by Indy Datta
SPOILER WARNING: This piece presupposes that readers are familiar with Alien and I will also be discussing the plot and other details from Prometheus after the jump.
In the introduction to his eccentric 1981 anthology of purportedly classic SF short stories “The Golden Age of Science Fiction”, Kingsley Amis says of 1979’s Alien – and I paraphrase from a 30 year old memory – that it would be missing the point to consider the film so off-the-shelf and generic as to dismissively dub it “Science Fiction Story No.3”: that it was good enough to be considered Science Fiction Story No. 1.
For me, Ridley Scott’s second feature is arguably even more potent and archetypal than that: it’s story No.1, full stop, the same story as the first stories told by cave paintings of prehistoric animal hunts, the story of how the existential struggle to survive defines humanity. Whether by luck, judgment, or the magic synergy of the two that probably defines every great film (subtract any element: whether it’s HR Giger’s design concepts, the steely and elegant visuals, the unforced naturalism of the acting – and the film would be a footnote, rather than a classic) , Alien is rich in images, subtext and dialectical tensions that express its central theme.
The closest thing to a verbally expressed hypothesis within the film comes from Ian Holm’s Ash, who says that the alien is undefeatable – its will to survive unmitigated by human weakness. The story of Ripley’s victory over the alien is, on one level, the contradiction that disproves Ash’s hypothesis, but there’s also an element of synthesis: aspects of the alien reflect aspects of humanity. Spinning off from this basic spine, the dramatic and visual images of the film continually complicate, restate and develop this tension in the context of a fully-developed portrait of human society, based on a tiny microcosm of it.
So: the class dynamic that is first broached around the breakfast table after the Nostromo’s crew is woken from hypersleep introduces a tension between individualism versus the collective good. Later, Ripley’s attempt to enforce the quarantine rules against Kane after the first alien attack reprises this duality, but with sentimental altruism as the flipside of motivated individualism. Later still, Ripley’s self-endangering rescue of Jones the cat echoes the motif of sentimental altruism – across species lines. The relationship between cat and human contrasts with the relationship between alien and human: domestication versus predator/prey, but also symbiosis versus parasitism. The power dynamics among the Nostromo’s crew are inflected around the pivot of gender: the alien (in every one of its incarnations) is both vulval and phallic. The alien attacks are akin to sexual assaults, and their end results include grotesque parodies of birth. The Nostromo itself, the ship’s computer, “Mother”, the hypersleep chambers, are all expressions of the protection of the womb, yet Mother, on behalf of the Company is misdirecting that maternal instinct towards the changeling alien – the crew are expendable. And so, back to the beginning: the Company doesn’t care about your bonus, the Company only cares about Special Order 937.
My favourite single moment in Alien comes just after Kane, Dallas and Lambert first discover the fossilized remains of what we will later come to assume is a non-human victim of the alien – what has come to be called, in many exegeses of the film, the Space Jockey. After their cursory examination of the Space Jockey, the protagonists turn their attention to other matters, including the vast egg chamber that Kane discovers. As they turn away, though, the camera’s eye stays with the Space Jockey, pushing in past the averted gaze of Tom Skerrit’s Dallas – at this point the ostensible star of the film – on that lone, long-dead, inhuman eye. The uncanniness of it, the way it decentres our perception of the scene, still gives me chills now, undimmed by time and repetition.
In interviews promoting the release of Prometheus, his long-awaited return to the universe of Alien, Sir Ridley Scott has said that he has also long been obsessed with that moment, but in a crucially different way, saying he has always wanted to tell the story of the Space Jockey – that it surprised him that people were not more curious about that untold backstory.
It’s certainly true that the geek-dominated corner of popular culture, which is a much bigger corner than it was in 1979, has a big appetite for extended mythologies, but Scott’s big idea here left me, in theory, cold: sometimes less is more. The fact that the script was to be co-written by one of the key writers on Lost, a particularly baleful piece of flotsam generated by the mainstreaming of geek culture, did nothing to whet my appetite further.
More interesting was another of Scott’s asides about the film: that it could be described as 2001 on steroids. On one level, not that exciting: Kubrick’s ineffable metaphysical masterpiece has been traduced a thousand times, including by its own sequel. But the idea of the what’s-it-all-about bug biting Ridley Scott – who’s never seemed remotely like that kind of film maker; maybe it’s a getting old thing – is weirdly intriguing. Could Prometheus use the world and concepts of Story No.1 to tell, well, Story Number Zero?
Sadly, it turns out that Scott is not that kind of film maker. The gestures of Prometheus towards the cosmic and metaphysical simply don’t connect, and are blandly anthropocentric in a way 2001 never is, and the titular reference to the myth of the overreaching Titan doesn’t deliver any thematic richness. (A digression: I advise all future space crews not to board ships with ominous-sounding names. You know Nostromo comes from Conrad, right? Surely that can’t be good! Do you want to be tied to a rock, while a giant eagle eats your liver? No? Well don’t join the crew of the Prometheus, ffs!). The characters talk about faith, eternal life and creation – but that dialogue has no more impact or subtext than the dialogue about Stephen Stills, accordions and vodka. Michael Fassbender’s robot butler character may be conceived as a link between Alien’s Ash and 2001’s Hal, but far from being a monster humanity can’t conceive of having created, the nonsensical subplot he’s landed with eventually renders him a punchline.
The most disappointing thing about Prometheus is that it is, finally, and after all the not-really-a-remake-or-a-prequel misdirection, nothing more than an approximate beat-for-beat remake of Alien with prefatory material modelled after 2001, but instead of the believable and sharply sketched characters of the earlier film we get a collection of transparent screenwriter’s confections who have forced comic banter, speeches about bereavement and infertility issues and engagement rings (the last refuge, always, of the screenwriting scoundrel) rather than issues and engagements with one another. At one point, it is revealed that one character’s father died of the Ebola virus. The revelation lands with a weighty clang as if it’s supposed to mean something. It means nothing.
Instead of the brutally streamlined plot of Alien, we get what eventually devolves into a series of seemingly random incidents, punctuated by reprises of Alien story threads ripped out of context and rendered nonsensical, such as Ripley not letting Kane on to the ship (but now with added Charlize Theron flamethrower action), or Ash having his own secret Company mission (but there’s no reason at all for Fass-bot David’s mission to be secret). We get conveniently placed holographic videos of expository flashback (again, just lazy, lowest-common-denominator screenwriting). And none of it means anything.
Instead of the quietly frightening inexplicability of the Space Jockey, the idea that there’s stuff out there that’s nothing to do with us, we get a big pale bald bloke (yes, I was there for the bits where they explained who he really was) who sometimes wears a Space Jockey helmet, breaking down doors to get to the last survivor of our crew, for some reason. That was what all this was for, then. The Space Jockey is a bloke in a Space Jockey hat.