Monday, October 15, 2012


So what is a prequel?

Strictly speaking? It’s a movie they make to squeeze some more money out of something that works. That doesn’t necessarily make it a bad thing, but it’s a tricky place to start.
Broadly speaking, a prequel is a film about something interesting in the movie it, uh, prequelises, that we want to know more about. Example: the Star Wars prequel trilogy. I know, I know, Jar Jar Binks, but put that and the Boy Band actor and the big fish eating bigger fish idiocy aside and look at what the films did. They took the most interesting character from Star Wars (I hate saying it but let’s be honest: it wasn’t Luke), and showed us how he came to be the complex, tortured, interesting character we grew to love/hate. Darth Vader’s arguably the greatest redeemed villain of modern cinema; we were all keen to find out how he became what he was, and that’s exactly what George gave us. Tragically, Vader turned out to be the sugar coating on the roofie: we all woke up afterwards wondering what the hell happened and why we suddenly wanted to cry every time we thought about that shy wonderful Star Wars guy we remember from the first date. Nonetheless, the prequel delivered on the promise; here’s how we got to where it started.

"Whoa whoa whoa! wtf are you DOING?!"

Christopher Nolan’s ‘Batman Begins’ treads similar ground. The Batman mythology’s both well-known and frequently rewritten, but Nolan presented us with something new in cinema: how Bruce Wayne went from a boy crying over his parents’ bodies to the costumed revenant punching his way through Gotham’s lower socio-economic demographic. It follows through to his first villain, his first battle, but again, if you look to Batman’s beginnings as a comic-book crimefighter, it answers the question: here’s how we got to where it started.

"I'm Batman. Well, I will be."
If you’ve seen it, you have an opinion. I have, and I do. I’ll save it ‘til later because I’m mainly here to talk about its fundamental claim: it is a prequel to ‘Alien’.
Now, them is some big shoes it’s trying to fill. Alien is broadly regarded as a modern horror classic. It’s variously lauded and lambasted, called great in its own right and written off as nothing more than stage-setting for the much more bubble-gum (but no less watchable) ‘Aliens’. Ridley Scott’s 1979 original had a lot going for it: any movie that gets through twenty boxes of KY-jelly-as-alien-goo deserves some kind of recognition, but, at its heart it’s just a slasher flick, and develops tension through one simple question: who’s next? It’s what gets teenage bums in seats for barrel-scrapings like Scream, Halloween and Friday the 13th.
Alien though…
A confident, capable female lead. The menace of a pudgy, grinning robot with an agenda. The long shadow of a corporation, casually expending their lives on a curious whim. And most of all, that creature…

"Oh, hai!"

H.R. Giger, despite sharing initials with a less menacing celebrity, is a unique artist. His work has been described (sometimes by himself) as apocalyptic, biomechanical, organic, even bio-erotic, though it’s the kind of eroticism that would have you drawing the blinds and telling the kids they should never, ever look in the black bag in the closet.


Plenty of artists have stuck teeth and tentacles on things to frighten and titillate (John Carpenter’s The Thing’ took this to grotesquely inspired levels), but Giger’s Alien, under Ridley Scott’s direction, turned a tall skinny delivery guy into something that reached past our awareness and dragged translucent, slimy fingernails down the blackboards of our subconscious. Scott squeezed every bit of menace out of it, turning an improbable, impractical organism into a bipedal nightmare. And it went beyond the visual: next time you watch it, listen to Lambert’s dying scream. I don’t know how they wrung that out of her, but it chills me more than anything else the movie throws at me.

"Is that KY? EWWWW!"

If you haven't figured it out yet, I’m a fan. Sure, I couldn’t go to the movies for two years after seeing it, but maybe eleven was a tad young for my first horror flick. The first sequel built on the franchise, bringing in a much broader swath of fans and giving us characters and dialogue that endure thirty years on. Bill Paxton’s Hudson became an archetype; his ascent from coward to full-auto avenger made “You want some of this?” a stock phrase (watch Seth Gilliam’s scene in Starship Troopers to see how poorly its director understood Hudson’s last scene).

"I am embarrassed by my earlier cowardice, and wish to redeem myself through reckless bravado!"

The next two Alien sequels are harder to quantify. There were mistakes made in both (the ‘mutation’ of the queen in Resurrection was preposterous, the resultant alien closer to a 1950s guy-in-a-rubber-suit than Giger’s vision ), but neither stepped away from the essence of the first two: a pitiless universe, populated by terrifying monsters and run by corporations that made the monsters seem cuddly.

"You want some of this?"

So, on to Prometheus. It’s a story that presages the running and screaming of Alien, the shooting and ‘sploding of Aliens, and the descent into darkness of the third and fourth installments. Big shoes indeed. But does it stand up? Before we consider its ‘prequelness’, let’s look at the things that very nearly crippled it as a standalone movie.
First. Imagine the movie without Charlize Theron. Her “I’m here to make sure you do your jobs” spiel was ominous, but the plot line fizzled. She served no purpose other than to show how dangerous the crash scene was, and, of course, filling out that spandex suit in a way that would get a few more male adolescent boys into the queue. But hey, eye candy’s not a deal breaker.

"<sigh> Alright, let's do it. 'Oh no, the spaceship is crashing! I'd better run away in my figure hugging "space suit"!'

Second. The implausibility of some scenes. Elizabeth Shaw discovers she has a thingy growing in her. ‘Luckily’, there’s an automated doctor machine on board: climb in, swipe your credit card and select the operation of your choice. She selects ‘alienectomy’. Okaaay, no problem, but…yeah, going for an jog after abdominal surgery? I am more than willing to suspend disbelief on FTL travel, monstrous aliens yadda yadda, but that took me out of the moment; there was nothing to suggest that such acrobatics would be possible after such an invasive procedure. If they really wanted to keep the scene and reeeally amp up the ew factor, it could have been keyhole surgery. We could have been subjected to the sight of the alien starfish-octopus-Cthulhu thing being sucked out of her through a straw. Transparent of course. Gross and implausible, but less ‘wait, what?’ than ‘I can jog home from my caesarean’.
"<sigh> Alright, let's do it. "Oh no, I've just had abdominal surgery! I'd better run away in my...wait what IS this?'"

Third. The weirdness of the ‘aliens’. The original was about a monster, a single species, hypothesised to be a bioweapon of unknown origin. Scary on the “It wants to eat my head” level, but even scarier on the “someone is making these things and shooting them into space” level. The Prometheus aliens, and there were several, seemed, well, odd. Most of them seemed to spring from some sort of vase-thingies that melt into black oil (some copyright issues right there I’d have thought.) Said black oil will a) turn harmless wormies into giant death wormies that burrow into people’s flesh and come out their heads for some reason. Said black oil also dissolves helmets and turns the person inside them into marauding superhuman zombie creatures. Oddest of all, a minute quantity of said black oil, if drunk, will float around in the drinker’s eyeball for a bit (stay with me here), then make them sick, then cause any woman they have sex with to be instantly impregnated with a starfish-octopus-Cthulhu thing that grows to the size of a chicken in ten hours, and the size of a gorilla in twenty. The latter without a food source. Fellas, don’t drink the black oil. Your lady will be cranky.

"Hi! I'm worm-alien-thing. I'll be burrowing into your flesh later. And this here is black-oil-zombie-geologist-guy. He'll be sort of leaping around smashing stuff until the hot chick finds a flamethrower And down the end there? Starfish-octopus-Cthulhu-embryo-thing. Yeah, we don't really get him either."
 But this is a slasher flick, of sorts. Without gruesome aliens, it’d just be a bunch of people who don’t like each other walking around an old building. So, implausible though they might be, the gruesome aliens are welcome at the buffet.
But the big white guy?
The film kicks off with tall, pale, noble alien guy watching a ship leave atmosphere above a pristine Eden world. Then he kills himself. Or he is poisoned, or something goes wrong when he eats a snack pack, and his leg falls off and he disintegrates. It’s not really clear why. The point of the scene was that something sort of DNA-ish happened in the water into which he falls. Did his death intentionally seed humanity? Did he mutate existing life forms and inadvertently alter evolution? Is it even Earth we’re looking at? We’re given few hints, and are simply left with an impression of a bunch of tall white guys flying around the galaxy doing something inscrutable. Which is really, really cool: you spend the rest of the movie thinking “Wow, how are they going to tie this back to leg-fell-off-DNA-guy?” And, even cooler, you’re thinking “that is totally the race that the gunner belonged to! We get to see why he was there!”
Big White Guy (a different one based on leg count) pops up again once the heroes penetrate the mysterious dome. He’s in some sort of suspended sleep. Awesome again! We get to see him do stuff, maybe even tell us what happened! The underlying plot comes to a head here with the revelation that Super Old Guy kicked the whole gig off as some sort of quest for immortality, for answers to questions at the heart of humanity’s existence. When they wake up Big White Guy, the android butler speaks to him in his own language, learned somehow purely from its written form on cave walls in Scotland or something. Big White Guy looks down at him in astonishment…
We’re in the reactor core at this point. We’re looking at the red or the blue wire, we’re watching the hero choose between saving the Earth or saving the girl. In other words, this is it: the climax. The lead character’s religious dogma hangs heavy in the air. The payoff for Weyland’s epic trillion dollar quest is moments away. The answers to the why and the how of the original Alien creature’s genesis are tantalisingly close. This vastly superior being, this cultural and technological colossus, this giant astride the stars is about to deliver what we came to see: how did we get to where it started?
And what does he do?
He beats them up.

"So here's the plan. You go seed the human race. We'll leave all these mysterious clues in caves and tombs and shit. Then when they finally figure out where we are, they'll fly all the way out there, find us in the ship,'re gonna love this...we punch them! It is gonna be FUNNY!"

The android suffers the worst indignity. Not only is he torn apart, he’s torn apart in exactly the same way the androids were torn apart in the other films. The moment it happens, you just knooow we’re going to get another gurgly milky talking-head scene. There’s more death, more running and screaming. But any pretence of a complex plot, of answers to the much-analysed mysteries, or of any actual closure to the religious or spiritual plots are pummelled from your expectations by a pair of giant white fists.
Some other stuff happens after that. By this point I no longer cared. Giant White Alien finally gets into a gunner’s seat, there’s a flurry of horribly overcooked CGI effects, the point of which was that he was going to destroy Earth by shooting melty vases at it or something. No explanation of why; was he that cranky that they woke him up? Couldn’t he just hit snooze and agreed to reveal the secrets of human genesis later? Apparently not; the ship takes off, though there’s a delay in its departure just long enough for the guys on the Earth ship to crash into it and Save The Day. Hurrah, gurgly milky talking-head scene, happy ending, roll credits. Oh wait, surprise ending: Big White Guy gets chest-bursted and we get to see a proto-Giger alien crawl fully-formed from his corpse. Not the skinny little snake-thing that ruined John Hurt’s T-shirt in Alien: a fully-grown Giger alien. No explanation, no justification. All I can think is that the movie had strayed so far from established Alien lore that there was a need to remind us which franchise we were watching (“Ohh, this is ALIEN! Wait, which one’s Ripley?”)

 You’ve guessed my opinion by now. This thing sucked harder than an Avatar sequel. But the film’s infinite suckage is entirely understandable if you take a step back and think about what they were trying to achieve. Here’s how I think all this happened.

I saw the trailers. I soaked up the viral marketing. I love the Alien franchise: depth, character, tension, a wealth of unanswered questions to speculate over with similarly geeked-up friends.
And here's what the trailers showed me:
-the gunner, rising from the deck. “Awesome! We learn why he was there, and how the Alien impregnated him!”
-the alien ship, crashing into a storm-swept planet. “Awesome! We learn why they crashed, and how the company knew to send the Nostromo there!”
-the archaeological thread. “Awesome! We get a plot that touches on questions of the nature and origin of human existence, and their meaning in the context of the lead character’s faith! This will be WAY more than a slasher flick!”
-Noomi Rapace in bandage lingerie and Charlize Theron’s butt in PVC. "Awesome! We…yeah, awesome!”
In other words, the trailers promised one VERY explicit revelation: here’s how we got to where it started.
Aaand how did these things pan out in the movie?
-it was a different gunner. No impregnation, no chest burster, no answers. And the original gunner’s remarkable exoskeletal physiology from Alien was written off as some sort of body-armour-shell-thing.
-it was a different ship, crashing into a different planet. No cargo hold full of eggs, no strange laser barrier, no answers whatsoever.
-a complete whitewash of the religious/spiritual thread. There was a tokenistic attempt to redeem it: after learning that the Big White Guys might have seeded humanity, Shaw still wants her crucifix back, implying her faith is unshaken. That’s not faith, that’s irrational dogma. She’s meant to be a scientist, but she ignores the evidence of her own eyes and clings to her without a word of justification. It’s lazy, it’s unsatisfying and  it’s a complete cop out.
-bandage lingerie, PVC-clad butt. At least they got that right.
So, was it a prequel? The answer comes in two parts;
First. We were meant to think it was. The trailer unambiguously sets us up to believe we’re seeing the events that started Ripley’s nightmare, that led to the death of Kane, Brett, Dallas, Parker and Lambert, that led to Carter Burke’s inspired treachery amid a military disaster, and to Ripley’s lonely death on a bleak prison world. We went to this thing to see light shone into new corners of a chilling epic, and to find answers to questions that have dogged us since the first slow fade-in of the Alien titles.
Second. Thanks for nothing, Ridley Scott. You cheated us. This wasn’t a prequel. You set up the people you entertained and amazed in 1979, all the people who came along for the ride over thirty plus years of movies, books, comics and forum speculation, then you dropped us like last week’s TV guide the moment you had our fifteen bucks. It was at most a side-tale in the same universe, and a poorly-executed one at that. Your characters were unlikeable at best, irrelevant at worst, and universally inconsistent (seriously, how does the survey guy with the magic mapping drones get lost? What possible reason did the android have for poisoning one of the scientists flown out there at considerable expense?) Your aliens surrendered plausibility and understated menace for cheap frights and gruesome effects, and almost none of the characters had any reason to be there. And no amount of PVC-clad butts and bandage lingerie can make up for that.
Still, there’s a bright side. At least you’re not doing anything as unbelievably stupid as trying to make a prequel of Bladerunner, right?
Wait, what?


  1. Sharing pretty much the same thoughts, I also HATED the fact that after the two ships collide ... whatever plot they may have had, went down with the ship (pun. It became... unexplicably AWFUL, and as though someone else had grabbed the (poor) script and been told "quick wrap it up, there's another two to be made after this.." and proceeded to turn it into a bad) slasher movie. Maybe it really proves the point that humanity was descended from violent, crazed beings that have really no idea how to communicate.

  2. I think the title gives away some of the idea for the movie, that the quest for knowledge can have unintended and dire consequences. I think the white guy at the beginning is a kind a of Prometheus character (similar to greek mythology, punished eternally for giving rise to man and the theft of fire). My theory is he’s a renegade character like Prometheus thus the rest of the creators want to correct his mistake and wipe us out. The theme reoccurs with Weylands struggle for immortality resulting in possible extinction of the human race etc etc
    As for the black goo whatever gets infected with it starts to become “Alien” like. i.e. the worms become a bit face hugger like with acid blood (that what dissolves his helmet) and why it goes for his mouth to impregnate him, similarly the cthulhu starfish baby has some similar characteristics to the facehuggers, and when someone does survive being impregnated you get the birth of an alien like creature and were getting closer to how they “evolve”. So it’s a self-replicating weapon of sorts you can drop into any biosphere
    I get all that, but like you I thought it was absolutely ruined by completely implausible bullshit, i.e. the map guy gets lost, the scared guy tries to pet an alien, people take of their helmets, someone runs after abdominal surgery, the advanced automed machine isnt figured for women (what! someone went to the trouble of removing that capability?, which does play into the Theron’s character is an android theory however) there is so many other examples
    Does it fit with the early film no it doesn’t do that either, as the ship was filled with a hold of alien eggs, not black goo in pots

  3. Unfortunately someone forgot to proof read it ... ALL .... LOL :)

  4. Another "I seem to be having this tremendous difficulty with my lifestyle" moment.

    Obviously the android thought he was saying to the Alien guy, "we come in peace" but he probably got it wrong and it was the worst possible insult that one could utter in the alien's language.

    Case Closed.