The Tragedy of Prometheus

by Sam Wilkinson

I have never seen the movie Alien from beginning to end. I have seen the entire movie, but only ever in pieces. I can’t bring myself to watch it in one go, if only because it is so incredibly terrifying. That is a testament to the movie’s creators. Amongst the reasons I find the film so profoundly troubling is captured here.

Because the movie was so successful, it spawned sequels, one of which was good, the rest of which really weren’t and then, having been sufficiently flogged, the field was allowed to go, for a few years anyway, fallow. But now we find ourselves on the precipice of PrometheusAlien’s sort-of prequel. That issue – whether or not the film is a proper prequel – has been bandied about since the film’s
production was introduced. The film’s producers have danced around the issue; its Wikipedia page issue describes Prometheus as a “separate story that precedes the events of Alien but which is not directly connected to the films in the Alien franchise.”

Uhh…okay. If there isn’t going to exist a direct connection between the upcoming film and the legendary franchise, there certainly are plenty of callbacks to the original, both in the film’s trailers and in Prometheus’s other marketing materials. Two promotional videos, for example, practically scream Alien: one is a TEDTalk given by Peter Weyland (presumably a reference to the insidious Weyland-Yutani corporation of the film franchise, the company that amongst other things ordered its android Ash to lead the Nostromo’s crew to its slaughter), the other is an advertisement for a David 8 android (which recalls both Ash and Aliens more friendly android Bishop). The trailer also hints at the original, what with the horseshoe shaped spacecraft that the Nostromo’s crew was summoned to explore and the presence of a morally suspect company representative (Charlize Theron inherits the roll from Aliens’s Paul Reiser, one of the stranger sentences ever written in the English language).

There are a myriad of reasons to object to prequels and sequels (the naked pursuit of money, the diminishing returns, and the suppression of original projects all come immediately to mind), but one of the most appealing to me is the damage that can be done by the introduction of additional information to a mythology. Information in it of itself isn’t necessarily bad of course but just as surely there are times when what we know is enough, and in fact, when knowing more is precisely the last thing we need. There was almost universal excitement for the Star Wars prequels, or at least until they’d actually been experienced. “When the lights came up though, something had changed. Something had
broken. The ideas were good, I kept saying as we left the theater and drank for hours afterward.”

The reason I find Alien so terrifying is that everything in it makes sense in a way that everything in most movies does not. It is reasonable for them to investigate the distress signal. It is reasonable for them to violate the quarantine protocol in an attempt to save Kane. It is reasonable for them to try to kill the alien. It is reasonable for Ash to be betraying them all. It is reasonable for Parker and Lambert to go for supplies. It is reasonable for Ripley, who rightfully recognized at the outset that bringing Kane on board was a bad idea, to be the movie’s only survivor. Because we know so little about what’s going on, what we do know and what we learn seems reasonable. In fact, at every moment that one might reasonably have a question, there is a reasonable answer on offer. This is true because at that point, the larger mythology of Alien didn’t yet exist, and fortunately, sequels can easily be ignored when it comes to the information that they add.

But the introduction of a prequel, one that seems to hint at the world as it was before the first Alien movie, threatens all of that, because the information it will introduce would presumably have had some influence over the decisions made aboard the Nostromo. It will become harder to imagine that the planetoid was unknown, it will become harder to believe that the threat was misunderstood, it will become harder to believe that nobody understood that Ash was an android, it will become harder to accept the Nostromo’s entirely obsolete technology, etc. These are amongst the key components of a classic film. Prometheus’s trailer has already introduced some of these questions, and that’s before anybody has actually seen the movie.

In short, I wonder what good can come from this sort of prequel. In the link I offered above, the one to the six-panel comic strip that captures briefly the movie’s appeal and its pain, its creator praises the movie for being a film about “a group of unlucky working stiffs having the worst week ever” and objects to the idea that Alien should have been seen as anything more. Hollywood can’t help itself of course, but I still enjoy imagining a world in which it could.

Space Balls (Alien Gag)

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26 thoughts on “The Tragedy of Prometheus

  1. I’ve never watched Alien, because I have a very low tolerance for horror movies (the only one I’ve ever watched was The Ring, and it terrified me, even though it retrospect it doesn’t seem like it should be scary), so I’m approaching Prometheus purely on its own terms rather than as part of a saga.  And on those terms, it looks awesome.

    Sometimes going into something with no background knowledge improves it.  I loved X-Men: First Class despite (or probably, because of) having no knowledge of the mythos, so I completely missed all of the continuity and faithfulness-to-the-comics issues that purists had with it.

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      • I’m a big fan of science fiction, and there’s all too few good science fiction movies, so I’m willing to accept the ‘horror’ aspects of Prometheus to get what looks like an extremely interesting plot and characters.  I’ll just go to a matinee.

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  2. eh – not having seen Prometheus yet, I have no idea what relevance it has to the Alien world, and whether it would take much explaining to safeguard the various elements of Alien that you think might be threatened by it.

    because the information it will introduce would presumably have had some influence over the decisions made aboard the Nostromo

    That seems to sum up a lot of what you’re worried about.  I don’t know how news travels, assuming it travels at all, in the interstellar society of the future.  I haven’t been given many good reasons to believe that it’s an open society.  My impression is that most of the people controlling interstellar activities are secretive, evil, and fallible.  I don’t know what they choose to share with the crews of ships like the Nostromo, or with anyone else for that matter.  Nor do I know what they can be presumed to know about Prometheus.

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    • I suppose information conceivably might not travel – and we might get some sort, “This is a very secret mission, don’t tell anybody anything…!” That ought to provide enough of a logical barrier to explain the Nostromo’s ignorance to the threat (and of course, the ship on the planetoid in Alien presumably came from the whatever planet Prometheus landed on, so there’s no reason to suspect danger on that planetoid necessarily). But that still doesn’t address what will be undermined by the ubiquity of androids and the degree of technology in Prometheus.

      Obviously, I haven’t seen the movie. None of this might end up being a problem. But if any of it is, I’m troubled by what will have been inadvertently done to one of the great horror accomplishments of all time.

       

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      • Well, I sympathize, even if I don’t agree with your analysis entirely. I still haven’t completely gotten over, though I have learned to accept, what the Fincher installment did to poor Newt. It’s just I don’t want to pre-judge one of the few films I expect actually to see in a real live movie theater this year.  I hope you do a follow-up at the appropriate time.

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        • Newt is a good example of the retroactive effect that -quels can have on earlier movies, right? Because we know that everything in Aliens is for naught, it becomes easier to not be as concerned for the frightened little girl, a character incidentally who is the reason I struggle to watch that movie. That she is just casually offed at the beginning of Alien3 does the predecessor a disservice.

           

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          • When I said I had learned to accept Newt’s death, I meant that I have been able to integrate it conceptually within the total development of the four main movies (and even the non-Ripley Alien films fall to some extent under the same thematic structure).  ALIENS taken separately was a very well done but in the end conventional happy ending action sci-fi.  The much unloved ALIEN 3 returns to and deepens the questioning started with the first film, but needs to do an “autopsy” of the preceding one to get there.  So, if I watch ALIENS again, it’s without illusions.  What did I think was going to happen?  That Ripley and Newt and Hicks were going to form a happy nuclear family somewhere in the galaxy together, and live happily ever after?  The universe is a harder place than that, and requires a different kind of heroism.

             

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            • Alien had a conventional happy ending, standard to both sci-fi and horror: Ripley, the films’s ostensible hero, survives. The elimination of Newt though, for me, was cheap, because it took this thing that was hugely important right up until the end of the second film and then entirely dismissed it in the third film. “Oh, that thing that might have compelled you to invest significant emotional concern in the second film? Now it doesn’t mean anything. Moving on.”

              Obviously, you can’t have a kid running around on a prison planet housing sexual offenders (even if the previous movie did have a kid running around on a terraformed planet housing seriously deadly xenomorphs), but still. To so casually ignore the previous film and pursue a storyline that doesn’t necessarily follow from the end of the first Alien film was a bad move, panned by most (re)viewers, as well as the project’s own participants. I wonder how they’ll react to Prometheus.

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              • Just to play out the string a little: Most (re)viewers would presumably already be emotionally invested in, or trained in childhood to expect, the bourgeois happy ending, even if it’s just a return to normalcy rather than a pure fairy tale depiction.

                I can interpret my own typical reaction to the news of Newt’s death as the de-valuation of that investment, but I disagree that it was handled “casually.”  The autopsy scene removes any sense of casualness.  It depicts or realizes Ripley’s further distancing from any remnant naivete about her own situation and about the larger predicament, and also prepares her own sacrificial end:  She’s got nothing to lose, no potential for any kind of normal life left,on the way to her resurrection in the final film as (one) alien-human synthesis (among others), alongside the dissolution of the human-android opposition.  In other words by #4 the alien-ation process has advanced so far that the android and the hybrid-clone occupy the most fully human positions available for anyone who doesn’t enjoy ignorance:

                 

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                • CK,

                  Although I disagree with what you’re saying here, it is beautifully written. I see no point to argue about this. You got more out of the sequels than I did. I saw something done to make the third movie’s script viable; you saw a substantive critique of the film’s general expectations. I like that both of these interpretations can be out there and valid. We should discuss this again, post-Prometheus.

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                  • Fersure.  As I said before, I look forward to your taking up the theme again after we’ve seen what they’ve done.  Just to be clear, though, I don’t see “something done to make the script viable” and “substantive critique of expectations” as contradictory.  Diverse writers and filmmakers working in divergent contexts cannot make the stories work on their own terms, and in relation to each other, without advancing them along certain lines. PROMETHEUS looks like a different kind of movie altogether than any of the Alien films, but with some thematic overlap.

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                    • I didn’t write my comment very clearly. My apologies. What I meant to say was that for me, Newt’s death came across not as a critique of the standard happy outcome model, but rather, a writer asking, “How can we get rid of the girl if we’re going to put Ripley on a prison planet populated by rapists?” To me, it didn’t seem thought out. I actually like your theory more, because it gives the screenwriter way more credit than I do. (Speaking of which, have you read about the proposed Wooden Monastery script for Alien3? That might have been incredible.)

                      Meanwhile, I have theories about Prometheus and how related it will be to the Alien world, but perhaps those are better left thought but unsaid.

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                    • No need to apologize. I may have heard previously somewhere vaguely about the Wooden Monastery Planet thing, and have now read up on it here:   http://www.empireonline.com/features/alien-3-tale-of-the-wooden-planet/3.asp

                      It’s interesting to note what survived from the discarded script and made it into the Prison Planet version we have:  the determination to get rid of Newt, Weaver’s expressed desire to have Ripley killed off, and the introduction of a religious element.

                      My view of movies of these types – extensively collective and corporatized adventures that are at the same time extremely personal for all of the creatives involved – is that they turn into explorations of the political unconscious, to use Jameson’s phrase, and eventually into something even grander or more archetypical and at the same time even more conflictual.  It’s as though “Hollywood” itself authors them, and it’s no coincidence, and not merely a cliche, that the “villains” (who are at the same time the characters truly responsible for the action) so often turn out to be evil corporate combines represented by inhuman humanoids.

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  3. It’s hard to talk about prequels objectively because George Lucas forever soured the word, which now carries the connotation of “the prequels raped my childhood.”

     

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  4. Wow. This was an incredibly thoughtful article, and I read it from beginning to end without looking up. I feel the same way you do and continue to prefer the first Alien to any of its sequels.

    In general, I like extrapolating/imagining the excluded information for fictional realities. The more questions left unanswered the better.

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  5. Is anybody up for discussing the Coors Light Prometheus advertisement that’s been floating around? I saw it for the first time last night; it was horrifying in everyway. Unless, of course, it will be revealed that the only thing more potent than the xenomorph’s acidic blood was Coors Light and that the advanced civilization used gallons of it to keep the xenomorphs in check…

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  6. Saw what you did and I’ve seen it while watching the NBA playoffs (GO THUNDER!!!!) I agree horrifying unless it is the most jarring and egregious case of product placement in a movie in which case I guess that ups the horror factor by 10 and means I don’t want to see Prometheus after all. I kinda feel the same way of all the commercial tie in ads for the Lorax I never went to see it mostly because I did not want my childhood memories sullied but the ads sealed the deal.

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    • I absolutely cannot imagine what the goal is. Do interstellar travelers drink Coors Light on-board? Do the xenomorphs crack open brewskies after a long day of chest-bursting? How on Earth could anybody have thought this was possibly a good idea?

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  7. Um, are you guys actually thinking that Coors Light appears somewhere in the movie? It’s just a TV commercial. All those NBA players don’t turn up in Men In Black 3 either, I reckon.

    Signifies to me they’re expecting a blockbustery week or two. Must be getting good numbers on “want to see,” however they’re measuring that these days.

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