I will, usually, watch sequels & prequels to my favourite films, but never with any raised hopes. Ridley Scott’s Alien is one of my top three favourites (I can’t name a top one — the other two are Amelie and Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt), so of course I had to see Prometheus, Scott’s prequel-of-sorts to his breakthrough film. I don’t think it’s the sort of film to be ruined by discussing its plot — I heard one review beforehand and gleaned a good enough idea of what it was about to be in no way surprised — but this is a reaction to the film, not a review, so I’ll say it now: spoilers ahead.

My main feeling was Prometheus was pretty nihilistic. This may sound like an odd criticism for a horror film, but it was only after watching it that I realised how much Alien (and Aliens), being about survival in the face of terrible odds, are so life-affirming. They use their horror elements to increase the sense of the preciousness of life. Prometheus, though it does have many similar situations, doesn’t have the same feel at all. Perhaps because it’s more preoccupied with philosophical questions, its survival/action elements are tainted with a dour fatality, a feeling of “Yeah, but survive for what?” In a sense, the horror elements — one coming from the threat to individual survival, the other dealing with the ultimate source of human life — come from both sides at once, trapping the viewer in a pincer movement, and leaving no room for a sense of hope. I’ve come across criticisms of the film saying it doesn’t answer the philosophical questions it raises, but I don’t think that’s a weak point — the raising of philosophical questions (“Where do we come from? Where are we going?”) without answers is entirely valid, as it acknowledges very real areas of doubt. And doubt is okay. There’s a lot of it about. Besides, what possible answers could the film provide that would be in any way satisfying?

So, why does the film feel so nihilistic? It could be because a core trio of the main characters are so cold to each other (one, David, being a robot, another, Charlize Theron’s Meredith Vickers, whose utter coldness at the beginning — she changes midway, with no real reason — prompted what I thought was the best line in the script, when Captain Janek asks her “Are you a robot?”). But the closest I can come to identifying it lies in the imagery of the film. Alien was famous for having a lot of H R Giger’s warped images centring on the idea of impregnation and gestation (the way the alien enters & gestates in its human prey, for instance, or the way the main action takes place in the confines of a spaceship addressed as “Mother”); while Aliens was much more about motherhood (Ripley’s adoption of the traumatised Newt, plus of course the vast alien mother she fights at the end). Prometheus‘s main image, though, is of abortion, both actually (Doctor Elizabeth Shaw’s rather tacked-on super-fast pregnancy, and its termination) and metaphorically (what the alien Engineers are planning to do to their creations). The film also brings in what could be called a paternal strand, with the selfish, unfeeling presence of trillionaire Peter Weyland, and his quest to meet his makers (expecting, for some reason, paternalistic Gods, but not, of course, getting them). And this brings up a sort of flipside to the abortion imagery, voiced by the android David, who at one point asks, “Doesn’t everyone want to kill their parents?” An idea the film seems to accept without argument. So, Prometheus seemed to be mostly about parents wanting to kill their children, and children wanting to kill their parents — actually, metaphorically, and theologically. The result is a picture of a totally bleak, uncaring, in fact actively hostile, universe, with none of the contrasting, messy, crew camaraderie of Alien, or Aliens‘ feel of an impromptu family developing in the face of danger. In Prometheus, human survival has no point, because humanity isn’t human enough.

After Alien, Aliens worked so well because it took the basic idea of the first film (the perfect killer alien let loose on a bunch of humans) and put it in a slightly different genre. Alien was survival horror, and was about the individual; Aliens was a military film, and was about the survival of the group, the protection and raising of children (and, on the flipside, a new generation of alien creatures). After Aliens, I thought there was only one way to make a third film, and that was to bring the creatures to Earth (and so be about the survival of the race). I was disappointed, then, when the third Alien film settled for a sort of half-and-half Alien/Aliens hybrid, which worked on neither score, while the fourth (made by one of my otherwise favourite directors, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, who was totally wrong for the series) might have worked as a dark comedy, had he been allowed to go really OTT, but was never going to be anything more than a footnote in the series. Prometheus, though it abandons the Alien creature, and though it is about the survival of the race, doesn’t do anything sufficiently different from Alien or Aliens to be judged on its own merits. (Considering the difference in plots, the film has an awful lot of similar scenes and situations, some of which feel they’ve been inserted merely for similarity’s sake.)

Guillermo del Toro saying he can’t make Mountains of Madness because Prometheus covers too similar ground is a great pity; Mountains of Madness would at least take the threat to Earth, and would make it that much more immediate and visceral. It also wouldn’t have had the baggage of previous films to feel it had to conform to. Not that Prometheus is bad, just that it isn’t as good as Alien or Aliens.

Comments (9)

  1. ”So, Prometheus seemed to be mostly about parents wanting to kill their children, and children wanting to kill their parents — actually, metaphorically, and theologically”

    Interesting argument, particularly the quote above. I think where we differ is where you say…

    ”…it was only after watching it that I realised how much Alien (and Aliens), being about survival in the face of terrible odds, are so life-affirming. They use their horror elements to increase the sense of the preciousness of life.”

    I think of ‘Alien’ much more as a Darwinian film, about survivors rather than heroes. Ripley survives not because she is more moral, but because she is tougher and smarter. The idea that Ripley and the Alien are in some way alike, developed in further films, is definitely already there in the first one.

    ‘Prometheus’ probably has to strike a delicate balance between referring to the earlier films without just repeating their motifs. I liked the way Vickers tried to prevent the infected guy getting on the ship, a direct echo of Ripley’s attempt in the first film, but this time coming from someone whose been keyed in as a ‘baddie’.

  2. Murray says:

    “Survivors rather than heroes” puts it very well. I think it was the dwelling on the likeness between Ripley & the Alien in the later films that partially ruined them for me. I liked the fact, in Aliens, that it was the contrasts (her human side) that made her win in the end, if only because “winning” meant retaining her humanity (a truly heroic thing, in the face of such horror) as much as defeating the alien. But having said that, I haven’t watched three & four anywhere near as many times as the first two, so I don’t remember them as well.

    You’re right, the quarantine scene in Prometheus does work better because of its parallel with Alien. I felt it was a bit undermined, though, by the fact that everyone had taken off their helmets and breathed in alien-bacteria-infused air before that. She should, by rights, have torched them all!

  3. Well this may be the difference between us! Three and Four are certainly flawed films, perhaps more flawed than Two. But I simply prefer them to Two. And the compare-rather-than-contrast thing may be part of that.

  4. Murray says:

    I’m now feeling I should watch them again.

  5. Another of my>answers to questions no-one asked. I’ll put something up about ‘Prometheus’ soon. (Well, soonish.)

  6. Andrew Kawam says:

    With no disrespect to those who like Prometheus, I personally felt and continue to feel that many of the themes and motifs (ie. answering religious questions with cosmic horror, the inherently problematic relationship between creators and their creations, references to mythology, etc.) were/are done with far greater originality and precision/depth of vision by another work in which Scott was/is also involved: the TV series Raised by Wolves, created and mostly written by Aaron Guzikowski. What also made/makes it better was/is that when the bizarre cosmic horror events happened/happen (and when I say bizarre I mean batshit crazy, making Prometheus look tame by comparison and more along the lines of the weirdest parts of Gene Wolfe or David Lindsay or Octavia Butler or Mamoru Oshii’s ‘Angel’s Egg’ and Ergo Proxy), they were underlain by many more minute clues connecting the deeper mythology of the story with real-world myths that was/is clearly densely pre-planned from the beginning while not being boringly predictable, and that also flowed with the storytelling logic of those myths in a way that put story and introspective showing-without-telling over a conventionally entertaining plot. Along with the much stronger characterization (Mother/Lamia has got to be one of the best protagonists of all time) and more time/care spent on the more emotionally/politically sensitive aspects of the ideas, it carries/carried considerably more weight. All that, and compared to Prometheus it is/was considerably more aware of the breaking-down of genre boundaries the story and its more Lovecraftian elements entailed.

    (The reason I keep using present and past tense together is because sadly the show got cancelled last year after only two of the intended five seasons (and all the pre-planned answers to the bizarre, fascinating mysteries) were completed (and on a massive cliffhanger I may add), but seeing as how it was at the time of cancellation and remains to this day in the top 1% of all shows across all networks in terms of ratings, and the only reason it was cancelled was because of the Warner-Discovery merger (it was apparently shopped around and at least Amazon and Peacock were interested in taking it on), there continues to be such a huge outpouring of support online for it to be continued somehow (like by this point there are probably millions of comments and posts, not to mention a billboard), that to say it’s completely dead is equivocal at best. Seems more likely to be as a comic or animation, but it all depends on the climate of those things as well. The numbers are there though.)

  7. Murray Ewing says:

    That threw me at first, because Raised by Wolves was also the name of a UK sitcom! But the series you talk about sounds fascinating. Pity it isn’t being continued just yet, but I may well watch what there is anyway.

    1. Andrew Kawam says:

      I would highly recommend it! It totally fits in with all the stuff you love writing about. It’s up there with The OA and The Future is Wild as one of the properties most unjustly cut/killed/uncontinued. I’m kinda surprised Sir Ridley hasn’t said anything about it in interviews since Napoleon came out.

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