Monday, 13 January 2014

Prometheus Explored Part 1

In the Shadow of a Monster - Prometheus and Alien

"You don't know what you're dealing with, do you? The perfect organism. It's structural perfection is matched only by it's hostility."                                                                                      - Ash, Alien 
Prometheus is a film that has garnered a rather mixed reaction from critics and viewers alike. It is thematically a very complex and rich film that doesn't spell out easy answers to questions the viewers might have, and is open to interpretation in a lot of instances (1). This series of essays attempts to address these themes and offer a few interpretations of the events of the film, as well as explore the two main themes of the flaws of human-centrism in a non-human centrist universe, and parental abandonment.

However in order to do so, one must first move Prometheus out from under the shadow of its predecessor Alien. A lot of the advertising for Prometheus was focused around the connection of both the in-movie universe and Ridley Scott to Alien, and the film itself is filled with callbacks, allusions and out-and-out references to the 1979 film. Unfortunately Alien is a very high standard to set, as it is widely regarded as one of the greatest science fiction films ever made (2). This advertising campaign backfired, however, as inviting comparisons to Alien did the film no favors as it was then seen as an inferior product (3). Prometheus is by no means a perfect film, but it is a very different beast to Alien, and criticizing it for not being Alien is to criticize it for failing to meet that to which it does not aspire. However, there is some merit to comparing the two thematically, and also placing Alien relative to Prometheus in terms of what they contribute to each other's respective mythologies, before examining Prometheus and its themes on its own.

To summarize, Alien tells the story of the crew of the starship Nostromo - an absolutely enormous intergalactic refinery tug, crewed by seven people who spend most of the journey in stasis. The crew are awoken by what is initially assumed to be a distress signal on a nearby planet and set down to investigate. There, inside a gigantic  alien spaceship they find a very ancient corpse and hundreds of eggs, one of which opens, unleashing a creature that impregnates one of the crew members. Later, back in space, the offspring is 'born', killing the crew member, before rapidly growing to an enormous size. The majority of the film is taken up with the remaining crew's attempts to trap and kill the creature as it slowly picks them off one by one (4).

The main, obvious difference with Prometheus is in the plot and the plot structure. Alien is a film with a simplistic plot and relatively straightforward characterizations - Ripley is developed more in the sequels, but here is merely a resourceful, brave woman facing down a monster - that has been widely imitated ever since. The characters never display any lofty ambitions other than to simply survive and get home. With one notable exception (5) their curiosity towards the creature is limited to "How do we kill it?". This does not detract from the film's effectiveness. In fact it enhances it, grounding this strange and nightmarish horror in a world in which people argue about paychecks and bonuses.

Prometheus takes a different tack, with more developed, more flawed characters, including a woman looking for evidence of the divine in an increasingly skeptical, humanist world, through to a man seeking to place himself on the same level as the Gods (6). It shows a group of people attempting to ask fundamental questions of human existence and meaning in an effort to understand their place in the cosmos. This makes Prometheus a vastly more narratively and thematically ambitious film than Alien. Whether it succeeds or not is something that shall be explored in later essays.

The other important difference is in the underlying themes of both movies. With these essays I will be exploring the main themes of Prometheus mentioned at the beginning of this essay, and while there is some overlap in some of the themes explored, the dominant theme of Alien is very, very different. At its heart, it is a film about rape and sexual violence. The initial journey into the alien spaceship is through an opening shaped like a labia, where there is a room full of eggs. The creature inside attacks and orally penetrates an unfortunate crewman, parasitically impregnating him. The alien, when it emerges in a grim parody of birth, has a penis-shaped head, and when it kills throughout the rest of the film it does so by violently penetrating the head of the intended victim with a rapidly protracting tongue (7). Despite it appearing utterly alien, it is identified by most viewers as male, and the last two crew men alive are the two women. It is even implied that one of them is (fatally) sexually assaulted by the creature. The last survivor, Ripley, is forced to strip down in order to put on a space-suit and finally blow it into space. 

While there is some overlap with the themes of parental abandonment in Prometheus, there is no parallel to the overt sexual imagery present in Alien - it is virtually absent from the sequels as well. It is the unique cosmic horror that Alien brings to the genre.

Having broadly covered the themes and intents of Alien with regard to Prometheus and noting the important thematic and narrative differences, what can we say they contribute to each other's respective mythologies? Firstly Prometheus solves some fundamental mysteries of the origins of the Alien creature. The quote I used at the top of this page is a description given of the creature in Alien. It is indeed a very highly developed organism - it has acidic blood, grows to maturity very quickly and in a deleted scene in Alien is implied to have a life cycle that only requires more hosts and not additional creatures (8). While it is possible that a creature like this could evolve with a parasitic life cycle, the idea that it was bio-engineered makes them make a lot more sense - a parasitic lifestyle allows the Engineers to control numbers, for instance. This also explains why the area of the alien ship in which the eggs are located looks more like a hatchery than a nest. The fact that the Engineer itself in Alien appears to have fallen victim to this creation is an irony, apparent in retrospect after viewing Prometheus.

Secondly, the alien itself dovetails nicely onto one of the main themes in Prometheus. One of the main and most interesting themes of Prometheus is parental abandonment and neglect, and our inability to overcome these obstacles as individuals and as a species. The creature in Alien (as well as the similar creature that emerges at the end of Prometheus) is the ultimate embodiment of a sentiment David the android expresses in Prometheus about all life forms wanting their parents dead. The creature kills both of its 'parents' as part of its reproduction - the life form that attaches itself to the host dies after impregnation - and therefore it cannot be abandoned or neglected by them. This is a theme that I shall explore more fully in the essay on parental abandonment in Prometheus.

Lastly, both contain androids that appear human but have wildly different moralities and agendas than the human crew. However, they are used in different ways. David in Prometheus is always clearly an android, repeatedly abused by those around him, affecting humanity almost like a coat. He manages to be both sinister and comforting at the same time, a curious, childlike figure, unaffected by the horrors around him and instigating more than a few of them. His 'evil' is the evil of a child pulling the wings off of a moth to see what will happen to it. Ash in Alien on the other hand, is assumed to be human until a shocking revelation halfway through that he is both not human and has been working to keep the creature alive, a double betrayal that signals his end as the crew turns on him. He is evil in a different way - David is curious and independent to the point of endangering the crew, whereas Ash is merely following orders at the expense of those around him. Ash also reveals he knew some things about the nature of the creature in advance (9) but kept it to himself, whereas David starts from roughly the same position as everyone else.

However, overall the two films are different enough that to compare the two would be to compare two things that have fundamentally different themes and narrative arcs. Prometheus explores themes on its own that have no real parallel in Alien, and having noted the overlaps and differences between the two, we can move on to discussing Prometheus' themes on its own merits.

(1) Many criticisms of this film are aimed at its 'plot holes'. No story is immune from these, but most of the things pointed out in Prometheus tend to be areas left open for interpretation, rather than actual inconsistencies. In terms of the most famous 'actual' plot hole - Vickers didn't run to the side and got crushed by the spaceship because she panicked. We are used to seeing characters in films behave with a cool head in danger, and she didn't, and she died. This one is more to do with audience expectations of character behavior than actual bad writing.
(2) The AFI ranks it at #7 in the sci-fi genre and Empire puts it at #33 on their list of 500 Greatest Movies of All Time. Links here and here. However, it is important to note that it received mixed reviews at the time of its release - Roger Ebert called it "basically just an intergalactic haunted house thriller set inside a space ship" and a "real disappointment".
(3) For what its worth, I believe Alien to be the superior film, insofar as it achieves more of what it was trying for than Prometheus and maintains a far more even tone. It's also much, much more frightening.
(4) This rather simplistic retelling misses out several key subplots and twists, but (to paraphrase Lars von Trier) ultimately Alien is a film that isn't about what it's about, it's about how it's about it.
(5) Ash, the crew member quoted in the header, who is later revealed to be an android and therefore probably immune from the creatures's attentions - he is the only one not attacked by the creature and is instead killed by vengeful crewmates.
(6) The place and use of religion and religious imagery in Prometheus will be explored more in a later essay.
(7) This is all entirely intentional on the part of the film makers. See here.
(8) The scene in question concerns Ripley discovering that two of her fellow crew have not been killed by the creature, but that they are instead being slowly turned into eggs similar to those found in the alien spaceship (while still alive), closing the end of the life cycle. This scene (available on special edition DVD releases) was cut for pacing reasons and then seemingly ret-conned out of existence with the introduction of an Alien Queen in Aliens by James Cameron, turning them from the self-sufficient organisms of Ridley Scott's imagining into something more akin to a bee's nest or termite hive - a different but equally terrifying concept for anyone who isn't a fan of bugs...
(9) Precisely how much is never made clear 

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