Prometheus – Ridley Scott’s prequel to the Alien franchise – is an exercise in hype. The buzz started twelve months ago with the trailer, notched up with the viral videos, and then went crazy with the word of mouth (I was told that a friend fainted during a screening). The problem is that the hype doesn’t stop at the start of the movie. The film continues to promote itself all the way through, stopping every so often to tell us what’s going on and why it’s so important. Prometheus is an event movie. Sadly, it’s an event in the style of the Olympics: self-important, way over budget and tedious. At least the Olympics has the erotic delights of the volleyball heats. All Prometheus has to offer are contract-stipulated, repetitive shots of Charlize Theron’s fully clothed backside.
The original Alien movie was all about man’s complex relationship with nature. The titular monster would smother its victims, lay an egg inside them and then burst out as a rampaging xenomorph (and he doesn’t even buy you dinner ). The embryonic stage plays with fears of rape and disease. As a xenomorph, the creature is a metaphor for the relentless, destructive power of nature. It is the answer to every fear about what lurks beneath the surface of a dark sea; a raging, unstoppable beast that answers only to the logic of its own appetites. It cannot be reasoned with.
Crucially, Alien and its sequels didn’t state any of these ideas openly. The 1979 movie works on the level of the id. The interior of the humans’ spaceship is soft with undulating lights, like a womb. The craft in which the monster is discovered has the smooth, black rubbery interior of a bondage workshop. The creature does its dirty work with a penile appendage, and the xenomorph’s head is phallic. The reason why Alien stays inside your head for so long is that its images are unsullied by explanatory dialogue, which would reduce fear to theory. It’s a nightmare made flesh.
The problem with Prometheus is that it approaches its issues literally and unimaginatively. Of course, there are a lot of other problems, too. The acting is variable (Noomi Rapace accent wanders from Scotland to Wales, via Long John Silver) and the stand out performance by Michael Fassbender is undermined by his character’s decapitation. The movie loses all gravitas when Fassbender’s head rolls around the floor chatting away in his creepy camp monotone. The plot is unoriginal (a mix of Leviathan and Quatermass and the Pit) and everyone’s motivations change halfway through (when everyone stops to have sex). The heroes are supposed to be archaeologists, but their approach to their craft is more akin to demolition experts. All the characters are dumb. Where would you choose to spend the night when trapped in an alien spaceship? Somewhere near the exit or camped out in a room full of oozing black liquid? Worst of all, it’s unscary. When a flapping, gooey monster is plucked from Noomi’s belly, my theatre companion shouted out “Who ordered the calamari?” Seriously, there’s about five minutes of gore in this “horror” movie.
But the most annoying thing is the way that the movie signposts its themes. The big one is the relationship between parents and children. The movie opens with the ultimate generative act: an alien “engineer” dissolves himself into the waters of the young Earth to create the primordial soup from which we evolved. Flash forward and the humans go in search of their parents … only to discover that mommy and daddy want to wipe them out by returning to Earth with a cargo of alien DNA. Meanwhile, the head of Weyland industries has two children – a daughter that he seems to despise and an android who is devoted to him (although the android later suggests that he’d like to kill his father; Sigmund Freud, they’re playing our song). Noomi Rapace can’t have a baby but gets impregnated with alien DNA and ends up birthing a jellyfish, which she does her best to kill. The only person in the movie without daddy issues is the wisecracking, cigar smoking black pilot. He’s too busy being a cliché.
There’s nothing wrong with a touch of metaphor, but Ridley is so obsessed with showing us how clever he is that these allusions crowd out the plot and might be why the movie grinds to a halt halfway through (something many reviewers have spotted). Whereas Alien was a tight, taught little movie with sparse dialogue that let images speak for themselves, Prometheus is so in love with its own epicness that it forgets to tell a story. It’s Ben Hur without the chariot race. Prometheus even comes with a soaring strings soundtrack that (while very good) undermines all the onscreen tension. It’s hard to be frightened about the descent into the bowels of an alien craft when the journey is accompanied by the theme tune to Gone With the Wind.
All of this might have been forgivable if there were some interesting answers to the questions that Prometheus throws up. But there aren’t. The engineers who created us are, despite their high technology, roaring beasts of the living dead variety. There may or may not be a God; life may or may not be worth living. Nihilism rules everything: children want to kill parents, parents want to kill children. The movie has no moral centre or voice of responsibility, only a constant search for knowledge. It's an episode of Star Trek, written by Richard Dawkins.
I’ve been waiting for this all year - the arrival of Ridley Scott’s Prometheus
. Apparently it adds a whole new dimension to the Alien mythos, which is a pity because the series had a pretty sound teleology already. Folks have been guessing about the origins of the Aliens for months now, but I guess the title “Prometheus” is a bit of a giveaway. He’s the fellow who stole fire from the gods and brought suffering to the world as a result. Benign ignorance gave way to enlightened misery. I presume that the Aliens started out as rat catchers and got ideas above their station.
I resent the desire of modern directors to retread old ideas and give them two dimensional back stories (Batman, the Marvel comics, Star Trek etc). In some cases, the result is prosaic but in others is does real damage to the power of the original. One of the great things about the Alien is, well, its alieness. It’s terrifying because we can’t understand it and it inverts our understanding of nature (which usually places us at the top of the food chain). Explain too much and the threat becomes easier to understand and, potentially, to control.
It’s surely no coincidence that the Alien cycle dominated the screen in the late 70s to early 90s, the golden age for schlock. The Aliens shared something in common with that other great monster of the era, the zombie. Like the Alien, the zombie had no personality; there was no twirling moustache or vampiric charm. It was an unstoppable force that couldn’t be negotiated with - an apt evil for a period defined by urban terrorism, AIDS or the Viet Cong.
Back in the time of I Walked With a Zombie (1943), the zombies weren’t the real villain. They were usually controlled by a mastermind who wanted to exploit them for cheap labour. But when George A Romero released Night of the Living Dead (1968), they became independent entities and the focus of the story. The zombie as imagined by Romero is a revolutionary being. It is neither good nor evil but instead following an agenda that smacks of historical determinism: the zombie will bite you, you will die, you will become a zombie (“When the revolution comes, we will all eat caviar!”).
There’s no escaping the revolution, you can only hide or succumb. A good parallel is found in Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), in which anyone who falls asleep wakes up reborn as an alien entity. The zombie and the body snatcher movies are nihilistic from the heroes’ point of view because they can’t win. But the movies aren’t necessarily pessimistic from the audience’s point of view because neither director casts their agents of doom as explicitly evil. The body snatchers want everyone to be equal and peace among all nations; the zombie want everybody to be eaten. They are an amoral part of nature - just like the Alien that suckers onto John Hurt’s face and lays its egg in his belly ("At least buy me dinner first...")
The greatest statement on this topic was Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978). His heroes escape the zombies by locking themselves up in a mall and, at first, our sympathy is squarely with the humans. But as we see them bicker and slip into a parody of consumer culture (they go “shopping” and fill their hiding space with the latest fashions and electronics) we begin to lose sympathy. By the time a few months have past and the zombies are still relentlessly throwing themselves against the glass windows of the mall, we start to ask why the humans don’t just unlock the doors and surrender to the inevitable. One of them awakes from a nightmare to find herself “escaping” in a helicopter. But there is no escape, for the world is gone. In the 2004 remake, the humans reach an island that looks like a paradise - until they see hundreds of zombies running down the beach towards them. The scene is reminiscent of a Saturday night in Majorca.
Romero went too political with his 1985 Day of the Dead. That movie features a military squad hiding underground while the zombies rule the world above. As they debate what to do with the undead, the director heavily signposts his sympathy for the zombies. Romero’s liberalism got the better of him. By the time of Land of the Dead (2005), the zombies now have personalities and the movie concludes that dead and living can live side by side. This ending betrays Romero’s original vision; the zombies evolve from a metaphor for ceaseless evolutionary change into a rational political force like the IRA. I don’t buy it.
Does the same happen to the Alien in Prometheus? I don’t know yet and I’d appreciate it if readers don’t email or Tweet the answer, but I’ll be disappointed if there’s something human about their origin. Personally, I’ve always shared the view of the monster articulated by crewmember Ash from the first movie: “I admire its purity: A survivor, unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.” Ash could be describing himself, for he is shown to have a duty to the corporation that goes beyond any loyalty he should have to the people who have presented themselves to him as friends. But then Ash, too, is another revolutionary stage in evolution. If the Alien bursting from John Hurt’s chest is the movie’s first surprise, the second (and maybe bigger one) is the fact that Ash is revealed to be a “Goddam robot.” Here is another organism that will surpass us - inevitably.
Warning: this will make absolutely no sense if you haven’t seen either Alien or The Thing. And if you haven’t, you should. As soon as possible.
What a lucky boy I am: this week I got to see both Alien and The Thing (the prequel). It was an emotional experience, bringing up a lot of repressed memories from my childhood. Both movies are “pretty cewl” (©South Park) on a dramatic level, but they also play to themes of physical decay that mean a lot to me. Every time I see the alien pop out of John Hurt’s chest I think, “Brother, I’ve been there.”
It wasn’t until I re-watched Alien on Friday night, with chamomile tea and a pizza, that I realized quite how much it’s about sex. The sets are pure fetish. The Nostromo looks like Roger Vadim designed a womb: soft tan furnishings, gently throbbing lights, and lots and lots of hexagonals. In contrast, the spaceship that our heroes find crashed on a windswept planet is a Freudian nightmare. They enter it through an open orifice and descend through a small gooey hole into a misty pit full of eggs. John Hurt then stumbles upon a monster that latches onto his face and lays its fetus inside his stomach. One might accuse the alien of pushing his luck, but then he did pay for dinner…
When the little brute burrows its way out of Hurt’s chest, it becomes a metaphor for the nightmare of physical change. When he first reviewed the movie, Roger Ebert hypothesized that its cast is middle aged in order to emphasize that they are a group of ordinary people doing a job, not action heroes. I disagree. I suspect the director (consciously or unconsciously) cast older actors because people over 30 are more vulnerable to physical change than adolescents are. As a young adult, the things that happen to us are unnerving but healthy: they are the body evolving towards its zenith of intellectual and physical capability. After 30-or so, what was once growth becomes decay. The hair falls off one’s head and sprouts elsewhere. Muscle becomes fat; dull aches become “warning signs”. The infinite sexual possibilities of youth become desperate and less probable: one must breed ASAP, before everything dies up or falls off. Romance is dead and man is a walking advert for entropy.
When the body starts doing things that you don’t want it to, it becomes a separate personality from oneself. That theme is picked up in The Thing, which has just hit cinemas. It’s a prequel to John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982). Predictably, it’s an inferior movie. But by dint of the excellent premise, it’s okay. In this movie, the alien is a virus that replicates or consumes its victim, hides in the body, and then attacks others. We never entirely understand the nature of the thing, but it is hinted that its victims don’t know they’ve been taken over. The monster only bursts forth (with several arms, a dog’s head, and a scorpion tail) when threatened. The metaphor for the loss of control of one’s body is striking.
A chronic illness is like undergoing a personal alien invasion. The tumor that was recently discovered in my father’s throat could be the seedling of a malevolent entity. It consumes half the calories that he puts into his body, growing stronger as he grows weaker. This, combined with a nervous disorder, has left him bowlegged and tiny. Every time I see him, I recognize him less; the changes in his character suggest possession. This process is tragic, but entirely natural. Cancer is the body’s way of placing time limits on our mind’s habitation. If we all lived to 150, we would be a walking mass of tumors not unlike the creature that slithers into shot in the last reel of The Thing.
For others, the horrors of Alien and The Thing provoke a subconscious response. For me they are a trip down memory lane. When I was thirteen, I contracted an appalling case of eczema that required hospital treatment and lasted for five years. Isolated with my own carcass, I found the most bizarre and terrifying things taking place. I discovered that the skin can bleed without breaking, that sores can blister and hatch, that it is possible to scratch to the bone. Doctor after doctor unwrapped my bandages and recoiled in horror, without a clue what to do. My legs were encased in cotton wool and I began every morning with a bath of antibiotics and salt. O, how I spent so much time rubbing salt into my body – desperately trying to dry up and dust off the ooze. I was a “thing” all right: a larva jammed in metamorphosis. Oddly, the disease never touched my face. I suspect it understood that if it did, I might elicit sympathy from other human beings and someone might actually try to help. Hidden beneath the neck line, it was free to feed uninterrupted.
I am sure that it is significant that this condition arose during puberty. It convinced me that sex and physical decay are intrinsically linked. It left me with a profound revulsion for the human form – perhaps because the hours spent mapping it in hospital made me aware of its every imperfection, its every potential for disaster. Today, I am a physical Dualist. I earnestly believe that the body and soul are not only separate, but at war with one another. The soul’s quest for transcendence is constantly disrupted by the body’s sensual needs. The only way to achieve salvation is to starve the body and free the mind. Of course, living as we do in a material reality, that is impossible. So, unable to completely liberate myself, I live a dual existence between mental exercise and physical degradation. Once in a while I give my body free reign and permit it excess. When it is done “wandering the world seeking the ruin of souls”, I punish it with purgation. The best cure for a hangover is prayer and green tea.
I am a survivor of eczema. Around 18, it suddenly went away. Incredibly, I have no scars and haven’t suffered with it since. Always, there is the lingering fear that it will return; every small itch could be the beginning of a long campaign. But the experience has taught me that the body is intrinsically treacherous. Treacherous, but still a part of me: something to be negotiated with, or placated.
Watching The Alien, I was struck by the conviction that me and the “toothy one”, if given a chance, could get on rather well. I’m sure it wouldn’t want to eat me (I’m all skin and bone) and I’d make a terrible father for its little facehugger (I’d always be out with my mates getting drunk). So, instead it might tolerate me as the chronicler of its exploits. By writing about the beast, maybe I could pacify it and even own it – just as I have done on this blog post by writing about my eczema. I can imagine myself crossed-legged on its icky nest floor; one hand tapping away at the keyboard, the other tickling the gelatinous space between its numerous chins. Sci-fi yin and yang.