Film Critique: Prometheus and the ‘Alien series’

Posted: June 19, 2012 by Mat Festa in Misc, Uncategorized
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Mat Festa

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matfesta@tiamatsgarden.com

[Note: This is a film critique, not a review and is intended for those who have already seen the movie. This will contain ‘spoilers’ and if you have not seen the movie in question – Prometheus – then much of this may not make sense.]

The most intriguing aspect of the series of Alien films is that while each individual movie is well made and enjoyable in its own right when looked at as a whole it’s a tangled mess of contradictory nonsense. The Alien series, which was never envisioned nor intended to be a series, is a mosaic, not a seamless cloth.

In my youth this was a continual source of frustration. Alien was then, and remains to this day what I consider to be one of the finest American made horror films. A movie I would put in the same group as Jacob’s Ladder, Antichrist, or Lake Mungo as a pinnacle of the genre. Whenever a person would mention that they consider Aliens to be the better movie – a sentiment that to this day I still hear frequently echoed – it would send me into a naïve pretentious rage that such an exquisite horror film should not only be followed by but considered inferior to an action flick. It wasn’t until many years later that I began to look at each movie in the Alien ‘series’ individually and only then did I appreciate them each for what they are.

Alien, as I’ve just mentioned, is a masterwork of horror. The atmosphere of dread and isolation is palpable. The pacing is agonizing and the threat of violence is visceral. This is a film that exists is the endless but immeasurably brief moment after you’ve lost control of the car but before the accident occurs. Every inch of your body knows the crash is inevitable and can see it hurtling toward you, but you are helpless to prevent it. However, while the structure and pacing of Alien are immaculate what truly sets it apart from so many other horror movies, and indeed what makes it a truly great film, is how steeped in symbolism and metaphor it all is. This is due largely to Giger’s seductive and repulsive design work. [For a detailed analysis of this see the artist’s own book H. R. Giger’s Film Design.]

Then came Aliens, an action movie. While Aliens does have all the trappings and failings inherent to the genre – minimal plot, one-dimensional characters (with the possible exception of Ellen Ripley, the one carry over character from the first movie and only connecting thread through the ‘series’ as a whole) – but that having been said it is an incredibly well made action movie. The pacing and structure and wonderfully adrenaline inducing and the characters, while insubstantial, are relatable enough that you actually care about what is happening. From a visual and conceptual standpoint the aliens themselves are already a world apart from the creature of the first film. What was in Alien a physical manifestation of sexual anxieties in Aliens was reduced to swarms of insects, and even the very idea of what the aliens themselves are was drastically changed, but more on that later. Lastly, speaking from a purely artistic point of view, while the aliens themselves are a far cry from Giger’s creation the actual creation and execution of the creatures on screen is a sight to behold. Made in the blessed days before rampant cgi the costuming and animatronics that bring the aliens to life on film, especially the intricate queen in the finale, are creature fx at their finest.

Alien 3 is a much harder film to pin down. The original release of the movie was greatly marred by frequent changes in production, scripting, and directing, but the version released years later, called the “assembly cut” is the best version and supposedly the closest to what the film was originally intended to be. On the surface it would seem to be an attempt to recapture the horror origins of the first film. The setting is remote, desolate, the threats abound, coming not only from the alien itself but also for Ripley herself (again the protagonist) from the majority of the other characters with whom she is trapped. In a much broader sense though the monster/horror aspect of the film is really just a backdrop to a fairly unique character study. The nearest film equivalent could be, oddly enough, is The Name of the Rose. A collection of curious, unique minds – those that would seek out the lonely devotional life of monasticism or the inmates who chose to stay in a prison after it is abandoned – hemmed in by an ever increasing threat – an unknown murderer or the alien beast. All the necessary beats to make a suspenseful film are there but what truly holds it together and makes it such an interesting film is the nuances of the characters themselves and their reactions (and increasing mutual antagonisms to one another) in the strange harshness of the situation.

As for Alien: Resurrection I don’t know what else to say beyond that it’s a Jean-Pierre Jeunet monster movie. If you haven’t seen his other works that there is little I can put into words that will accurately describe or do the faintest justice to how deliciously quirky, bizarre, silly, and beautiful they are. Watch The City of Lost Children. Then try to imagine the mind that created that making a monster movie. That’s Alien: Resurrection.

Now, as for the film at hand, Prometheus is simply put a movie with wonderful ideas pathetically executed. This was the first foray Ridley Scott has made back into the series since it’s inception. Although it was originally not intended to be a prequel to the original once that decision was made a great deal of the film was devoted to recreating various aspects of the original, nearly all of which came to the detriment to the movie as a whole.

The first and most obvious flaw is that which would occur when making a prequel to any film more than thirty years after the original: retconning. [For the sake of clarity from here on the aliens whom were sought out in Prometheus will be referred to as ‘Engineers’ as they are in the film, and the aliens of which are the subject of the rest of the series I will simply call ‘Aliens.’] Retroactive continuity changes are rampant throughout the entirety of Prometheus, from the minor easily excusable ones – the visual differences in the surface of the world on which the derelict Engineer ship was discovered – to the completely nonsensical – the Engineers weren’t killed by the aliens (what they did die of is never explained), the pilot of the Engineer ship (commonly referred to as the ‘space jockey’) not only didn’t die from an alien chest-burster but died miles away from the location where his body was in Alien, the Aliens seemingly didn’t even exist on the Engineer ship where hundreds of their eggs are found in the original, and so on. The most frequent bit of retconning though is one that is an increasingly common occurrence as prequels of this nature are being made so long after the fact of their originals: new technology. The simple fact is cgi is bright, flashy, and attention grabbing. For all intents and purposes you can animate virtually anything that you can imagine, and when it comes to the sci-fi genre depictions of exotic technologies are the first instinct of the purely superficially minded filmmaker. The problems it creates in Prometheus are:

  • 1. The technologies depicted (large scale holograms, recording and real-time viewing dreams, etc) did not exist in the time of Alien, which occurred at a much later date in the continuity.
  • 2. The portrayal of the technologies in question is so far flung and exotic that when it comes time to show that of the Engineers – supposedly a far more advanced culture – there is little to nothing available to distinguish them. And most importantly of all:
  • 3. The addition of these adds nothing whatsoever to the film. The only feeble argument that could be made for the dream viewer would be for the development of Elizabeth Shaw’s character, but nothing comes from it that could not be brought out (and much more elegantly) through ordinary exposition.

As I mentioned above many of the problems that occurred in Prometheus were in trying to recreate aspects of the original Alien. There were numerous small instances throughout the film but there are two which stand out prominently in mind:

  • The crew: In Alien the basis of the ship’s crew was simply “truck drivers in space.” Strange though it may sound this was an elegant solution to several problems. Having the characters be such ordinary working class people grounded the fanciful futuristic setting and made it relatable and understandable. Again having an ordinary group of people working a completely unrelated job stumble across the derelict ship, and thus the alien, simply by accident made their unpreparedness and the threat presented all the more potent. In Prometheus however the same aesthetic of “truck drivers in space” is sought for most of the supporting crew, but here – on a highly funded archeological expedition traveling to an uncharted world specifically to seek out an intelligent alien civilization, apparently, though never specifically stated, the first in history – it makes no sense whatsoever.
  •  Flamethrowers: In Alien the crew was completely isolated and had to scrounge together whatever tools and bits of the ship they could manage to fashion a means of defense; a crude flamethrower being one of these. This became a prominent visual theme during the panicked encounters with the alien and is brought back in Prometheus. While a flamethrower admittedly does look neat it is probably the most ridiculously impractical weapon ever created and would be the last thing you would think to bring on such an expedition. This may seem like minor nit-picking but I think it’s evidence of how a mistake so seemingly minor can go so far to pull a person out of a scene.

All that having been said there was also a great deal I deeply enjoyed about the film. More than any other film in the Alien series Prometheus holds true to the subtle philosophy of life being birthed from death. In the original Alien as conceived by O’Bannon, Shusett, and Giger the alien feeds off of its prey’s blood once it has them cocooned. As they grow weaker and the cocoon envelopes them their bodies become the egg from which a ‘face hugger’ will emerge to latch onto another victim who will die to birth the next generation, and thus the cycle continues. This was changed in Aliens to the more easily understandable simple structure of a queen based insect colony. In Prometheus however everything the Engineers do to create life comes at the expense of life. In the very first scene of the movie it is shown than an Engineer will kill himself so that his body may break down and become the seed to germinate life on that world.

Visually this is Ridley Scott at the top of his game. Although not without its flaws – the holograms are needless and over used, and the cesarean scene is just outright ridiculous – this is a visually stunning film. The crash of the Engineer ship towards the climax has such a physical mass to it you can feel the massive bulk of it in your marrow as it tumbles achingly slowly to the ground. There is an incredible array of creatures and while they are all unique the variations on a theme of the original alien and face hugger are easily visible. I was delighted to learn that Giger himself was brought in to consult on how his designs would be extrapolated out into other species. This is however another of the films problems though. There is no consistency whatsoever to the behavior of any of the creatures or Engineer related experiments. Often they seem to be made completely randomly without any attempt at logic.

By far though the most captivating part of the whole film is the character of David the android played by Michael Fassbender. After the initial shocking revelation of Ash’s character being an android in Alien their existence is entirely taken for granted throughout the rest of the series. In Prometheus on the other hand the first introduction we have to the characters is through David, and we spend a good deal of time with him before any of the others come into play. While all the human crew members are in a cryogenic sleep during travel David spends that entire time awake, alone, for over two years. During this time he not only does the needed research for the expedition but reads, watches movies. Supposedly emotionless and existing only in programming he tries continually to find himself, creating his own personality. In the most poetic of touches he draws greatly from the Laurence of Arabia (which he frequently quotes), a film about Laurence’s own quest of self-discovery. Sadly on the other hand as captivating as David is he comes at the expense of all the other characters, about whom we know virtually nothing and get only the vaguest caricatures and hints as to who they are.

In keeping with the uniquely diverse tradition that the Alien series has made for itself Prometheus is first and foremost a sci-fi movie, and given the subject matter had the potential to be a truly philosophical one. Unfortunately, while the subtleties were all in place the larger pieces were so terribly mismanaged that it ultimately falls apart. The first impression I was left with after watching the movie was that it felt like a first draft, not a finished work. Having read some of what Scott and others involved have said about the production it would seem that a large portion (30 minutes to an hour) of footage was removed from the original cut for the theatrical release. The addition of this could go a long way toward filling the gaps that felt so glaringly exposed in the movie as it is. An extended cut has already been announced and I’ll reserve any ‘final’ judgment until having seen it – Ridley Scott has proven himself far too great a filmmaker over the years to outright dismiss any of his works so easily – but as it stands now Prometheus is a movie of excellent ideas but terribly fails in realizing its ambitions.

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Comments
  1. Joey says:

    What makes the alien films so endearing to me is that each film is so stylistically and thematically different but the tying thread of ripley vs the alien continues throughout all four. For that reason I have a hard time not viewing it as a continuous series. I see Ripley progressing throughout the films and I do think the sexual themes established in the first one are carried out within each whether intentionally or not. In Alien, Ripley is this androgynous jump suit wearing hero that could be portrayed by either a male or female actor. Aliens she is given these very maternal and feminine characteristics, chasing after her adopted like daughter newt. Alien 3 kills off the daughter and father archetypes in hicks and newt she shaves her long hair, blending into the population of all men. Then in Resurrection she is a hodge-podge of gender identities, simultaneously the male fighter, the female mother (the alien hybrid “baby” of hers) and part Alien herself, no longer even fully human. If anything she then mirrors the series android characters more than the humans and it’s no coincidence then that resurrection introduces winona ryde as an android depicted with broadly accepted traits of femininity, though we can’t really say she is “female,” as is the case then with Ripley. I wish someone well versed in gender studies would do a proper critique of all 4 films and not just the first as is the usual practice.
    As for Prometheus, I get the impression that Scott was torn between making it a full on alien prequel or a stand-alone film. I think its affiliation with the Alien series weighs it down. I don’t know if scott felt an obligation to the alien fandom or there was studio pressure so as to ensure sales, but if he had cut ties to the series the discrepancies you list above (technology differences, the flamethrowers, etc), would be irrelevant, although I do think they are superficial to begin with. With that said, according to the initial presentation made by shaw to the crew after waking from hypersleep, the planet/moon that they visit is labeled LV-223, the one from alien & aliens is LV-426, so the discrepancies regarding the placement of the space jockey’s death, the alien eggs, etc is non-applicable here as it is a different planet, so there was no real retconning in that respect.
    I really enjoyed Prometheus, it’s a film with ambition and that’s about all it takes for me to love a picture these days.

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