This article comes from Den of Geek UK.
The following contains spoilers for Prometheus and speculation about Alien: Covenant.
Talk about melodramatic. Having stepped out of a Saturday afternoon IMAX screening of Prometheus in June 2012, your humble writer fell into a steep pit of gloom. A picture of a torn cinema ticket with the caption, “My broken heart” (or something to that effect) was posted on Twitter. A pub was visited; consolatory beers were imbibed.
A film that seemed to have so much promise going in – Ridley Scott’s form in the sci-fi genre, those fan-baiting trailers, complete with the hooting space owls from the old Alien promos – had largely evaporated by the time the end credits rolled. Prometheus was by no means a terrible film, but it wasn’t exactly a triumphant return to form for an aging franchise, either.
Once the initial disappointment ebbed (along with all that sulking), though, something weird began to happen: I became quietly fascinated by Prometheus. I bought the Blu-ray and rewatched the film several times. I watched Charles de Lauzirika’s lengthy, detailed and surprisingly frank making-of documentary, Furious Gods. I pored over the deleted scenes in an attempt to figure out what a longer, less disjointed Prometheus might look like.
Gradually, what most disappointed me about Prometheus – the inane and difficult-to-like characters, the leaden dialogue, some of the more kitsch design choices – faded into the background, and a new appreciation began to surface. Viewed again in 2017, Prometheus holds up remarkably well; it’s far from a perfect film, but it does at least represent a new direction for a series that was struggling long before director Ridley Scott belatedly returned to the fold.
Prometheus is, of course, a prequel to 1979’s Alien – an attempt to answer what for Scott was one of the great unanswered questions left over from his original sci-fi horror: just who is that giant alien (once known as the Space Jockey) discovered dead in his U-shaped ship?
To answer that question, Scott – and screenwriters Jon Spaihts and Damon “Lost” Lindelof – embark on a journey that takes in black goo, the creation of life on Earth, tentacles, flutes, severed heads, profoundly bald aliens, duplicitous old men, duplicitous androids, faith, unsafe sex, space snakes and even more black goo.
It all begins on an apparently deserted planet – possibly Earth, millennia ago – where an alien spacecraft touches down. The ship belongs to the Engineers, a race of giant humanoids that look like Olympic weightlifters carved out of white marble. Their objective, it seems, is to go around deserted planets, creating life using their patented black goo – in Prometheus‘ opening scene, we see a sacrificial Engineer drink some goo from a cup, cough, and then crumble into a kind of life-creating miasma. As we’ll see later, the themes of death, rebirth and sacrifice will play a big role in Prometheus‘ curious story.
Fast-forward to the year 2089, and archaeologist Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and her annoying boyfriend Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) have amassed enough historical evidence regarding the Engineers to create an astronomical map from old cave paintings. Our ancient ancestors, it seems, had all been given the same star map by the alien visitors – an invitation, perhaps, for us to go and visit our makers when the time’s right.
Thanks to the deep pockets of the Weyland-Yutani corporation, a mission is therefore despatched to the distant moon LV-223 – the hope being to discover evidence of alien life and work out what it might mean for the origins of our own species. What Shaw and the rest of her mismatched team of neurotic explorers haven’t reckoned on is the duplicitous android, David (Michael Fassbender), who fosters a broiling resentment towards his human masters. As the crew of the Prometheus mission begin poking around on the seemingly deserted moon – now a barren husk of dead Engineers and ominous-looking domed buildings – David chances on some of that mysterious black goo, and decides to use one particular member of the crew as a human guinea pig…
Although heavily billed as an Alien prequel on its release in 2012, Prometheus is frustratingly lacking in definitive answers. Indeed, one of the frustrations I had leaving the cinema five years ago was that, for all its lush visuals and grand gestures, Prometheus didn’t really tell me much more than the assorted trailers and TV spots had in the run up to its launch. In essence: a bunch of explorers go to a haunted planet, awake something slippery and unpleasant, lots of them die horribly, roll end credits.
Among the questions left unanswered at the end of Prometheus include – but aren’t limited to – why were the Engineers planning to destroy life on Earth, having gone to the trouble of creating it? Why bother creating life on other planets in the first place? What was the green crystal, briefly glimpsed in the chamber full of goo canisters?
The key to the whole story, at least right now, appears to be David, the embittered android. One of the pivotal exchanges in Prometheus arrives around its mid-point, where David – just before he slips a drop of black liquid into Charlie’s drink – asks why humans created sentient androids.
“Because we could,” Charlie says with a drunken shrug. David suggests that Charlie might be similarly disappointed if the Engineers had a similarly off-hand attitude to the beings they created. According to Prometheus, there’s no benevolent god, no grand plan, just a cold, indifferent universe with horrible monsters waiting at the other end of it. H.P. Lovecraft, eat your heart out.
Galvanized by his contempt for humans and Charlie in particular, David uses the goo to trigger off a chain of events that only a machine intelligence – or a clairvoyant – could foresee. An infected Charlie impregnates Shaw, who gives birth to a kind of proto-facehugger squid-type thing, which in turn impregnates an Engineer, which then gives birth to a blue, pointy proto-xenomorph, dubbed The Deacon by the film’s makers.
At the end of Prometheus, we were left wondering how on earth the Deacon – if it is the ancestor of the beast in Alien – was going to get from LV-223 to LV-426, the moon the Nostromo visited in 1979. If the trailers for Alien: Covenant are anything to go by, the Deacon’s whereabouts aren’t all that relevant – what the creature appears to signify is that David’s experiments with the goo are far from over.
At the end of Prometheus, Shaw and David – his head detached from his body by a grumpy Engineer – jetted off in an alien ship. Shaw’s plan: to find the Engineers’ home planet and find out what on earth they’re playing at. As a quick scrub through the Alien: Covenant trailers will tell you, David has other ideas.
Another crew of unsuspecting space travellers aboard the Covenant arrive on a pleasant-looking planet which soon turns out to be far more hostile than it appears. Why is it hostile? Because David’s been up to his old tricks again. We’re filling in a few blanks here, but it doesn’t seem too much of a stretch to assume that, between Prometheus and Alien: Covenant, Shaw repaired David, and David, true to form, turned on Shaw. One pointed sequence in an Alien: Covenant promo shows Katherine Waterston’s Daniels finding Shaw’s dogtags, apparently aboard the crashed alien ship from Prometheus.
Another promotional shot sees David aboard an alien vessel, apparently raining down canisters of black goo on an entire city full of Engineers. So what’s David up to? Why is he so intent on unleashing goo on everyone and everything he meets? What are the strange experiments we see him carrying out in yet another brief trailer scene?
Our best guess is that David, convinced of his own superiority, plans to create an entire new species after his own image. Inspired by the Engineers, he wants to play god and make a being that isn’t quite human, but not purely robotic, either – something bio-mechanical, perhaps. In other words, the monster from Alien is, in a round-about way, an earthly creation – humans begat David, and David’s experiments begat the xenomorph.
Alien: Covenant‘s marketing team certainly haven’t hidden the fact that the beast from the original franchise is back in this latest prequel. Indeed, the monster looks so fully-formed and close to the creature we first met almost 40 years ago that we almost wonder how Ridley Scott’s going to string the whole story out for another two movies – the number of prequels the director says he needs to fully connect the story to the events of Alien.
It’s certainly possible that the story of David and the birth of the xenomorph is a good deal more complicated than it currently appears. One of the things Scott has persistently brought up in interviews is his interest in borrowing themes from John Milton’s Paradise Lost. As he told Den of Geek UK in 2015:
“Where we go to is Paradise Lost, really […]The handsome guy gets all the fun and all the girls, doesn’t he? And he’s the evil son of a bitch! He’s the good-looking one who gets all the girls and goes to all the nightclubs. The good one is kind of dull and depressing! [Laughs] So in a funny sort of way, it touches on that. It’s too simplistic to call the bad element in [Alien: Paradise Lost] evil, but it’s closer to answering the question, who and why would any being create such a monster, and for what reason? There was a reason for that, right?”
Alien: Paradise Lost was, of course, the film’s title before it was changed to Alien: Covenant. Certainly, some of the Miltonian elements appear to remain in its marketing campaign – a particularly eye-catching poster for the movie bears a marked resemblance to one of Gustav Dore’s famous engravings for Milton’s epic poem.
Paradise Lost might be a good means of figuring out where Alien: Covenant‘s going, in fact. Milton’s work was about the fall of Satan, his expulsion into Hell, his subsequent temptation of Adam and Eve, leading to their expulsion from the Garden of Eden. David certainly appears to occupy the role of Satan – a fallen angel who rebels against his creator. Meanwhile, Alien: Covenant introduces another android character, also played by Michael Fassbender: Walter, who’s hopefully rather less rebellious than his forebearer. It could be that Walter will be the equivalent of the archangel Michael in Paradise Lost: a being who’s on the side of the creator – in this instance, us.
What Scott appears to be doing, then, is taking his original space horror and weaving around it an expensive and quite eccentric mythos – a collision of Biblical allusions, classic blank verse, Lovecraft, and the ancient astronauts of Erich Von Daniken. It’s all pretty bonkers whichever way you look at it, and whether you like it or not will depend entirely on your personal taste.
I was certainly unsure whether I liked having Alien so comprehensively demystified at first, but having had time to accept that Prometheus exists, I can’t help fostering a sneaking affection for Scott’s prequel-verse. The original film – and its similarly brilliant sequel – still stand as classics of the genre, and all the prequels, sequels and iffy spin-offs (shut up, Aliens Vs Predator: Requiem) won’t change that.
With Prometheus and now Alien: Covenant, meanwhile, Scott appears to be in the process of creating one of the weirdest franchises in modern cinema. Life on Earth was created by a race of hairless bodybuilders who ride around in giant croissants; xenomorphs are the product of a renegade android with a god complex. Where the story goes next is anyone’s guess, but after getting over my initial doubts, I’m really looking forward to finding out.