Warning: all the spoilers.
Trigger warning: some rape and pregnancy squick.
Earlier today, the husband and I went to see Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, after which we watched Alien, which I’d actually never seen before. I’m extremely glad I did, because if nothing else, it offers a whole new perspective on Prometheus, viz: that the latter is actually a reboot of the former. The visual, narrative, structural and thematic similarities between the two are such that, when coupled with Prometheus’s ending, it’s an extremely difficult thesis to ignore; at the very least, Scott is borrowing heavily from his original, and while I’ve not yet seen anyone else make the comparison, if you watch the two films back to back, the relationship between them is undeniable.
But first: Prometheus itself. Considered in isolation, it’s surprisingly hard to categorise with any degree of accuracy. Though ostensibly SF/horror, the tone and pacing are much more philosophical, concerned primarily with abstract questions of identity, genesis, belief and kinship. At the same time, though, the bulk of the characterisation is thin, if not actively dependent on stereotype, which causes a weird, occasionally mesmerising disconnect between the actions of the protagonists and the narrative arc. Having discovered archaeological evidence that the same images of giants, together with the accurate depiction of a distant star system, have appeared in geographically and temporally different cultures throughout history, scientific couple Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) set out aboard the Prometheus in search of an alien race they call the Engineers, who Shaw in particular believes created humanity. However, the ship itself has been financed by dying industrialist Peter Wayland (a heavily made-up Guy Pearce) at the expense of his company, Wayland Enterprises, and is nominally under the command of captain Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), an icy professional who doesn’t believe in Shaw and Holloway’s theories. Also on board, apart from sympathetic pilot Janek (Idris Elba) and a handful of interchangeable engineers and scientists, is David (Michael Fassbender), an enigmatic robot in the employ of Wayland. Fassbender’s performance is perfect: we’re never quite sure about the extent to which David’s personal motives (which he claims to lack) overlap and intersect with his programmed directives. He’s quiet, polite and inhuman, but with an implied depth of insight and evident sense of wonder that balance eerily with his detached courtesy. It’s David and Shaw whose experiences and interactions form the real basis for the film, and one that makes for an interesting mix of themes.
If you’ve seen any other films set in the Alien universe, then I don’t really need to tell you how the plot progresses: mysterious ruins are discovered, the party splits up, infection/infestation occurs, people die, fire is employed in defense of humanity, corporate greed forces the crew to stay when any sane person would flee, the female lead gets forcibly impregnated by an alien monstrosity with an accelerated growth rate, a big alien boss with a grudge against humanity is revealed, everyone bar the female lead and the robot dies, and the alien threat is averted (for now) in a climactic final battle; the film ends with Shaw flying away in an alien craft piloted by David’s dismembered (but still functional) head. None of which was new or surprising, but all of which was entertaining to watch: the 3D used in Prometheus is superb, the soundtrack is gorgeous, the visuals compelling, and the overall story something I’m glad to have watched. As an action movie, it isn’t half bad (though it does lag briefly in the middle).
The real heart of the film, however, is in the contrast between Shaw’s quest for the creators of humanity and David’s strange relationship with his human creators. My favourite moment comes when Holloway, drunk and dispirited after having discovered that all the Engineers are dead (or so he thinks), laments his inability to ask them the big question: why did they make humanity? To which David, deadpan and quiet, asks why Holloway thinks humanity decided to build robots. “Because we can,” says Holloway, as though this is the most obvious thing in the world – but when David asks if Holloway would be content to receive such an answer from humanity’s creators, Holloway just snorts and rolls his eyes, as if to say, But that would never happen to us . We’re different, and you’re just a robot. The arrogance of Holloway’s disconnect is staggering, such that we feel real sympathy for David; but when, moments later, the robot deliberately contaminates Holloway’s drink with an alien biological sample – not maliciously, but as part of a calculated plot to try and find a cure for his dying master – our sense of his humanity is instantly eroded. Shaw, meanwhile, is caught in a constant balancing act between her faith in God and her scientific belief that the Engineers created humankind. When questioned about the contradiction – shouldn’t she take off her cross, Holloway asks, now that she has proof the Engineers seeded Earth? – Shaw smiles and answers, “But who made them?” Confronted later by the growing evidence that the Engineers weren’t as benign a force as she’d imagined, Shaw retreats into her faith, only to have it tested in other, more horrible ways. And yet she survives with both her faith and her hunger for answers in tact, flying off into the unknown with only the remnants of a created being to keep her company on her quest to understand why humanity’s creators turned against them.
Despite this solid and compelling philosophical core, however, the rest of the characterisation is disappointingly lackluster. Vickers is little more than a cold, blonde ice maiden; Wayland is the archetypal dying industrialist looking to prolong his life; Janek is the loyal captain; the other crew members – Fifield, Millburn, Ford, Chance and Ravel – are by turns anonymous and textbook; even Holloway, for all his greater significance, is strangely generic – supportive and loving to Shaw and a believer in their work, but completely undeveloped in terms of his own history and motives. The Engineers, too, are unfathomable, due in large part to the fact that we never learn anything tangible about them: not why they made humanity, not why they abandoned it, nor even why they subsequently turned to the creation of biological weapons – the aliens whose predations are the film’s main source of threat – with the intention of unleashing them on Earth. There’s a sense in which this enforced ignorance is deliberate: a way of leaving the story open-ended, so that we, like Shaw, are still left with unanswered questions, the better to preserve the sense of mystery. But there’s also a sense in which the lack of answers undermines the integrity of the narrative – because in the absence of any concrete explanation, certain elements of the plot and worldbuilding start to look less like deliberate omissions and more like accidental discontinuities, some of which occurred to me while watching the film, and the rest of which are classic fridge logic.
In the very first scene of the film, for instance, we witness an Engineer – a giant, white-skinned man who bears more than a passing resemblance to Darth Malak in his underwear – standing alone as an alien spaceship flies away in the distance. The Engineer drinks the biological compound that’s later used to kill Holloway and which, by all accounts, appears to be the doom of his species. And yet he does this voluntarily, even though it instantly causes his body to disintegrate, right down to the level of his DNA. The reason for this scene is never explained. Why is the Engineer alone? Why does he drink the compound? Does he realise it will kill him? If not, why not? And if so, why drink it when there’s no-one else around? What planet is he on? None of these questions are answered during the course of the movie – and in fact, what little information we do glean only serves to make the first scene look self-contradictory. Similarly, the ultimate implication of both Shaw’s final voyage and Janek’s never-refuted supposition that the planet they’ve found is a military outpost both point to the fact that the Engingeers came from a different star system all together. But if that’s true, then why didn’t the archaeological evidence Shaw and Holloway found on Earth lead them there instead? More pertinently, it’s stated outright that the dead Engineers the crew finds were killed roughly two thousand years ago, while their earliest appearance in human culture is five thousand years old. So if the Engineers only decided to destroy humanity *after* leaving Earth, why leave behind directions to an outpost planet that they hadn’t yet colonised? In fact, why leave directions at all? We’re shown explicitly that the Engineers intended to send their biological weapons back to Earth, in which case, leaving messages in human culture to one day come to the source is redundant: the only reason humanity survived that long is because the aliens the Engineers bred to destroy us destroyed them first. Under those circumstances, the archaeological messages can’t be a warning, but nor are they viably an invitation. Instead, they appear only as a plot device: something Scott has orchestrated in order to justify his characters being where they are, but which, on the basis of the evidence presented, makes no narrative sense at all.
Other niggling issues also drew my attention: little glitches that made me question the overall story. Why does David think that infecting Holloway will help Wayland? Why does nobody chase after Shaw when she physically attacks two of her crewmates and runs away? Who is Janek working for, and how much does he know? Why, when we’re explicitly told that there are seventeen crewmembers on board, do we only ever see ten of them? This last might seem like a strange niggle, but it becomes relevant near the end, when Vickers is told to run for the escape pods while Janek and two of his companions stay behind to make a Heroic Sacrifice and crash their ship into the alien craft that’s headed for Earth, thereby saving humanity – because if there were still seven other people on board, people we never met and whose deaths we never saw, then it feels extremely odd that Janek and the others would tell Vickers how to save herself, but leave the rest of their crewmates to die. (It’s also worth mentioning that the three men who make the Heroic Sacrifice are all POC – the only three in the movie. I’m not quite sure what to think of this, but it does feel like something of a trope subversion that all three died nobly rather than running for their lives as plucky comic relief, or as the archetypal black dude who dies first.)
And then there’s the gender issues. Round about the midway point, Vickers initiates a conversation with Janek and actually seems to be thawing a little, prompting him to flirt with her. Vickers reacts in kind, but ultimately rejects him, at which point she turns to leave. Janek, however, stops her by asking an incredibly invasive question: is she a robot? Now, on the one hand, this is a narratively reasonable question: Scott’s Alien-universe movies do tend to contain secret robots, and as far as the audience is concerned, Vickers is definitely a viable candidate. On the other hand, though, Janek has asked this in direct response to Vickers choosing not to sleep with him, and even worse, her response, rather than saying yes or no, is to tell him to come to her cabin in ten minutes – they can have sex after all! And this is problematic for me, because even though Janek might plausibly be curious, his timing is gross, and Vickers’s response is grosser still, because the way she proves her womanly nature is to change her mind about sex. The whole scene did not sit well with me, and even though we don’t actually see the deed take place – the whole incident is, I suspect, narratively engineered solely to get Janek off the bridge, so that when the crewmates stuck outside call with an SOS, he isn’t there to hear it – and even though it effectively answers the question of Vickers’s humanity, it still comes across as sexist and offensive.
And then we have the Underwear Problem – or, more specifically, the fact that women in the future apparently don’t wear bras or singlets, but have instead reverted to wearing weird wrap-around boob tubes that look uncannily like bandages, and which come complete with matching bandage underwear. To wit, this:
Setting aside the infuriating ubiquity of Hot Terrified Women In Their Underpants as an SF/horror trope, what would have been so terrible about letting them wear bras or crop tops? Even Ripley in the original Alien gets a goddam singlet, despite the fact that her undies are literally and gratuitously about five sizes too small. I just, I actually cannot get over this lack of bras. I mean, the first time we see Vickers, she’s doing pushups in what amounts to a boob tube, and I’m sorry, but it’s hard enough to get a strapless bra to stay put when you’re hugging your armpits at a party, let alone engaging in strenuous physical exertion like running for your life. I don’t even care that, from one perspective (although certainly not the one employed for the gratuitous cleavage shot pictured above), the boob tube bandages arguably cover more frontal cleavage than a real bra would, because once you’ve decided to have your female heroine running around in her underwear, you’ve pretty much abandoned the notion of modest costuming. As far as I can tell, the only possible logic behind the boob-wraps is because someone, somewhere decided they were more aesthetically pleasing than bras – but speaking as a person of somewhat busty dimensions, the absence of good, supportive bras is the exact fucking opposite of futuristic, and is in fact about as big a visual anachronism as having an axe on a spaceship.
But all of this is small beer compared to the big, endlessly problematic notion of forced alien impregnation. Insofar as the alien attacks go, I’ll give Scott some credit for trope subversion: twice in the course of the film, male characters are violently orally penetrated – and, in the process, killed – by phallic alien tentacles. This is visually disturbing on a number of levels, but given the near universal establishment of tentacle rape as a thing that happens to women, I’m going to give him a big thumbs up for bucking the trend. That being said, what happens to Shaw is awful on just about every level imaginable. If you have difficulty with the womb-biting vampire birth scene in Breaking Dawn, I’m going to issue a big, fat warning about Prometheus, because everything that happens to Shaw from about the three-quarter mark onwards is the ladypain equivalent of that scene in Casino Royale where Le Chiffre tortures James Bond by tying him naked to a wicker chair with the arse cut out and then repeatedly belting him in the genitals with a length of knotted rope, with bonus! psychological angst thrown in.
So: Shaw is infertile; she can’t have children. This is a source of evident sadness to her, something that Holloway has to reassure her about after he accidentally makes an offhand comment about how easy it is to create life. At the point at which we see them make love, Holloway has already been infected with the alien biological compound: he dies horribly not long after, forcing Vickers to literally set him on fire while Shaw watches rather than continue in his painful, bodily disintegration. Making this even worse, Shaw’s own father, an explorer or anthropologist of some sort, also died of an incurable, graphic virus – ebola, in fact. Understandably, Shaw is so distressed by watching her lover die that David has to sedate her – but of course, David is the one who infected Holloway to begin with. When Shaw comes to, David asks her (politely, of course) if she and Holloway have made love recently; when Shaw says yes, he does an ultrasound, and reveals both that Shaw is three months pregnant – impossible, as they only slept together ten hours ago, never mind her infertility – and that the foetus is abnormal. Unhesitatingly, Shaw tells him to get it out of her, to which David replies that he can’t: they don’t have the technicians on board to perform a cesarean. His solution is to suggest she go into cryo. Shaw refuses, so David forcibly sedates her. When she wakes up again, two fellow crewmates in quarantine suits have come to see her frozen. Shaw feigns unconsciousness, attacks them, and runs – in some considerable pain, as the alien-baby is trying to squirm free – to the special, super-expensive automated surgery pod in Vickers’s quarters. Desperate, she tries to program it for a cesarean, only to be told that the chamber has been locked for male use only (we later find out, through inference, that this is because it’s meant for exclusive use by the aged Peter Wayland, who’s secretly been on board the whole time). Thinking fast, she tells it to perform abdominal surgery to remove an obstruction, jabs herself with a couple of painkillers, and hops in.
While Shaw is still conscious – and clearly able to feel pain, despite her medical injections – the pod cuts into her with a laser, opens up her uterus, and uses a metal grappling tool that looks frighteningly like the lovechild of an arcade grabber machine claw and an eggbeater to pull the writhing alien-baby in its placental sack out of her stomach and hold it overhead. Shaw is now trapped in the pod with a gaping abdominal wound and a predatory tentacled alien that wants to kill her – plus and also, the umbilical cord is somehow still linking it to her insides, so she has to physically pull the cord out of her goddam womb, at which point the pod wraps things up by closing a gash the entire length of her abdomen with giant metal staples. She then has to slid downwards and out of the pod by passing underneath the alien, slam the pod-lid closed, and then stagger, weeping and bloodied, into the hallway.
To summarise: an infertile woman who wanted children and whose partner died ten hours ago is forced to give herself an emergency c-section to rid herself of the ravenous alien baby he impregnated her with, alone, while on the run from her crewmates, without help or anesthetic. Also, despite the fact that her stomach is literally being held together with staples, she then spends the rest of the film running for her life while in obvious, crippling pain, alternately sobbing and injecting herself with painkillers. Fun times! Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
So how, then, does Prometheus resemble a reboot of Alien?
Barring the Engineer prologue and a brief scene on Earth, Prometheus contains exactly the same establishing shot and data that Alien does: the image of a spaceship with the written details of its name, function, crew, cargo and course superimposed over the top; both films also end with the lone survivor, a brunette Final Girl, dictating a last entry into the ship’s log, stating that the rest of the crew are dead, the ship was destroyed, they’re the only one left, and that now they’re about to travel elsewhere. Both are also accompanied in their escape by a small, inhuman companion – Ripley has a cat, Jones, while Shaw has the disembodied robot head of David. In Alien, the ring-ship the crew discovers is identical to the one piloted by the surviving Engineer in Prometheus; in both films, it’s a pair of white men who stumble on the larval face-sucking aliens and subsequently die. In both films, it’s the female protagonist who calls for the implementation of quarantine (Ripley is ignored where Shaw isn’t) and who subsequently suggests that the message which lead them there to begin with wasn’t an invitation or an SOS, but a warning to stay away. In both films, a robot secretly furthering the agenda of a corporate power turns on the crew, ignoring quarantine and disobeying direct orders in order to bring an alien sample on board, actively harming and endangering others in order to protect it. Both films also follow a very similar plot progression, kill off secondary characters in a similar order, and make graphic use of flamethrowers; even the title fonts are the same (both also pass the Bechdel test). Perhaps most importantly of all, however, the final scene of Prometheus shows an alien – that is, an Alien alien – emerging from the wreckage, created in its larval form by gestating in Shaw (the Holloway-monster she cut out of herself) then growing again in the body of the Engineer, which makes the whole of Prometheus look like nothing so much as a retcon of the entire Alien universe.
Given that fact, my suspicion is that there’ll probably be a sequel at some point down the line, restarting the Alien mythos in a suitably altered context (though whether Rapace’s Shaw will go on to be as canonically significant as Weaver’s Ripley remains to be seen). Over all, I found Prometheus to be an interesting movie: flawed in some ways, problematic in others, and peppered with enough apparent discontinuities and WTF moments that I couldn’t wholly settle into the story, but still entertaining and definitely one of the better SFnal flicks I’ve seen of late. (Though if you’d rather pass on the open-womb surgery scene, I can’t say I’ll blame you.)