from the original Alien film, which all but falsely furthered the link between the two. Surely that weird looking thing at the end which vaguely resembled an Alien wasn’t what Lindelof was talking about? I wasn’t sold. And, instead of answering ANY of the questions I wanted resolved from the first film, it asked more, not just in the grand scheme of the story arc, but also in the film’s plot holes. Here are a few:
- I understand that David in inquisitive, but why did he infect Holloway with the contents of the ampule? And when doing so, why did he decide to dip his finger (which still had the contents of the ampule on) in Holloway’s drink right in front of his face? Surely he could have poured and subsequently dipped his finger in the drink with his back turned and not standing a foot in front of him?
- What’s with the big twist of Weyland being on board? Who cared? It seemed everyone except Holloway and Shaw knew, but what difference did it make? Why weren’t they told? And why were they lead to believe he was dead?
- After Fifield is infected and mutated, why did he attack everyone? One minute his helmet is melting onto his face, and the next he is disfigured and attacking the crew. What happened?
- After Holloway is lying in agony on Shaw’s lap and can barely stand, where does he suddenly get the energy from to surrender himself in front of Vickers, and more to the point, why does he so freely ask her to kill him? Not letting him on the ship is understandable, but why when he had gone all that way did he decide to surrender his life so easily? And why did nobody have an issue with Vickers killing him after the event?
- And talking of a quick death, Janek and his pilots seem to also surrender their lives pretty easily. Why? Because Shaw tells them that the Engineer is going to Earth to kill everyone. They just take her word for it and go on a prompt suicide mission., without even mentioning other methods of taking down the ship. Maybe jettisoning an escape pod similar to the one Vickers escapes in into it would have damaged or bought down the ship. Surely worth a try before killing yourself and two of your crew?
- The scene in which Shaw performs the C-section on herself if gruesome enough, but nothing near the fatal forced cesarean that Kane is subjected to. However, after staggering around the ship, nobody questions why she is nearly naked and covered in blood, much less why she has a massive cut across her stomach with multiple staples in. Nobody reacts to that.
- Why have a machine on board, that is so advanced, has all the equipment to perform a C-section, yet is only programmed to operate on men?
- Talking of Shaw’s “baby”, did Vickers not go into her quarters after the time of the operation? I assume she would have at some point, but doesn’t come across the creature. And how did Shaw get into Vickers quarters where the medi-pod was in the first place?
- When trying to wake Shaw up, some of the crew are attacked by her and knocked nearly unconscious on the floor. This is never mentioned again and Shaw goes out to the pyramid with them, no questions asked.
- David knew the creature was in Shaw, but doesn’t question where it is after she has clearly had it removed. Why?
- What was the motivation of the Engineer to kill Weyland and rip off David’s head?
- The huge Facehugger-type creature (more like a Bodyhugger?) at the end, why did it not have any human characteristics if it was planted in Shaw by Holloway following a sexual encounter? It more resembled the Facehuggers that fans know and love, yet came from a human, not an egg.
- Such a big deal seemed to be made about the huge head: In trailers, teasers, posters etc, yet in the overall arc of the film it seemed pretty insignificant, was barely featured and reduced to simply a background prop that while dominating in a few shots, was barely referenced by the crew and it seemingly did nothing. What was it’s purpose?
- What made Ridley think that giving the huge face/bodyhugger sharp teeth made it scary? The original facehugger was the size of, well, a face…and the underneath was made up of oysters and old discarded bits of fish from a fishmongers and ten times more terrifying that this big monster.
Unfortunately, the film doesn’t have the scares in it that Ridley promised. Mainly because the one scene that would have normally made you jump featured in the trailer, so you knew it was coming, and also the alien creatures weren’t in it long enough to pose any sort of threat to the ship, or the audience. The musical score, although very beautiful, did not need to be constant throughout, which took away a lot of the terror that was prevalent in the first three Alien films. Unfortunately, the scene in which Holloway and Shaw are briefing the crew of their mission reminded me of a scene from Alien Vs Predator, something a Ridley Scott film should never, ever do.
I left the cinema wondering if Ridley has read any of the amazing theories written on the Alien films since it’s release, by the likes of Catherine Constable, James Kavanagh, Judith Newton, Daniel Dervin, Vivian Sobchack and the brilliant Barbara Creed who included Julia Kristeva’s theories of abjection to her reading of Alien. An interesting point to make is while answering questions recently in a live chat, Ridley was asked of the aesthetics of Prometheus vs. Alien, and why the difference in the sleek interiors of the Prometheus ship compared to the “used future” look of the Nostromo. Ridley merely answered that it was a stylistic choice, while it was Lindelof that commented that the Nostromo was a simple mining vessel, with a much lower construction budget. This is an answer I would have preferred Ridley give. While Alien offered audiences with something new, Prometheus hasn’t that for me. The Alien at the end was not the magnificent creature (chestbursting or fully grown) I was hoping for. There was no biomechanical genius, in fact, the creature looked like it could have come out of a Resident Evil film. There was no phallic iconography, seemingly no influence of real life socio-political or medical advancements upon initial viewing, and no real relation to any sort of real life anxiety. I would happily watch it and consider it a film merely in the same “universe” as Alien, but with muddled promotion (is it or isn’t it a prequel) and all the wrong links and hints towards the original film (more abject and phallic iconography, and less rubbish about Shaw’s faith and the “twist” of Weyland being on the ship), it’s hard not to feel let down.
I’m watching it again this week, will without a doubt by the blu ray when it is released, and hope from the bottom of my soul that at least some of what I was hoping for in this film appears in the next, or that the blu ray release corrects some of these pretty major plot holes that I wouldn’t have expected from Ridley Scott. I desperately want to love this film, but at the minute, am desperately looking for more things to love than film fault with. What doesn’t help is that it was part-written by Damon Lindelof, the guy who not only bought us Lost, but admitted that it was a) made up as it went along and b) never really knew what it was about either. Well, with Prometheus he seems to be re-treading old ground. I hope the sequel rectifies this. Ridley is saying in interviews lately that the reason he hasn’t done a science fiction film in so long is because the right script hasn’t come along, and then this is what he produces? It doesn’t add up, much like the script. A lot of schoolboy errors that we wouldn’t expect from someone of Ridley’s caliber, especially when he bought us such masterpieces as Alien, Blade Runner and Legend so near to the beginning of his career some 30-odd years ago. With Alien, Scott reinvented the wheel. With Prometheus, he merely spins that wheel backwards a few turns.