I. Bound; The Nightmare Child
Prometheus has landed.
The coy and occasionally frustrating game of “is it a prequel?” footsie aside, there’s never been much doubt about the debt Ridley Scott’s upcoming film owes to the Alien series he began in 1979. The iconography of the “space jockey” and the vision of a future subservient to the whims of a distant, remorseless corporation form the basis for the Prometheus’ quest to uncover the origins of life itself. So it seems like the perfect moment, as the long-awaited film begins screening world-wide, to revisit the unique, unsettling and largely fantastic Alien saga.
Given the franchise has been defined by its hero, Ellen Ripley, as much as by her acid-blooded antagonists, it is no surprise that Prometheus has trumpeted lead roles played by Noomi Rapace and Charlize Theron. The feminist bravado of the series as a whole is intriguing, given its origins in a gender-neutral script. But it is undeniable that Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley is an icon, and somehow managed to remain a compelling, fascinating character over the course of four films made by four wildly different creative teams. She also remains all-too-rare in the annals of Hollywood film.
In Alien, Ellen Ripley makes a statement on gender simply by existing at all. While it is not so rare for a woman to be the last one standing in a horror film, Ripley does so without being a virgin scream queen. Instead, she survives because she is smart, collected and capable. Beyond the viciously debated appearance in her underwear in the closing minutes, Ripley’s sex simply does not matter. There’s none of the feminist cheer-leading the sequels occasionally fall for (well-intentioned as it may be) and that may date them in time. What felt subversive about Alien thirty years ago will no doubt seem normal in thirty years time, without weakening the film at all. Alien is not a message movie. It is a haunted house horror film with a radical shift in location and more on its nightmare-fueled mind than the dismemberment of horny teenagers.
The genuine gender inversion comes from the Alien itself. Be warned, it is not pleasant.
“You still don’t understand what you’re dealing with, do you? The perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility.”
At every stage of its life-cycle, the “perfect organism” is a moving embodiment of sexual horror. Even if the revulsion only registers on a subconscious level, the film wrings the greatest anxiety from the predator: a sleek, bio-mechanical, oozing amalgamation of male and female sexual imagery. The rape metaphors often so latent in horror films become universalised. Both men and women can be its victims.
This is what happens when you hire a mad Swiss surrealist to design your monster.
After all, the inciting act is the rape and impregnation of a man. The facehugger defiles Kane and forces its seed down his throat, the violence of the action given its human mirror in Ash’s later attempt to murder Ripley by chocking her with a rolled magazine. The result, after a rather rushed “pregnancy”, is the most hideous childbirth in cinema. And the “child” that burst out is little more than a slithering (and later, walking) penis with teeth. Its weapon of choice is penetration – it kills Brett with the burst of a protruding inner jaw (again, oh so phallic). And there’s no mistaking the grotesque implication of the final shot of the Alien attacking Lambert, as its tail climbs slowly upward between her legs.
Subtle, Alien is not. The creators have never been shy about their intent to make the audience squirm. Screenwriter Dan O’Brannon insisted “I am going to put in every image I can think of to make the men in the audience cross their legs. Homosexual oral rape, birth.” The sexual threat is as potent for men, perpetually the perpetrators rather than the victims of sexual violence in Hollywood horror, as it is for women. And the beast is ultimately dispatched by the woman who said “No”, and refused to let it aboard her ship. It is impaled by a harpoon, blown out an airlock and finally expelled with an ejaculation of plasma from the ship’s roaring engines.
Even as the sequels pushed the latent feminist angle, the sexual horror of the Alien itself falls to the wayside. In James Cameron’s Aliens, the androgynous nightmare of Giger’s Alien becomes a hive-like insect, subservient to a Queen. It would be disappointing development, were it not for just how spectacular the Alien Queen looks going mano-a-mano with Ellen Ripley in a Power Loader.
Whereas Ridley Scott’s original film is insidiously designed to wring maximum discomfort, James Cameron’s story is, effectively, a triumphant one. Ripley, who returns to Earth having lost everything (including her daughter) to the passage of time and the monster, rebuilds her shattered self as a maternal avenger, and creates a new family for herself. Faith in the military, in technology and in the company are stripped away. All the trappings of society that we rely on (and that we assume could be relied on in the future) fail in the face of the primal, animal power of the Aliens.
All that is left is Ellen Ripley, a taped together flame thrower and her own primal instincts. The battle between Ripley and the Queen is the battle between two mothers over their brood. The Queen fights for her species, a naked but recognisable biological impulse. Ripley, rather, fights for the family that she has built for herself. Over the course of the film, Newt has become a surrogate daughter, and Corporal Hicks a surrogate husband. While critics often draw attention to the change in genre, from horror film to action movie, the most radical shift between Alien and Aliens comes from turning a tale of sexual horror into a tale of love.
It is that change which has always made David Fincher’s Alien 3 a hard film to like. By violently jettisoning the supporting characters from Aliens in the opening minutes, the previous film’s hard-won taste of victory turns to bitter ash. The brazen attempt to recapture the bleak horror of the original may be to the film’s benefit (would two hours of Newt-as-sidekick been bearable?), but as a betrayal of the earlier film’s message it is hard to forgive.
Finally clawing past my years of resentment over Fincher’s creative choices, rewatching Alien 3 revealed a fascinating, if flawed, piece of work. On an industrial prison planet divorced from any hint of futurist technology, the Alien transforms into a demonic presence, bolstered by the film’s religious underpinnings and fixation on tested faith and redemption. The dreadfully dated CGI and sub-par redesign of the creature limit its effectiveness, but Fincher almost succeeds in reclaiming the first film’s sense of encroaching terror.
Alien 3, however, grows a little too self-conscious about its feminist subtext. Ripley is no longer just fighting an enormous walking penis – no, now she is also the only woman stranded on a planet of murders and rapists (though now serving as reformed pseudo-monks). Ripley’s moving reclamation of motherhood of Aliens is replaced, inevitably, with its grotesque parody – now she is pregnant with the monster. In an act of heroism unlikely to find much favour in the American South, she becomes a martyr in the act of terminating her monstrous ‘child’. Coupled with the crescendo of religious imagery, in death Ripley evolves from a survivor to a saviour. Disappearing beneath the flames, Weaver’s face registers not terror, nor anger, but a resigned peace.
I wish she had been left alone. Alien: Resurrection is just a mess. The snarky script by Joss Whedon appears to be locked in mortal combat with Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s exaggerated direction and over the top aesthetic. The off-kilter tone sinks an already leaky ship. The conflicted, Alien-DNA-infused clone of Ripley opens up some new avenues in the story and Weaver’s performance, but it also spells farewell to the character as we knew her, replacing the strong woman in a horrific situation with a superhero. Similarly, the recognisable human traits of the Alien are stripped away, leaving a creature that bears a closer resemblance to one of Jurassic Park‘s raptors than the original nightmare beast.
It result is a grab-bag of series highlights – the spaceship setting, Ripley-as-mother, marines with heavy weaponry and an ‘escape prior to detonation’ plot drive – that struggles to add anything new beyond a few ‘wouldn’t it be cool?’ moments. Even the themes of birth and identity percolating throughout the film collapse with a stomach-churning squelch when the ludicrous, badly-designed ‘Newborn’ is unveiled at the climax.
“My mommy always said there were no monsters – no real ones – but there are.”
Four films by four creative teams. Although it’s impossible to ignore the sense of diminishing returns, I find every single Alien film fascinating. By consistently reframing the battle between Ellen Ripley and the “perfect organism”, each film offers up a different gaze into the dark corridors of our nightmares, and our sense of what makes a hero. Is the monster a sexual predator, a primal animal force or a demon? Is our hero a survivor, a maternal avenger or a saviour?
I would watch the worst of them again in a heartbeat. So no surprise that I’m so excited to see Ridley Scott’s return to science fiction in Prometheus.
And yet the advertising for Prometheus has made one thing explicitly clear – whilst the new film may be set in the same universe, it is asking different questions. Despite the science-fiction setting, the Alien films have consistently been centered on issues closer to home – sex, family, gender, corporate greed. The characters have not been leaders, explorers and scientists, but truck drivers, military grunts, mid-level bureaucrats, abandoned prisoners and low-rent smugglers. The science fiction elements are almost incidental to the stories they tell, brought to life by stunning art direction rather than characters pontificating about the future of the human race. Prometheus, meanwhile, is all about the “big questions” – where we came from and our place in the universe. They are questions worth asking, but I hope that while Ridley Scott aims for the stars, he has not forgotten the often-disturbing intimacy of Ripley’s struggle against the walking nightmare that made for a masterpiece in the first place.
II. Unbound; Searching for the Meaning of Life
I dearly wanted to love Prometheus. No other film this year had me as rabid with excitement; I sat drumming the armrests in the vast IMAX theatre on opening night, head buried by my bulky 3D glass, eyes fixed on the eight-storey screen, maltesers at the ready. As the lights dimmed, I turned to my friends with a cocky grin; “This is going to be amazing.”
Two hours later, as the house lights burst on, there was no fight left in me for bold proclamations. The cinema had become a hot-bed of frustrated whispers. For a few minutes I fought it. I tried to think happy thoughts – the production design; a well-executed scene here or there; Michael Fassbender (thank you, Michael Fassbender) But it was no use. The wave of disappointment had me, and it was going to be a while before I washed up, spluttering, on the shore.
I appreciated that Prometheus separated itself from the Alien series – few direct links, little cribbing from the earlier, superior films. If only other prequels had that restraint. Ridley Scott genuinely had a new story to tell. I only wish he had given it a once-over before rolling the cameras. Stripped of franchises, expectations, sequels and prequels, what is left?
Sadly, a fundamentally inept piece of storytelling.
The opening half hour is promising. The film never again reaches the heights of the early two minute sequence where android David navigates the research vessel alone, watching Lawrence of Arabia on loop and dying his hair to evoke Peter O’Toole. After the ship touches down, once we’ve taken our fill of the gorgeous design and visuals, Prometheus devolves rapidly.
It is one of the worst cases of “and then” storytelling I have ever seen. Most often, (let’s give David Lynch an exemption) a good story will employ cause and effect – one action leads to another, escalating until the climax. In Prometheus, things just happen. One character is infected and set on fire. And then a zombie attacks the crew. And then Idris Elba is an expert lecturer on bio-weapons facilities. And then Noomi Rapace needs a squid abortion. And then Guy Pearce appears in old man makeup. No build, just disjointed incidents. The squid abortion, at least, is a good, tense scene, but it has no relationship to the film around it. No other character asks about the alien squid monster roaming the ship, and Shaw sure doesn’t behave as though she’s had major surgery. Did a rock thrown by an irrate Lost fan hit Damon Lindelof so hard on the head he forgot his Screenwriting 101 classes? Or is most of the film sitting in the trash can in an overworked editor’s lab?
However, the problems with the film don’t just come down to plot holes and poor characterisation. It’s easier to forgive a film for storytelling flaws when it has something to say. But here is where Prometheus fumbles more disastrously. The film seems to mistake characters asking one another profound questions for actually exploring these profound questions. The film’s ideas never go beyond the scope of a stoned teenager’s first brush with philosophy. ‘Aliens created mankind’ isn’t exactly a new thought. But it appears the Ridley Scott and his team put down their pens and patted themselves on the shoulder at “we discover an alien race that can create life with black goo”, confident they’d created on hell of a mind-fuck.
Here, I think, the film’s own premise is actively working against it.
The log-line for Prometheus is ‘scientists search for the origins of life on earth’. This is the overriding goal for our protagonists. As they discover these origins almost immediately, the question for the characters shifts (or is stripped back) to “why?” It’s that age-old question – “what is the meaning of life?”
Now, there’s no problem with art exploring the meaning of life. You could probably argue that most art does, in one way or another. But it’s one thing to explore these ideas – it’s another to make “discover the meaning of life” the driving force for your characters. How the hell do you satisfy that character journey?
It would make sense, of course, if the character journeys changed. For instance, from ‘find the meaning of life’ to ‘get the hell of out here!’ But they really don’t. The film’s climax is brought about because Weyland (old man Guy Pearce – and look, I love Guy Pearce, but why not hire a real old man?) wants to quiz the last surviving Engineer, and everyone else goes along with it. And instead of intelligent discussion, this ‘superior being’ goes homicidal.
Prometheus tries to have it both ways. It explicitly asks big questions, but it gives us, and the characters, no answers. Shaw and David fly into space at the film’s conclusion with the query still on their lips. It is reasonable for a film to demur from answering the very question of life (a rather challenging ask), but, by leaving the question so open, the characters’ journeys are left incomplete. If the script had given the characters answers within the story – “why are we here?” “why did they create us?” “why do they want to destroy us?” – it would give them somewhere to go, something to respond to. Instead, the characters are deflated and disappointed, and their reaction is naturally mirrored by the audience. It is an empty gesture, as token as the crucifix necklace that Shaw toys with.
A story has no obligation to answer all the questions it raises (the best often refuse to), but if they are not going to be satisfied whatsoever, they should not be laced so thoroughly within the characters' pillars. A little weight and the edifice topples.
For a counter-example, see Ridley Scott’s own Blade Runner; another story packed with big ideas on life and what makes us human. Yet the characters don't puncture the action with the outright question “what makes us human?”, and the script does not offer up any definitive answer. The film is dramatically satisfying because the character journeys that these ideas are explored through come to an rewarding end. Roy Batty’s quest for more life ends with resignation at his mortality. Deckard accepts love and happiness with Rachel as genuine, despite its artificial foundations. Theme is revealed through action.
By allowing the theme to lead the dance, Ridley Scott and Damon Lindelof set a bar too high for themselves to clear. Prometheus no doubt exists because the filmmakers had ideas they genuinely wanted to explore, but they’ve failed to craft a story to service those ideas. It is a sad reminder that, even with the best cast and crew in the business, a film is no better than its story.
First Published 7 June & 21 July 2012 at We Professional Liars