Prometheus And The Alien Prequel Problem

Why Prometheus, and no doubt its sequels, will gradually ruin the Alien prequel that has existed in your head for years.

OBLIGATORY SPOILER WARNING: This article covers SPOILERS from €œPrometheus€ and I do not recommend people who haven€™t seen the movie yet read it. The average movie geek can remember, without straining too hard, what happened to HAL 9000. HAL €“ the sinister yet oddly sympathetic computer from Stanley Kubrick€™s 2001: A Space Odyssey €“ was disconnected by astronaut Dave Bowman after it tried to kill the entire onboard crew, fearing it to be jeopardising the spaceship€™s mission. Ask me another. Only problem is, that€™s not what happened to HAL €“ we Know that there is more to the story, because Peter Hyams and Arthur C. Clarke showed us, in 2010: The Year We Made Contact (1984). The fault was not with HAL, but with his orders; it really was due to €˜human error.€™ And when the swarm of monoliths surround Jupiter, as the story predicts will happen in 2010, we€™re lucky we€™ve got HAL to protect us. (America didn€™t even go to war with Russia in 2010 so the movie was way off.) The reason I bring this up is that 2010 is an answer to a question that no one wanted answered. It takes what Stanley Kubrick had to explain through the enigmatic title, €˜Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite,€™ and brings it solidly back to the Finite. That doesn€™t mean it€™s a terrible movie; it isn€™t. Neither is Psycho II (1983). I have a modicum of affection for these quixotic sequels, partly because of the fact they€™re necessarily doomed from their inception. They follow masterpieces, decades after the original. As decent a movie as €œ2010€ occasionally is, even on a dramatic level at no point can it match the chilling response to Dave€™s request, €˜Open the pod bay doors, HAL.€™ Which brings us to Prometheus. I realise the allegory is fatally flawed: after all, Alien already has sequels, and at the very least one of them is superb. Furthermore 2010 and Psycho II had virtually no input from the rather well-established directors of the originals, while Prometheus marks Ridley Scott€™s return to sci-fi. And, as I keep being told, I shouldn€™t even be comparing Prometheus to €œAlien,€ because that€™s not fair. I€™ll come back to that. This isn€™t intended as a proper review of Prometheus, but the movie opened across the world (though not in the US) last Friday and was met with an international €˜hmm.€™ Even within the range of mixed responses I€™ve been hearing, the same points keep coming up: that the visuals are fantastic and worth the cinema price alone; that Michael Fassbender is superb; that the story and themes are confused; that the film lacks the dramatic pacing it needs and doesn€™t answer enough of its own questions; and that the characters are mostly pretty shallow and the dialogue inelegant and obvious. Feel free to tell me I€™m wrong on these points. Then there is the question of derivation. All works, particularly in a genre like sci-fi, draw inspiration, whether consciously or not, from several works that have preceded them. The central idea of humans being developed by extra terrestrials is not remotely new; it€™s an idea which can be found in Erik von Daniken, Quatermass and the Pit and amongst Scientologists the world over. That€™s perfectly fine, but the movie seems to think the question is more interesting in and of itself than it is (the lip service paid to Darwinism at the start is laughable, and the questions of €˜belief€™ allow the movie to sidestep the mind-shattering implications were this true). Another influence, on one key scene at least, seemed to me to be Andrzej Zulawski€™s Possession, which I€™m convinced someone was watching prior to devising Noomi Rapace€™s cephalopod-removal surgery. There is also derivation from, of course, 1979€™s Alien. This is tied into the movie€™s other major disappointment factor: expectation. The degree to which Prometheus connects to Alien is open to debate, and certainly it€™s a distant cousin at best. However it is set in €˜the same universe€™ and in a timeline that could lead to €“ or even instigate €“ the events of Alien. Ridley Scott has been secretive on the subject, and indeed the entire movie was shrouded for a long time in secrecy, consciously playing on the audience€™s curiosity about the degree to which the two films were connected. It€™s only after you see the film that you may realise how heavily €“ even artificially €“ the final trailer leaned on the Alien connection (while at the same time blowing much of the secrecy out the water; it has footage in it from the climax of the movie). We are so used to seeing too much of movies before their release (for which the studios as much as the fans are responsible) and it€™s telling that secrecy now feeds so directly into hype. I don€™t have a problem with Ridley expanding the world or Alien €“ although it€™s worth saying that the world was only partly created by him, and that the project had existed in various mutations for years before he was involved. This kind of intertextuality is often practiced by novelists, who sometimes make surprising connections even between their most disparate novels (Stephen King is a good example). It is true that the comparisons to Alien are not kind on the film, but it is also certainly true that this is a very different kind of movie. However that alone does not make it a good movie, and it€™s actually not all that interesting a movie until you do bring in Alien in an attempt to get a sense of the world (/universe) in which these two movies exist. So the movie€™s flaws probably aren€™t helped by the comparison: the characters in the crew here are less well defined than in Alien (or even than the crew in 2010, itself inspired by the one in Alien). The suspense and horror elements don€™t even compare. The sexual undertones of Alien are way more interesting than the philosophical overtones of Prometheus. That€™s all true, but it€™s also harsh; Alien is one of the best sci-fi flicks ever made, of course it doesn€™t compare. At the end of Prometheus, only a few of the questions are answered, and maybe that€™s as it should be, because there are unanswered questions in Alien too. Which leaves me with the main problem I have with Prometheus €“ or at least the main problem I have with its link to Alien: There is now one less unanswered question in Alien. In that movie, in a set piece that was almost never filmed because the studio didn€™t see the point, John Hurt et al. discover a vaguely humanoid skeleton at the helm of some large, phallic weapon. The creature €“ affectionately known as the €˜Space Jockey€™ €“ is never explained or even mentioned again. And in that one scene, Ridley Scott and writer Dan O€™Bannon evoked a great, untold story. It said that this story, of this one crew, is the tip of the ice berg, a story following a million untold stories. And the fans could make those stories up in their head, and fill that world themselves. And Prometheus, and no doubt its sequels, will gradually take that back off them. I know I shouldn€™t let anything about Prometheus detract from my enjoyment of Alien, and it doesn€™t, massively. The fact that the great mystery of who and what the Space Jockey is has been answered (the answer being some dude under a helmet who looks like the lovechild of Bane and Voldermort) will not change the fact that Alien is a masterpiece. But it€™s a question I never wanted the answer to, and the answer provided by Prometheus, solely on the evidence of this film, is a fairly banal one. I say €˜on the evidence of this film€™ because it€™s pretty clear that this movie, more so than Alien, is holding back much of its story for follow-ups. That€™s the other problem with Prometheus: it€™s not a prequel to Alien, it€™s a prequel to a movie that hasn€™t even been made yet. Open the franchise doors, HAL.
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I've been a film geek since childhood, and am yet to find a cure. Not an auteurist, but my favourite directors include Robert Altman, Ernst Lubitsch, Welles, Hitch and Kurosawa. I also love Powell & Pressburger movies, anything with Fred Astaire, Cary Grant or Katherine Hepburn, the space-ballet of 2001, Ealing comedies, subversive genre cinema and that bit in The Producers with the fountain.