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 Prometheus, Alien’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.