by Thomas Pratchett
In 1979, Ridley Scott made a film about a bunch of people who find an alien spaceship and discover that the long dormant life inside isn’t so dormant, and in fact wants to kill them. In 2011, Ridley Scott made a film about a bunch of people who find an alien spaceship and… you can see where this is going. By now, everyone knows that Prometheus is a (so Scott claims) tangentially related prequel to Alien, although exactly how related they are is still to be seen. We’ve got the same Giger-esque architecture, milk-filled androids, stark white interiors played against grimy steam-filled corridors and pods filled with slimy things that want to hug our faces. If anyone else had come up with such a scenario and claimed it had no real links to the Alien franchise, 20th Century Fox’s lawyers would have moved faster than you can say ‘minimum safe distance’.
What does this mean to the film-goer? Scott’s last foray into Sci-Fi was the seminal Blade Runner back in 1982 so it’s not a common genre for him, but when your back catalogue contains arguably two of the best science fiction films ever made, your return to that field causes people to sit up and take notice.
Back in 1979, sci-fi was still riding high in Hollywood, held buoyant by Star Wars, with The Empire Strikes Back just around the corner. Having no official premiere, Alien was first shown to a sci-fi group in St. Louis at a particularly crappy cinema with a malfunctioning sound system. As anyone can tell you, sound effects and music play a large part of the atmosphere of Alien, so it is understandable that the reception was muted at best, as a result of which Ridley Scott was apparently furious. Another screening was hastily arranged in Dallas, at a state of the art cinema in full working order. This had the effect Scott had been hoping for. People jumped and screamed in all the right places, and there are apocryphal tales of punters running into the lobby to throw up or faint.
It was the release of the first trailer in May 1979 that cemented Alien as a must-see film. Essentially inventing the modern teaser trailer, it starts with a slow reveal of an egg (although more chicken-like than xenomorph), followed by rapid clips of the film over a very, well, ‘alien’ soundtrack of screeches and calls, before ending with what is routinely named the most effective tagline of all time: ‘In Space No-one Can Hear You Scream’. It was this kind of aggressive trailer that made the audience pay attention; this was sci-fi, yes, but this was something bigger and scarier that they hadn’t seen before. The knock on effect was immediately visible when the Egyptian Theatre in Los Angeles had Alien running for 48 hours straight on its opening weekend, and at no point in that period was there not a huge line around the block to get in.
Cut to 1986. James Cameron is directing the sequel, Aliens. Anticipation is already rife in the middle of filming, with articles about its production appearing in industry and genre magazines. A teaser trailer appeared in cinemas before post-production was complete; shots of soldiers arming up, Ripley herself holding a pulse rifle, with a military theme playing over it all, before ending with a new strapline, thought up by Cameron himself and just as punchy as its predecessor: ‘This Time It’s War’. This was determinedly not the ‘haunted house in space’ of the original, and thankfully so. On release, it did great business, both financially and critically, even having Roger Ebert suggest that it might be better that the original.
When Alien³ finally arrived in 1992 after a long and troubled gestation, 20th Century Fox were unsure what to do with it. The project had passed through several directors and screenwriters along the way, before finally settling with David Fincher and a mess of a story. While time has been kind to the beleaguered young sibling of two cinematic corkers, at the time, Fox were considering shelving the whole thing upon seeing early edits. But cooler heads prevailed and Fincher finally delivered. When the first, terribly misleading, teaser hit cinemas, obliquely promising an Alien movie set on Earth, the reaction was reserved excitement; the audience was well aware of the behind the scenes shenanigans that had been going on. Later trailers showed the true shape of the film – dirty, dark and focused on Ripley’s quasi-religious struggle with the demonic xenomorph.
Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s 1997 Alien Resurrection promised a fresh start for the franchise, and in some ways it certainly delivered. Looking for all the world like an Aliens graphic novel writ large on screen, the trailer had audiences excited in a way that they hadn’t been for Alien³.This time they were promised action, xenomorphs, Ripley back from the dead, Winona Ryder doing… something, and lots of guns. On those merits at least, it certainly delivered, even if certain elements are best forgotten (Newborn, I’m looking at you).
It’s been 15 years since an Alien film and now Prometheus is on the horizon, offering us another toe-dip into the world of Weyland-Yutani and acid-based lifeforms. Back in December, we were given a teaser for Prometheus, billed, bizarrely, as a teaser for the trailer. This tantalised us by harking back to that original Alien teaser with shots of the Derelict and the Space Jockey, along with the motif of fast cut images of exciting things happening building to… being told to wait for the full trailer.
Now the Prometheus release draws nearer, the trailed trailer was bestowed on us last week, giving us a little more of the storyline, along with more interesting images to pore over. Most notable is that this one apes the Alien trailer in a different way, utilising the ‘call’ that appears halfway through as the action on screen gets more frenetic and impressive, with shots of Charlize Theron, Surprisingly Roomi Napace, Angry Luther and garçon du jour Fassbender as android David (Ash, Bishop, Call, David – A,B,C, D. Clever, no?) while things get Increasingly Serious around them.
Along with the usual trailers, the marketing behind Prometheus extends into the ARG (Alternate Reality Game) business, and has started playing around to get internet fandom actively involved, doing their work for them, even. It began with the Weyland Industries site going live, and showing off a TED talk by Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) from 2023. Registering for information as an ‘investor’ starts you off down that particular rabbit hole.
As June draws nearer and anticipation increases for Scott’s return to both sci-fi and the series he helped create, the Fox marketing machine will be dusting off and nuking audiences from orbit with ever more mouthwatering glimpses of Prometheus. It is, after all, the only way to be sure.