Prometheus (2012) – The Origins of Alien…or Something

Ok how to cover this film. I first even debated whether it deserved a place in an Alien franchise review series but as it was billed as a film in the same universe and directed by Ridley Scott, the director of the original Alien it has to have a mention… This movie is the strangest of the bunch as it not as tight and well written as Aliens but neither is it as poorly conceived or made as Resurrection. It is both fascinating and infuriating. So taking advice from my RevPub co-author I’ve decided to break it down into a couple of lists. The fascinating for the positive traits; the infuriating for the negative… Here we go…

Fascinating:

  • World Building: The look, atmosphere, and depth of the world of Prometheus like many other films in the franchise, is excellent. From ship and vehicle designs that look as though they owe more to function than style to the glory of alien technology, the design and execution is terrific. The overall look and feel of the film has both a grand scale that adds to the universe and a personal scale in which the characters interact.
There are some gorgeous and deep environments in this film.
  • Acting: The acting in the film is remarkably good. Noomi Rapace plays Dr. Shaw with excellent wonder, confusion, and betrayal and Charlize Theron is wonderful as the cold, businesslike Vickers. Stealing the show however is Michael Fassbender as David the android. Everything about him in this character is subtle. He is protective, charming, innocent, and menacing all at once. Fassbender is one of the actors who recently has been consistently outstanding in all his roles and David in Prometheus is him at his best.
Fassbender’s David almost single-handedly carries the film.
  • Potential: This movie had the potential to answer a good number of questions about what a xenomorph was and how they first came into contact with humans. I will underline potential because as we will see in the next section…and despite Scott’s decision to continue the franchise with further installments…it added nothing of real value to the history of the Alien universe and as Resurrection did transformed what was once an unfortunate chance encounter (as often happens in history) into some kind of “over-all scheme of fate” that immediately turns it into a more cliché narrative.

Infuriating:

Red Letter Media made an excellent recap of the film’s plot holes which you can see below. I’ll try not to hit too many of the same points but it is inevitable as any time you think too much about the plot you are destined to find more plot holes than you find answered questions.

  • Unnecessary Characters: Alien and Aliens both had closed casts, a small group introduced early who we grow attached to from their well-defined roles and portrayals and feel fear for as they progress through a dangerous narrative.   Other than Holloway, Shaw, and David none of the other characters really seem to serve much of a purpose. Even Theron, and I love Charlize, has no part in the narrative at all. She’s just there. The pilot and his crew who have a chance to really save the day really don’t do much either as even their kamikaze flight into the engineer’s ship was useless as it was later revealed the engineers had lots of ships. The Biologist and Geologist? They are just there to die. They don’t unwittingly unleash anything or cause anything. They’re just the first victims. Mr. Weyland’s character serves zero purpose beyond McGuffin for the mission and didn’t need to be in the film at all. Especially not in some of the worst make-up this side of a dinner theater. This could have been a very small cast, a half dozen or less, for all the roles that matter… And since Alien characters have always been the core of the story, having only three that impact the narrative was a big mistake.  Especially as said narrative is tissue-thin and holds all of the film’s heavy concepts like a wet paper bag

    Some of the main characters of the film…give or take a couple.
  • Highly…Illogical: There is nothing, nothing, nothing in this plot that makes the least bit of sense once you step outside of the theater and think. It isn’t helped by the absolute lack of any coherent plotline for what occurred prior to the humans’ arrival on LV-223, who the engineers are and their ultimate goals. The engineers created mankind…or something (though apparently not the rest of life on the planet? Maybe, who knows) but also created aliens. Or at least some kind of alien. Along with DNA-altering black ooze. For some reason. Weapons we think, who knows. But weapons for what? Against whom? I have to again paraphrase Yahtzee Croshaw, why would someone create a biological menace that could wipe you out as well as your enemies when, ya know a bomb has been historically effective. Why did they tell us how to get to LV-223? Especially when you find out they intended to unleash their black ooze…or aliens…or something to kill us. Why were we created in the first place? Were we weapons too or were we some kind of baby’s first engineer experiment? For more definitely watch the RLM video. The more I add to this list the more I just feel I’m repeating their points in a less-funny more rage-inducing way. But it’s cathartic…
Engineer seeding life on Earth. Or Something I dunno…
  • What was the point?: I went into this movie, as did a lot of Aliens fans expecting to see what the space jockey was and how he ended up on LV-426. I remember sitting in the theater and hearing that they were approaching LV-223 and thinking, “Wait…what?” So it isn’t the same planet. Then the engineer’s ship took off and I thought “oh that’s the one that crashed on…oh wait no it’s crashing here…so…” Other than a few items, the Weyland name, the proto-face-hugger-snake-in-the-ooze thing, the bigger proto-face-hugger-squid-thing, the proto-cone-head-xenomorph you see at the end, and a carving on the wall in the urn room (which yes was designed to look like the xenomorph egg chamber) it really doesn’t tell you anything about what a xenomorph is, what an engineer is, why either exist, or how they are really connected to the rest of the franchise. Apparently some other space jockey not in this movie also had an alien break free and crashed on a planet that humans also happened to find? I expected to see that engineer end up in LV-426 and wait for him to be found by the crew of the Nostromo. Not some other engineer interact with some other group of people on some other planet with no narrative connections to the rest of the franchise at all.
The Proto-Xenomorph.  Or Something.

And this is the film’s greatest sin. Even though I was admittedly curious about how the franchise originator, Scott, was going to explore how events on LV-426 eventually led to his 1979 masterpiece part of me kind of shrugs at the concept. One of the great strengths of the first two films is that there is a crashed ship there, with a large pilot who died a gruesome death carrying deadly cargo…and that’s enough. Once the rest of the story starts we never ask “well what was that and where did it come from?” It’s just part of the background, so well-crafted were the narratives and characters of the first two films. Now we will explain how it all came to be, and as we learned with Anakin Skywalker and Hannibal Lecter that always adds to the power of a story, right? Shedding light on the fascinating mysteries that make a complex concept complex?  No…it doesn’t, it does the opposite and removes mystique making a marvelous character or detailed world shallow and mundane. It is like pouring all the cereal out to get the prize at the bottom of the bag…you’ll never be able to re-package all that content in quite the same way again to make it fit as clean as it did before.

Scott said he was “done” with the xenomorph because there wasn’t any place else to take it and the audience had seen it enough. So the final question is: why does this movie have to be connected to them at all? The links are so tenuous it could’ve been its own franchise with no tacit mentions of anything Alien related. Hell Predator 2 (to be covered later!) has more intriguing connections to Alien than this movie. Except I probably wouldn’t have gone to see Prometheus without that connection…and more than a few are likely in the same boat which is probably why they made the attachment to the venerable Alien name.

I feel as though there is a good sci-fi movie here somewhere. The good characters are great, the design and the world are terrific, and the concept is intriguing. The execution however stands up to absolutely no scrutiny and despite its positive traits Prometheus is severely damaged by some of the most convoluted story-telling I’ve seen in a film. For that it gets an average two squid baby creatures out of five.

SquidThing

We’ll take a pause in the Aliens & Predator review series for October’s traditional Halloween Horror posts, but we’ll pick back up in November with my review of Predator one I’ve been dying to write.

The greatest single Prometheus plot hole analysis:

 

Alien Resurrection (1997): Put it Out of its Misery…

I saw this film when it first came out in theaters in 1997 and my love for the franchise, begun by my adoration of Aliens and fostered by various issues of the Dark Horse comic series and their novelizations, swayed my opinion of it at the time. I remember thinking, “well that was weird…” but not hating it.

I’ve seen it for the first time since 1997 and I can now unequivocally say: I hate this movie. I never thought I’d hate a film in this franchise but here we are. Alien: Resurrection.

With the events of Alien 3 killing Ripley as a character we were all surprised to see Sigourney Weaver back as the film’s star. Set 300 years after the events of its predecessor, Resurrection involves cloning Ripley. In the process they made a lot of errors, and in the latest version she has been mis-cloned and accidentally included some xenomorph material. It’s not a bad idea, but how these kinds of organisms can be cross-cloned is beyond me, and why it gives Ripley some weird alien attributes is even stranger. It’s the kind of idea that sounds good until you actually sit down to think about it.

Alien/Ripley Cross Clones. The only interesting part of the movie really…

The plot actually follows a very rogue-trader-esque (yeah I have to throw in a 40k reference in this series) crew who has been tasked with delivering some cargo to the military base where the Ripley cloning has occurred. Their cargo turns out to be some people in stasis who are to be used to hatch aliens.

I’ll pause here to mention this script was written by Joss Whedon who has since said it was the “execution” of the script that made the film so poor. I love Buffy and Avengers I liked Firefly even though I don’t share the internet’s obsession with it. I have to disagree with Joss. The whole concept is a mess from the ground up. Why advance centuries into the future again? Why make a Ripley clone that is part alien? Why include space pirates, though I think the reason for them is because Joss likes space pirates…which is fine and all but it doesn’t make them work in the movie. The tone, characters, and plot are so far removed from Alien, Aliens, and hell even Alien 3 it doesn’t even feel like the same series. To me it just shows even a great sci-fi writer like Joss doesn’t always come up with gold…

The space pirate characters are all relatively inconsequential. There’s commander Elgyn, his pilot girlfriend Hillard, their mechanic in a “wheelchair” Vriess, and the cool guy with dreads and two pistols, Christie. They also include Ron Perlman as Johner and Wynona Ryder as Call and it was during this movie that I realized that Wynona Ryder is actually really good in almost everything she’s in and she’s pretty underrated. That’s the only praise I can provide this film.

The other pirates exist essentially as bodies to be eaten up and provide some 6th grade “whoa that’s cool” action sequences where people pull guns out of their coats and shoot the place up in comic book poses.

Here are some fundamental issues I had with this:

  • Aliens get loose: Ok so a scientist studying aliens with acid blood doesn’t make sure they can’t acid blood their way out of their cages? There’s “nature finding a way” chaos theory, and then there’s absolute shocking stupidity…
  • Space Pirates: Seriously these characters serve no purpose…  I remember a quote from Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw, “Is this the most important event to happen to the characters, if not why aren’t we seeing that?” Take that a step further, “If these characters aren’t performing a specific plot purpose, why do they need to be in the story?” This movie could have started with a Weyland-Yutani shipment of bodies to the facility and been just as effective.
  • El-lien Ripley: Why did they even bother with this alien/Ripley hybrid? It basically removed Ripley’s humanity from her character and made her a less-interesting version of Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Conner from Terminator 2. Now she’s flat and dull. Ripley…dull. Never thought I’d see the day…
  • SPOILER ALERT for Unnecessary Plot Twist: Call’s an android. An android made by other androids that rebelled and didn’t want to do menial work. There is actually no purpose for her to be an android. And the story of the android rebellion sounds far more interesting than the story they show here…wait that’s kind of like the plot to AI…..never mind that’s not a better story.
  • Alien/Human Hybrids: Ok so we see a Ripley mixed with Aliens (and in one of the only interesting scenes in the movie, all the failed incarnations that preceded her) but we also see an Alien mixed with humans, which is birthed out of an alien queen. Now take the coolest of alien designs, the queen, and give it bulbous plastic bag belly, that’s what this pregnancy looked like. Then make the absolute worst looking alien/human hybrid imaginable. It looks like a shaved bigfoot with a Halloween Shao Khan mask on. With a face powered by some kind of primitive muppet technology. I actively hate “Newborn” the so called Alien Sapien. The fact that this albino gorilla with alopecia kills the alien queen makes me ill.   And why in the name of f**k does it think Ripley is its mother? Cloning, yeah, yeah, blah, blah, blah. It still makes no logical sense.
The face of the ultimate alien creature…evidently…

At its core the biggest flaw with this film is that it has elevated Ripley into a legend and plot fulcrum. “Fated” characters in media have become popular, but this ignores what makes the source characters relatable. Ripley in Alien AND Aliens was relatable because she was just a person…out of her league, doing her best, and succeeding through guile and determination. Since the end of Alien 3 she’s become the prophetess of the xenomorph galaxy, hunted by Weyland corp and is the center of the alien/human interaction in the universe. Let’s face it all she did was survive the first encounter… Taking her here from there loses touch with Ripley entirely. It’s a version of the problem I mentioned in my original Conan reviews and my Judge Dredd comparison. By making the story or the character’s place in it so world-endingly big it severely drops in relevance and reality and rather than dramatic takes the audience out of the reality. It ultimately just becomes forgettable or even worse a plot that “feels” like a movie.

Alien: Resurrection is the first of these movies I can’t recommend even a little.   It’s unpleasant to look at, full of characters you hate, and with a story that makes you wish it could be erased from the canon.

I give it half a muppet Humano-alien face out of five… science-fiction, alien

AlienFace

Alien 3 (1992): The Adequate Organism

How do you follow up one of the greatest sequels in film history? One that advanced the story and added marvelous new lore to a franchise? Expand it further? Add more new, exciting elements? Or…just remake the first movie again with less interesting supporting characters? It seems, after a long pre-development and various incarnations (some of which sound much better than the end result) the final producers of Alien 3 chose the latter.

David Fincher’s Alien 3 once again picks up where the previous film left off. Last time Ripley was found after slipping through a number of safety sweeps by a chance salvage crew. This time the Sulaco, the ship in which they escaped at the end of the prior installment, crash lands on a prison refinery, and Ripley is the only survivor… Ok, it may not be fair to compare Alien 3 to Aliens but it must be done so I’ll get it out of the way. Aliens spent a lot of time effortlessly making you absolutely love each character. Their deaths, even those of minor characters, are felt as the audience is included like a member of the team. The characters who survivd are a perfect mix. Those we care about saving the most and those we are the most invested in. So naturally in Alien 3 they kill everyone off camera with no narrative or adequate reason. Hicks, who so masterfully took control of the marines after the initial disastrous engagement and supported Ripley: dead. Newt, who we were completely devoted to saving and loved for her ability to survive on her own: dead. Bishop, who allowed us to trust a different kind of being and helped save the day at least twice: dead. Why? So they could hit a massive Deus Ex Machina reset button on the franchise and get Ripley helpless in a lonely environment against a single alien again.

We also see, in the opening sequence, there are alien eggs on board the craft that infect some of the stasis crew with alien eggs. Ok… Now barring any nonsense excuses…how did the eggs get on the Sulaco? Since the ship had never been on LV426, the landing craft only touched down long enough to get everyone on board, and since the xenomorphs don’t have tyranid-style harpies to send to the vessel, where did the eggs come from? Certainly not from the alien queen who was briefly on the Sulaco, but Aliens makes a point of showing her detach from her egg sac in order to chase Ripley. One explanation is that Bishop put them there. Which not only goes against his characterization but adds the further question…where did he get them? During one of his off-screen lurks around the queen’s egg chamber in Aliens that didn’t get him ripped to pieces and no one knew about, showed, or ever mentioned? So the Deus Ex Machina pulled two eggs from the asshole dimension in order to get aliens on board the ship. Even though it’s a plot hole big enough to fly the Nostromo through we’ll just have to accept it as read to continue the review.

Clearly Alien 3 has derailed the terrific ride left by its predecessor. For the sake of fairness and sanity I’ll stop direct mentions of the previous sequel and judge the film on its own merits.

So Ripley is alone in her knowledge of the alien again, this time in a monastic prison environment for double-Y chromosome ultra-aggressive violent criminals. It’s not a bad set up and in a way puts her in a similar situation as the first film, except all of the other characters are threatening and dangerous not just passive aggressive or broken robots.

Naturally an alien gets loose on the ship and, in one of two decent expansions of lore; the facehugger infects a dog, resulting in a slightly different kind of alien. One that moves differently from the ones we’ve seen from humans. AND we see alien POV which gives a fisheye camera angle as the alien skitters around through tubes and on the walls and ceilings.

The so-called “dog alien”

We also discover Ripley has an alien inside her, as she was…somehow…infected while in stasis (I guess the facehugger had a cat burglar glass cutter and crept inside her pod for a snuggle at some point) with an alien queen no less. Seeing that alien queens can be gestated just like standard aliens was an interesting piece of info we’d never before seen.

Being a prison monastery there are of course no weapons, so the prisoners and Ripley choose to fight the alien via craftiness. By luring it through a dedicated path and trapping it inside a mold, which can be filled with molten metal. The idea is great for suspense as we POV the alien chasing scared prisoners and show the panicked prisoners fleeing from locked door to locked door, channeling the alien the desired direction. It doesn’t quite pass the logic test as it’d be like a crippled cockroach trying to corral a bitey mouse through a massive wheel of cheese. Not only that but how, even with a serious head start, this plan would last beyond the first prisoner is a major flaw, since aliens move like giant pissed tiger beetles and can leap from wall to wall like Jackie Chan on speed. But it still creates a taught and exciting sequence.

Sigourney Weaver is also still excellent as Ripley, even though some of her character growth we experienced through the first and second installments is a little muted. Charles S Dutton is great as Dillon, the tough but devout prisoner who we trust the most but we can feel his roiling rage underneath. The rest of the prisoners, even Clemens (Charles Dance) who Ripley connects with and the warden Harold Andrews played by Grian Glover are good characters but we never feel a part of their world or really invested in their stories. Still, they do help create a nice, dark atmosphere with a constant threat of violence from both the alien and Ripley’s supposed allies.

The last element is the introduction of Weyland-Yutani Corporate soldiers (boy will we be tired of them by the end of this review series…) as Ripley sacrifices herself to prevent the queen alien from hatching and creating a new brood. A satisfying ending for this movie, even if it isn’t the narrative many of us wanted to follow after the fantastic environment setup in Alien and the masterful execution of Aliens. It felt as though this installment was intended to be the end of Ripley’s story. And it does at least succeed in finishing her story in a satisfying enough way for the narrative they crafted for Alien 3. Though many fans may have liked to see the series spin off to focus on other characters, Hicks, or even Newt as a new showrunner, if we had to stay with Ripley, we did let her go out with honor and with her final revenge on the company that used her and the aliens that tormented her.

But as we’ll see in the next review…some franchises can’t leave well enough alone…

For Alien 3 though, the film is decent enough on its own and is an entertaining if flawed piece of sci-fi horror, which had the grave misfortune of being the first step on the road to disappointment for the series. Still a good watch and can provide some thrills in the dark helplessness of the situation and our investment in the aliens story. Not amazing but it earns an adequate and allegorical 2.5 busted Bishops out of 5.

Bishop

Alien (1979) – The Perfect Organism

I admittedly came late to the appreciation for this film. I saw the more action-packed sequel (previously covered in a “best sequel” post and covered in more detail next week) first as a kid and saw the original Ridley Scott film a couple years later. As a kid I expected to find the same high-energy sci-fi action of the second film in the franchise and instead found a slow-paced, tension-building, character-based horror movie.  I should warn these reviews WILL have spoilers, so if you’ve been drifting right between all the security grids for the past 57 years you should turn back now…

Seeing this movie as an adult I came to find new appreciation for it.

Alien is the earliest film in this review series and it establishes a number of broad traits the more successful movies of both franchises would also possess: characters you care about are established effortlessly through natural dialogue, the plot starts with misdirection, even though it’s science fiction the atmosphere and world are deep and believable, and it spans multiple genres.

The first trait is perhaps the most important for Alien. When the crew of the Nostromo awaken, out of position and given directives from the company to perform the unwelcome task of exploring a distress beacon, their interactions let you know everything about them.   Parker and Brett played perfectly by Yaphet Kotto and Harry Dean Stanton are the tag-team tradesmen of the bunch, low-men on the ladder more concerned with getting better rates than anything. Lambert played by Veronica Cartwright is a bit nervous and put-upon. Kane portrayed by the terrific John Hurt seems tired but eager. The dry and serious Ash, the Science Officer played ominously by Ian Holm. And Captain Dallas as portrayed by Tom Skerritt is calm and smooth but definitely in charge. So diverse and effective is the cast that a first-time viewer may not be aware that Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley, a warrant officer and third in chain of command, is the star of the film. Oh and there’s also Jonesy the cat.

John Hurt, Veronica Cartwright, Tom Skerritt, Yaphet Kotto, Sigourney Weaver, Harry Dean Stanton, and Ian Holm.

The final character introduced is the vessel itself, the Nostromo. Even though it is a starship for deep space travel it’s treated as mundane as an oil rig, and indeed it is simply a towing vessel for cargo or refineries. With a crew of less than 10 parts of the cavernous ship are bright white, well maintained, and unique.  Other parts are rugged, rusty, worn out, and solitary. Many of the spaces appear to be abandoned but loaded with materials giving much of the ship a junk-room feel. Those parts are the bridge of the USS Storage Room.

The turning point of Alien shouldn’t be a surprise, after all the movie is 36 years old, but DEFINITELY back out now if you’ve never seen it. The film opens in a very mundane manner, characters talking work, complaining, you see cliques and relationships before being sent to examine the unknown signal the computer has picked up. While exploring the beacon the away team finds rows of eggs and Kane ends up with a fingery-spider creature (later called a “facehugger”) attached to his head. They are unable to remove it and the creature eventually falls off and dies. Kane appears to be recovering, but later over dinner he begins to seize and a little toothy beast (later known as a “chestburster”) crashes through his ribs and skitters across the table.

Hello my baby…

This scene, in 1979, was shocking, especially to those used to the fun space opera romps or heavy dramatic sci-fi that copied the 2001 formula, as Alien pretends to for the first 30 minutes.

From that point on Alien becomes half slasher film half And Then There Were None as the crew searches the ship for the little beast, which they soon find has grown into a big beast, and are picked off one or two at a time. The difference between Alien and most slasher movies is you actually care about the characters and hope they aren’t the next one to have their brains gouged from their skull by HR Geiger’s double-mouthed Xenomorph.

It even commits a number of slasher movie clichés, such as a literal, but effective, unexpected, and sensible “cat-jumping” scene where Jonesy leaps out and runs. The scene serves as excellent misdirection, a quick jump scare, and breaks the team up for a moment (people never “split up” and go off on their own out of contact from the others, they stay in teams or always in communication), setting up the real scare that followed.  It also contains, what I think, is the best final girl trope in history.  You can read my thoughts on that here.

The cramped pipe-filled confines and dark, drippy atmosphere make it a natural place for the alien to hide and randomly appear to grab an unfortunate crew-member and scare the audience.

Scott made the best of the technology of the time. The alien creature was a performer in a suit so he kept the xenomorph hidden in shadows, obscured by scenery, and eventually they keep track of it using motion sensors, effectively creating tension with blips on a screen much like the barrels attached to the shark in Jaws. The practical effects give the alien an eerie feel, with tension provided by music and the intensity of the cast performances.

One excellent scene has Captain Dallas creeping through the ducts looking for the alien with a flamethrower. As the intensity ramps up the Dallas declares “Get me the hell out of here” while music, blips on the screen, and supporting performances build up to an awesome climax.

The second big misdirection is Ash, whose secret agenda comes as a shock when it’s revealed. Even after the initial shock of an eyeless snake with legs tearing its way through John Hurt the Ash subplot proves the film still has enough left to surprise you again.

“I can’t lie to you about your chances, but… you have my sympathies…”

Even amongst an excellent ensemble cast, Sigourney Weaver comes into her own as the break out star of the movie. At first she’s simply the only character with any sense; refusing to let Kane back into the ship while he has a creepy face-monster gripping his skull. She also shows she won’t take shit from some of the dissatisfied crew and even takes full command when the situation demands it. We admire and relate to her emotions, when she screams at the ship’s computer we feel her anger, and when she discovers Ash’s secrets we share her tears of rage. Then she saves the cat. Full scores all around.

Ridley Scott’s Alien in a number of ways marks the end of the space dramas of the 60s and 70s. For me it had the same effect on space films as Appetite for Destruction had on the glitzy hair metal of the 80s, once it arrived changed the landscape and there was no going back. The plodding pace, inactivity, and shallow/obscure plots of other space films would no longer suffice. Audiences now expected shocks, plot twists, and visceral climaxes in their movies.

It truly helped found the modern sci-fi space genre, spawned numerous clones, and continues to inspire other franchises today.

Every film in this review series across both franchises owes their existence to Alien and we, as sci-fi fans owe many of our other fandoms to it.

A solid and grown-up four and a half hugged faces out of 5.

AlienRating