NB: The following contains spoilers for Prometheus, and possible spoiler-filled conjecture for Alien: Covenant.
On one level, Prometheus was everything you might have expected from an Alien movie: a space slasher film where a bunch of explorers are pursued and physically invaded by something slippery from beyond the stars. Yet Ridley Scott’s Alien prequel also seemed to have lots more on its mind: aliens fiddling with the building blocks of life, meditations on what lies beyond the curtain of death, and copious dollops of silky black goo.
Prometheus toyed with weighty themes, yet left plenty of specifics frustratingly obscure. What happened on the planetoid LV-223 that led all those Engineers to die in a heap? Who made the black goo? Why did the Engineers decide to kill the human race, having gone to the trouble of creating it in the first place?
With next year’s sequel Alien: Covenant, Ridley Scott has the chance to at least partly answer those questions, while its title also suggests that the veteran director’s seeking to continue the religious and mythical themes Prometheus established back in 2012. Scott has spoken in the past of how his film taps into John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, about a battle between God and Satan which sees the latter cast into hell.
Exactly where this leaves Alien: Covenant hasn’t been entirely clear so far, and nor do we currently know where the story might go in the two sequels Scott currently has planned – movies that will, we’re told, take everything up to the events of 1979’s Alien. A recent report, however, may provide the key to understanding what it is that Scott’s attempting, at least in the big-picture sense of his Prometheus movies. What follows is conjecture on our part, but could help to explain the stew of angry bald Engineers, silos of deadly black goo and other assorted plot points in Prometheus, and how Alien: Covenant might return to them.
Mortals, giants and gods
On the 29th October, AVP Galaxy published a brief report claiming that Guy Pearce is set to reprise his role as Peter Weyland, the billionaire industrialist who appeared in wizened form in Prometheus. Briefly described in that report is a flashback scene that is said to appear near the start of Alien: Covenant – Peter Weyland switching on David 8, the duplicitous android played by Michael Fassbender. David, the report continues, plays a piece of music from composer Richard Wagner’s Das Rheingold – presumably on a piano – before explaining the story behind the melody.
Now, if the report on this scene is accurate – and at this stage, it’s still best classed as a rumour – the reference to Wagner may help to make sense of where Scott’s going with his prequel saga. Certainly, some of the themes in Das Rheingold – the first quarter of Wagner’s Ring cycle – chime with those in Paradise Lost.
Das Rheingold, to outline it very briefly, sees a dwarf named Alberich steal a magical gold ring from a bunch of maidens who live in the Rhine. That ring, which gives its wearer power over the whole world, is in turn stolen from the dwarf by Wotan, a Zeus-like god of gods. Meanwhile, there’s trouble in Valhalla: the gods have contracted a pair of giants to build them a luxurious new house, but when it comes time for the gods to pay up, they renege on the deal. What follows is an almighty tussle between giants, gods and ordinary mortals, with the purloined ring the MacGuffin at the centre of it all.
Put the basic bones of Das Rheingold‘s plot together with Paradise Lost, and we have a heavenly war between different classes of beings as common factors: mortals, giants and gods in the former, the angels loyal to God and Satan in the latter. So how can we square all this in the context of Prometheus and Alien: Covenant?
Prometheus and black goo
It all starts to make sense when you go back to Prometheus, and Janek’s description of LV-223 as a military outpost where Engineers park their horseshoe-shaped Juggernaut ships and canisters of black goo. Prometheus concludes with Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) resolving to go “where they came from” – referring to the Engineers’ home planet.
So here’s a theory: the Engineers we met in Prometheus are a kind of warrior class, subordinate to an upper caste of similar beings who rule over them. The Engineers served their superiors much as the giants did: moving from planet to planet and terraforming them with black goo, a mutagen which functions as the all-powerful ring in this story. The goo can mutate, generate and destroy life, after all, which means that whoever has control of it has a similarly god-like power. Interestingly, the ring in Wagner’s opera has a transformative effect similar to the black goo: at one point in the story, the giant Fafnir is cursed by the ring and turned into a hideous serpent.
At some point in the past, it seems that a civil war broke out between the castes of Engineers, reflecting both the battle between God and Satan in Paradise Lost. The heaps of dead bodies on LV-223 in Prometheus could have been the first sign of this; further clues can be found in some of the set photos which have leaked out of Alien: Covenant‘s production. These show a grey, body-strewn landscape recall the ash-covered victims of Pompeii, frozen in their death throes. The bodies are clearly of engineers, and some seemed to be locked in combat.
We know from Alien: Covenant‘s synopsis that a new group of explorers reach a planet that “they believe to be an uncharted paradise,” but discover a “dangerous world” inhabited by solely by David, who we’re guessing Elizabeth Shaw repaired between the events of Prometheus and Covenant. It doesn’t seem too much of a stretch to assume that the body-strewn landscape from the set photos is this very same dangerous world we’ve already read about.
The angry Engineer
If that’s the case, how does this civil war fit into the plot of Prometheus, and does it help make sense of some of its more bizarre events? Well, for one thing, it might explain why the Engineers, having apparently created life in the movie’s prologue, decide to launch a ship full of goo bound for Earth with the intent of destroying it: it’s all part of the wider battle between ancient gods on the other side of the galaxy. Even the goo’s ability to mutate living things into deadly monsters, from snake-like things to the proto-alien (dubbed the Deacon) we see at the end of Prometheus, could be explained in the context of a civil war: the Engineers, angry at their superiors, weaponise the black goo with the intent of using it against them.
Another question you may have been asking when Prometheus was over: why did the Engineer, having been stirred from his slumber by Peter Weyland and his sidekick David, suddenly go berserk? Well, looking again at Wagner’s opera, we see the mortal Siegfried making a grab for the magical ring. In the context of Prometheus, Weyland has travelled to LV-223 on his own quest for power: he hopes the Engineers have the means to extend his life.
For the Engineer, who probably hasn’t seen a human in millennia, it might seem shocking that ordinary mortals have evolved so far that they can travel to other planets and build artificial life forms. Realising that we mortals will want the power of the goo for themselves, he goes ballistic, beats Weyland up with David’s severed head, then jets off in a Juggernaut to complete his mission – that is, to destroy Earth with his deadly cargo.
Scott’s Alien cycle
So if Prometheus and Alien: Covenant really are a futuristic retelling of these old, epic stories, where is the franchise likely to go? Our best guess is a protracted and bloody battle on multiple fronts: the Weyland Yutani corporation, who are always on the hunt for alien technology, a collection of mortal heroes – such as Katherine Waterston’s Ripley-like lead in Covenant – who want to protect themselves and their planet, whatever remains of the Engineers’ civilisation, and the evolving xenomorphs.
Ridley Scott has said that his prequel movies will eventually join up to the events of 1979’s Alien, where the crew of the Nostromo discovered the husk of a Juggernaut – and its deadly cargo – on LV-426. It’s looking increasingly as though that crashed ship, and the terrifying alien itself, were simply fall-out from a battle beyond the stars.
Of course, our theories may be all wrong, but given we already know that the Alien franchise has already taken inspiration from the works from such disparate authors as HP Lovecraft, Joseph Conrad, John Milton, AE van Vogt and Erich von Daniken, while Prometheus drew on the Greek myth of a Titan who stole fire from the gods. Adding a bit of northern European mythology to this already busy stew doesn’t seem too much of a stretch.
We certainly know that Scott has a lengthy story he wants to tell, with the director stating in interviews that he plans to make three more movies following on from Alien: Covenant. This certainly hints at an epic saga akin to the Ring cycle, which was so long that Wagner spent a quarter of a century composing its four chapters.
The Ring cycle’s final chapter, the Gotterdammerung, ends with the Hall of the Gods and its inhabitants consumed by fire. Paradise Lost ends with Satan cast into Hell, but not before he’s managed to corrupt Adam and Eve. Black goo, alien gods, parasitic monsters… wherever the Alien prequel series goes next, it’s certainly not going to be pretty.
Alien: Covenant is out in UK cinemas on the 4th August 2017.