For decades, Ridley Scott and James Cameron circled around the idea of a 5th Alien movie. Rumours abound of what this would have been – there was talk of a script written by Cameron and directed by Scott which saw Ripley following the alien to its source, or finally reaching the xenomorph home planet. Weaver herself felt that Ripley’s story wasn’t over, but a series of misguided attempts to further franchise the series (Alien vs Predator) soured everyone involved and the project generally collapsed. Still, Scott kept coming back to the beginning – being in particular drawn to what fans call the ‘space jockey’ – the giant, incomprehensible and long-dead pilot of the crashed ship in Alien. Scott felt there was more in that moment than a jumping-off point for the original Alien, and over time, his ideas were developed into a prequel script known at the time as ‘Alien: Engineers‘ – which dealt with, in Scott’s words – ‘the gods and monsters of space.’ This script would eventually become Prometheus.
As production went on, the film became muddied. Was it an Alien prequel or was it an original film set within the Alien universe? What wasn’t muddied however were expectations, which for long-term fans rivalled that of The Phantom Menace. The hype for Prometheus in 2012 was huge. Not only was this Ridley Scott’s return to sci-fi (Blade Runner went from cult to classic in a big way over the years) it was also Ridley Scott’s return to his baby, the Alien franchise, which had become a disjointed mess. Scott’s Alien was the series at its most visceral, its most pure. The marketing for Prometheus played up the Alien angle, with an excellent trailer cut with Jerry Goldsmith’s original chilling score. People were excited. And ultimately, as with The Phantom Menace, people were let down by the final movie. Prometheus received mixed reviews from critics and terrible reviews from fans, who considered it a damp, disjointed mess. In the wake of its follow-up, Alien: Covenant, Some Films and Stuff revisited Prometheus to see what worked about it, and what went wrong.
Prometheus in most aspects is a pretty great movie. The direction from Scott is strong, and the film possesses his trade-mark stunning cinematography; the man can make sci-fi in particular look like art. The look, score, art direction (which borrows HR Giger’s unused work from Jodorowsky’s Dune) cast and acting are generally quite strong. What doesn’t work really is the script, and Michael Fassbender’s David aside, the characters are badly written. So what we’re left with is a very well made bad movie. Originally written by Jon Spaihts as a more direct Alien prequel featuring xenomorphs, Lost writer Damon Lindelof was brought in apparently at Scott’s direction to remove the aliens by replacing them with a strange black goo, and to make the story more ambiguous. The plot lurches all over the place – there’s a difference between being ambiguous and being obtuse because you have nothing to say, and whilst the script raises all kinds of questions about the creation of man and god and religion it doesn’t bother answering anything – lazily leaving all this for a sequel. You can see where Scott’s coming from – the original idea of the alien was something that could change, adapt in ways you couldn’t ever comprehend. This idea was lost when Cameron added his ant/bee social structure in Aliens, something which no doubt defined the idea of the xenomorph in cinematic culture, but which did so a the expense of the creature’s original nameless horror. Prometheus tries to return to this, but the black goo substitute meant to be this adaptive, alien technology just becomes a get-out-of-jail free card for the writer. It mutates worms at one point, makes zombies at another, births a squid monster, makes a weird-proto alien at the end – basically doing what ever the writer’s want at the expense of consistency.
The characters across the board act like idiots. From the infamous alien biologist who pets a clearly aggressive alien cobra, to Shaw’s inexplicable Catholicism in the face of direct proof against Catholicism, none of these characters feel like the top of the line scientists they’re meant to be. The case seems to be that the writer wasn’t as bright as his characters, creating this odd disconnect between what they’re supposed to be and what they actually do. Worse, the characters are in direct contrast to the down-to-earth, workman like characters in the original Alien, all of whom were written like real people in an impossible situation, which remains one of the key reasons why the original was such an effective movie. The original has a few ‘go and get the cat’ moments but they felt earned – an indication that the characters were more realised or that a stronger film allows audiences to buy into more. Either way, the contrast between Alien and Prometheus in terms of characters is baffling; Alien had an almost stage-play like dynamism and tightness with felt organic and authentic, and its replaced here with light, shoddy half-baked philosophy and incomprehensible decisions.
It feels like a first draft, or more accurately, an edited version of another writer’s first draft. It’s clear what they’re going for here – a meet your maker mission which ends in horror due to man’s hubris – and it works in a big picture sense, which is probably what Scott saw in the script. But as a story, it doesn’t work at all. In Alien, the characters’ actions drove the plot. Here, the characters bend to accommodate the plot. So the entire movie feels constantly like a movie, unnatural. There’s no reason for the mission to go wrong except that the plot demands that it goes wrong. Worse, some of the clunkier ideas – that the engineers were space Jesus and coming to kill us for the crucifixion, clarified by Scott/Lindehof in interviews after the fact – aren’t really even in the movie. Again, there’s that obtuseness – as though things were deliberately cut out of the script to make the film seem smarter than it was.
Plot-aside, the whole concept of the movie is flawed. Alien works because of the mystery of it – we don’t need to know where the creature comes from, or who the space jockey was. That takes away from the intrigue, and horror. Alien was about something alien, the more you explain of it, the more it diminishes – and it’s strange that Scott, who felt he lost the xenomorph to its sequels, would push this kind of story. Worse still, the film doesn’t even do this right – Prometheus dabbles with explaining Alien and does a half arsed job. The film is set on LV-223, not LV-426 as in the original movie or Aliens. We get a crashed space-jockey craft…but not the one from Alien. We get an alien at the end but not the one we know. Everything is almost a prequel, but not quite, which somehow even worse than going one way or the other. The film doesn’t know what it wants to be.
And that perhaps is the movie’s biggest issue. If it had been an original sci-fi movie which could exist in the Alien universe – basically Blade Runner – that would have been fine. If it had been a direct-plot driven prequel to Alien, that could have been fine. If it had been a movie about new people encountering the alien (basically what Alien: Covenant looks to be) – then that could have worked too. Instead it tries to please everyone and ends up pleasing no-one. Worse still the tone is all over the shop – swinging from philosophical sci-fi to horror to action movie – there’s never enough of either genre to make a dent; the philosophical elements get dropped for the horror elements, but the horror elements aren’t consistent enough or scary enough for horror fans, and then it turns into an action movie too late for action fans to care.
That said, there are flashes that suggest this movie could have been great. The abortion scene is so unique, so tense, with such a kinetic energy and level of body-horror it’s almost worth watching Prometheus for that scene alone. It’s the only bit which feels like an Alien movie. Likewise the attack from the engineer at the end, Shaw with the axe and the giant wall screen filtering in the background shows that when the script is working, Scott can still make fantastic visually driven movies. And if you switch your brain off, and pretend its nothing to do with Alien, Prometheus….can work. It is on a technical level, an accomplished movie. And it’s unfair to suggest Scott has gone the way of George Lucas – he’s still one of the greats, but he’s always been a director who needed good script to make a good movie.
Now lets see how Alien: Covenant is…
Also check out the rest of the Alien movies on Some Films and Stuff: