Alien Week: Prometheus (2012)
Ridley Scott begins his first dip back into the world of Alien since his original masterpiece with a distinctly un-Alien shot. We’re greeted with sweeping vistas of outer space and the doomed planet LV-223. Misty mountains and azure waterfalls create a sense of openness and space that is the very antithesis of the original’s cramped, dank corridors and clanging chains.
It becomes clear quite quickly that Scott is attempting something entirely different. He invokes David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, both through the majestic grandeur of LV-223 and through the mimicking gestures of Michael Fassbender’s David — a character who simultaneously invokes Michaelangelo’s David, and through the hubris of the ill-fated Prometheus expedition crew. It is an interesting point of inspiration to be sure; classic epics aren’t necessarily the most congruous fit for a franchise that began as a haunted house tale in space (albeit the best haunted house story in cinema). But, in many ways, Lawrence of Arabia provides a brilliant point of connection for the film — and its main character, well, not its main character as intended (Shaw), but rather the true star of the show (the android David). The title of the film essentially states this theme point blank. The invocation of Lawrence of Arabia complicates it. “There is nothing in the desert.” David quotes, “And no man needs nothing.” And, it is perhaps fitting that Scott so focuses on this theme of hubris given the film’s not insignificant faults.
It is difficult to make sequels. It is even harder to make prequels. Ideally the nature of a prequel should allow for greater freedom; you aren’t so bound to the events of the first film. In actuality, prequels often end up stripping much of the mystery and allure from the original film. When the Nostromo crew in Alien enters the womb of the ship carcass on LV-426, we have no clue what the Space Jockey is. It’s hulking, mysterious, and perhaps inorganic. No answers are provided. It simply exists and gets us wondering. After Prometheus, we know what it is and why it looks as it does. Further, especially with the whole franchise thus far in hindsight, the skip from holographic, sleek tech to the retro-futuristic design of the original is totally incongruous.
Still, when Scott digs into the motherhood and birth trauma themes that so saturated his classic, Prometheus sings. The abortive emergency, Caesarian section is perhaps the most brilliantly tense scene in the entire saga, managing to take the body horror and birth trauma theme of Alien and updating them in a way that feels fresh, yet simultaneously deeply reverent. It’s all a bit more on-the-nose given the film’s toying with the ideas of the creation of life, the process of creation, and the intentionality behind that creation. But, it still progresses the ideas that Scott had spawned nearly forty years prior.
And this is where Prometheus truly succeeds. It may lack storytelling cohesion — especially when it comes to telling a serialized story over several installments — but it certainly does not lack thematic cohesion. It plants the seeds that mature into the first film’s fully developed thematic concerns and progresses them just enough to create a solid bridge to the first film (conveniently providing room for a subsequent prequel-sequel). As we see the alien life evolve, we see the distinctly yonic design of the original’s face-huggers mirrored in this film’s serpentine creatures and the phallic design of the original’s fully mature xenomorph scattered about the womb-like catacombs’ walls.
Prometheus may not be the 'perfect organism' that was Scott’s trailblazing sci-fi-horror, but — at least on a meta-level — that’s in keeping with the film’s themes of short-sighted ambition and ill-fated tampering with the natural order.