Sunday, June 17, 2012

Prometheus and the Alien Franchise

Prometheus may not be a work of art, and it certainly has a whacked evolutionary premise, but it's the best installment in the Alien franchise since the '70s classic. Aliens was impressive for its day but now looks like what it is, an '80s action flick with the hollow characters and dull plots typical of James Cameron. Alien 3 was a return to form under David Fincher, with awesomely mean-spirited characters and a haunting atmosphere, the only problem being the alien itself didn't impress (at all). And the less said about Alien Resurrection and the -Predator bastards the better. Prometheus relies on certain strengths of the second and third films, while tapping into the elusive power of the first, and lands decent enough results... as long as you don't expect too much out of it.

For reasons that escape me, Aliens is held up by many as the best in the chain. It enjoys a whopping 100% critical approval at Rotten Tomatoes (Alien has a near perfect 97%) and places on countless lists of rare movie sequels which surpass the original. I curse this chorus of praise: Aliens is emphatically not The Road Warrior, Godfather II, or The Dark Knight. It's Alien on steroids, with exciting combat sequences granted, but that's pretty much it. Devin Faraci's brilliant Throwdown: Alien vs. Aliens should be read by all. He prefaces:
"Let's set aside bullshit like 'I like action films better than horror films.' This isn't about what you like. You like bad things. I do too, lots and lots of bad things. Liking something is easy, and it's a matter of personal taste; that said I'd prefer you had something more in your head than 'I like it,' but that's a debate for another day. This day I'm going to tell you how Alien is, objectively speaking, the best film in the franchise."
Which he does near flawlessly -- but even he fails to mention the most superior (and terrifying) aspect of Ridley Scott's alien that Cameron ruined: its ability to cocoon a victim and cause it to morph into an egg/facehugger. From Aliens and beyond, all eggs/facehuggers come from a queen alien, but Scott had envisioned a truly awful process by which any alien, regardless of gender, "laid eggs" by transforming captives. In Cameron's film, the aliens are just giant insects with essentially "Earthlian" life-cycles, and can be killed with enough firepower. In Scott's classic, the alien was a near invincible horror, and Prometheus fleshes out why: the species is biomechanoid, an engineered lifeform that hyper-evolves in nebulous and unpredictable ways.

Prometheus has been panned by many, but some of its alleged faults I actually count as strengths: the lack of a dominating boogey-alien (a refreshing change in direction, and surprisingly anti-Hollywood), leaving many questions unanswered (as with demonic possession, too much explanation of disturbing aliens can ruin the mystery, and in any case I guarantee there will be a sequel showing how the facehuggers get to the other moon, no doubt with Dr. Shaw and Android David in tow), and the injection of faith and philosophy (which is treated for the most part in an acceptably non-hokey way). My only serious objection is to the prologue, set four billion years in the past, where a pale anthropomorphic alien (an Engineer) is seeding Earth with its DNA. This implies that bipedal hominids are the inevitable outcome of evolution, and may please philosophers like Daniel Dennett, but I subscribe to the view that evolution has no such direction or purpose. Rewind the tape of life, let it replay, and you'd just as likely get intelligent, self-conscious grizzly bears.

On the other hand, I do like the way the Engineers are stand-ins for gods/creators who make humans in their image, and, even better, how they turn out hostile to their creations. (I just wish Scott had married this idea to evolution in a better way.) There's a not-so-subtle play on divine retribution here, though of course this is where questions start overtaking answers: Why exactly are the Engineers so intent on destroying their own creations with the black goo? Are the urns meant to be dropped on earth as the next phase in humanity's evolution? Are the genetic results to be used as pawns in an intergalactic war? Is this a renegade faction of Engineers, indeed as many have suggested, the equivalent of "fallen angels"?

And is the black goo a prototype for the xenormorph aliens, or vice-versa? This goo stored in urns on LV-223 does a variety of things -- animating corpses, transforming worms into huge snake-monsters, and converting human sperm into a squid-like parasite that can grow inside the womb of the most barren woman. (This last results in a fantastic scene in which an hysterical Dr. Shaw gives herself a caesarean-abortion, the closest WTF moment we'll probably ever get to Kane's classic chest-bursting.) The egg-facehuggers on LV-426 in Alien, of course, behave differently. Many fans seem to think the goo precedes the xenomorphs, but the mural in the LV-223 facility shows a xenomorph, so the aliens appear to already exist. And yet the final scene of Prometheus has a xenomorph bursting from the Engineer's chest, as if it's the end result of everything and the first of its kind.

There is a particular scene in which a character behaves so stupidly it's offensive. Millburn has been left behind in the caverns when suddenly a cobra-like tendril rears menacingly out of the water. Millburn actually approaches the thing, reaches out to it, calling it "beautiful" -- and then compounds his idiocy by reaching out to it again after the thing hisses and lashes out at him. Completely unlike Kane in Alien, this fool got what he deserved (see above photo). But this display of stupidity, or naive innocence, is so off the scales that it made me wonder if Scott was perhaps making a stab at biblical allegory, with a "deceptively friendly" serpent. If so, he failed miserably.

Going into Prometheus with high expectations may account for some of the strong disappointments amongst fandom, and this is probably where I got lucky. My expectations were quite low. Not only because Ridley Scott hasn't made a decent film since his Alien and Blade Runner days (his historicals are abysmal), but because the Alien franchise has been soulless for so long. If the inevitable sequel to Prometheus matches what it did here, I'll be okay with it, if not ecstatic.

Alien - 5
Aliens - 2 ½
Alien III - 2 ½
Alien Resurrection - 1
Prometheus - 3


Blogger Carson Lund said...

Interesting write-up, Loren. Your section on evolution is dense, and I'll have to read it a few more times to see where you stand on that. I found the evolutionary and philosophical aspects of the film to be fairly scattershot myself, mostly used to propel the plot. I can't comment on all the Alien sequels, but I'm in pretty firm disagreement on the prequel. Just saw it yesterday and man is it confused and wobbly and just plain silly at times. Also unusual was how closely it followed the scene structure of Alien, right down to mirror images. I'll be writing on this one soon, and though I enjoyed myself enough watching it, I'm pretty sure it will fade from memory quickly.

Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

Hi Carson,

This one of the rare cases for me where confusions and artificialities (or at least most of them), for whatever reason, didn't bother me. But that's partly because I wasn't looking too closely. For instance, on first viewing I'd missed that Scott was mightily pushing the envelope with Christian parallels (namely, that Jesus was an alien!!), and I fear these will become more overt in the inevitable sequel. But I did see the film again, and I think the pros still outweigh the cons. Certainly if I had to choose between watching Prometheus and Cameron's much-adored Aliens on any given day, it's the former hands down. I look forward to your nasty review!

Anonymous Dan O. said...

Nice review Loren. I was entertained, to say the least, but I think I was expecting something so much better after all of the promotion for this flick. Maybe it was too much like Alien.

Blogger Rick Sumner said...

I just watched this today, and I can't decide if it was awesome or disappointing. Awesompointing maybe?

Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

It was certainly awesome in IMAX, and as I say, there's a lot inherent to it that I like. But I'm also coming to terms with the fact that it's a strong guilty pleasure.

For scathing (though quite entertaining), see Carson Lund's review.


Post a Comment

<< Home