For the purposes of my devotion to Alien as perhaps the greatest horror film ever made, I pretend the sequels never existed — especially James Cameron’s take, a sop to the gun lobby that brought Ripley’s character in line with pop-culture convention by forcing her into surrogate maternity, as if her main character flaw was the absence of a child sucking at her tit. David Fincher’s Alien3 wasn’t exactly a great movie, but it was at least a welcome return to tough, uncompromising form. It pleased me that the story was set up with a middle finger raised in Cameron’s direction, so that you could essentially pretend that Alien3 picked up where the first movie left off.
Alien Resurrection it is best not to talk about.
You’d think that the return of the franchise’s original director would augur a move back to past glories, but it’s not like that. Ridley Scott’s visual sense remains intact, and I am a little bit in awe that he executed a film of this scale and technical facility at the age of 74. But whatever his genius traits, consistency is not among them. The first issue is one of genre, and thus of attitude. Alien was a straight-up horror movie in which a group of clock-punching space truckers looked into the abyss and saw nature, in all its multifarious cruelty, glaring back. Prometheus is a starry-eyed meaning-of-everything science-fiction movie populated by insipid scientists wondering whether God exists. That’s cool in its way — I liked Brainstorm, too — but Prometheus is most definitely not of a piece with its predecessor.
The thing about Alien was this: it told the story of something unfathomable going on out at the edge of the galaxy. Whatever narrative lay behind the bony hulk of that “space jockey” with his chest blown out and his strange organic cargo, it quite evidently didn’t have anything to do with us. Human beings, homo sapiens, were so clearly incidental to the farther-reaching realities of life in the universe that we played the role of low-hanging fruit — a yipping chihuahua wandered stupidly into the far corner of the yard and snatched up, crying, by a passing Peregrine. But in Prometheus we are taking control of our cosmic destiny, ready to knock on the front door of God Himself. We are, again, at the center of the universe.
All told, Prometheus plays less like a prequel and more like a bloated remake of Alien. It hits many of the same story beats: the exploration of a distant world; the discovery of an insidious cargo; the infection of a human, complete with flamboyant gestatory freakout; the cold, subversive presence of a corporate-programmed android; and the now-archetypal final-girl scenario. But rather than flowing within a compelling story these elements all feel like rotely generated plot points, with everything else shoehorned awkwardly into the spaces between points A and B.
It’s especially galling because there’s good stuff here — there’s an especially horrifying set piece about two-thirds of the way in that should be enough, on its own, to fuel the whole film. Seriously, it’s an excellent scene. Lead into and out of it with the kind of sobriety that attended the chestburster in Alien and you’ve just directed yourself a stone classic. But Scott whiffs it by making Noomi Rapace’s devout scientist some kind of special-snowflake superwoman, having her hopscotch her way through various treacherous tableaux like Jason Bourne when she should really be more concerned with keeping her guts from falling out through the gaping, freshly stapled hole in her abdomen.
I like a lot of what’s up on screen, especially Michael Fassbender’s performance as a cross between HAL 9000 and C3PO (if only Scott had planned for a hot android sex scene involving Fassbender and the similarly robotic Charlize Theron), but it’s freighted with too much pandering, condescending bullshit. The original Alien was about the human condition. It exploited our discomfort with unfamiliar environments and unfathomable life forms; it criticized the military-industrial complex for fetishizing weapons of mass destruction at the expense of marginal lives; and posited an invasive, predatory reproductive cycle that undercuts Hollywood’s long-standing romanticization of love, sex, and childbirth. Instead, Prometheus pays lip service to the idea of a plucky scientist whose immortality seems vouchsafed by her devoutness to the idea of God, wrapped up in the shiny silver cross she wears around her neck. In the fashion of the contemporary blockbuster, it tries to assure us that everything’s cool. Upon his own impending death, the movie’s wrinkly human bad guy, Peter Weyland, croaks despondently, “There’s nothing.” But as the credits roll, our plucky girl hero is once again making for the stars, declaring optimistically, “Still searching.”
It’s hard for me to believe that Scott could make a film that was such a preternaturally eloquent expression of existential dread that it inspires nightmares 30 years hence and then, suddenly, decide he wants to walk it back. That’s his right as an old dude, I guess, and maybe it’s all part of the game you play to get studio financing these days. It’s still a goddamned shame.