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Peter T. Chattaway

In the Soup

Ridley Scott's "Prometheus."

For years, he was known only as the "space jockey." The creature, about whom nothing was known except that it came from another planet, first appeared in Ridley Scott's Alien (1979) as a sort of giant fossilized something—maybe a corpse, maybe a skeleton, maybe even a spacesuit—that sat, lifeless, in a chair on a spaceship that had crashed on some desolate planetoid many years ago. On that spaceship were thousands of eggs, one of which unleashed a creature that attacked a human explorer who dared to come near it, and that creature, in turn, impregnated the human with yet another creature which ended up killing all but one of the human's colleagues. Later movies would return to this planetoid, and to the creatures that hatched out of those eggs—with diminishing returns for the most part[1]—but none of these sequels or prequels ever returned to the "space jockey."

So when Scott was offered a chance to return to the franchise that he had inaugurated over three decades ago, he decided to put the "space jockey" front and center. But he wasn't content to make another sequel: instead, he would make a prequel that explained, to some degree, the origin of the previous movies' aliens. But he also wasn't content to make another monster movie: he wanted to make a movie that would tackle some of the Big Questions, like where we come from and where we are going. (Not only that, but, just so there would be no confusion, he would put characters in the movie who explicitly told us that they were tackling the Big Questions.) Hence Prometheus begins with a giant musclebound albino standing near a waterfall on some primitive planet, drinking some black goo, and disintegrating into the rushing waters, whereupon the remains of his DNA recombine to form the building blocks of life as we know it.

Um, okay.

Much has been written about how Prometheus abandons the blue-collar naturalism of its predecessor (once famously described as a movie about "truckers in space") in favor of a glossier high-tech world full of 3-D holograms, levitating probes and automated surgery machines. Much has also been written about the enormous plot holes and poorly written characters in Prometheus.[2] (The "truckers in space" showed a lot more common sense, and were more believable as people, than the supposedly top-tier space explorers here.) But one of the bigger problems with Prometheus—especially as it relates to Alien—is how it abandons the true mysteriousness of the original film in favor of something more prosaic and banal, even as it wears its philosophical ambitions more readily on its sleeve.

The original Alien started as a run-of-the-mill monster movie but quickly became more than that. The screenplay, originally titled "Star Beast," was rechristened when the writers realized that the word "alien" can function as both a noun and an adjective; and with this ambiguity, they opened the possibility that the title might refer to something more than just extraterrestrial lifeforms. Scott elevated the material even further by giving the film moody atmospherics and an artsier style that emphasized the blurring of the lines between human, animal, and machine. The titular alien, designed by the Swiss surrealist H. R. Giger, goes through several phases that play on sexual anxieties in horrific, unexpected ways—such as the "facehugger," a sort of scrotum with fingers that rapes its victim orally to plant the next phase inside him—and the various phases were built from components that ranged from sheep intestines and cow's stomach lining to Rolls Royce cooling tubes and even, reportedly, an actual human skull. This blurring of lines is emphasized visually, as when the sole survivor, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), doesn't even recognize the alien sitting right in front of her because its head resembles the tubes on the wall, and narratively, as when it is revealed that the science officer Ash (Ian Holm) is actually an android who was placed on the ship to further the secret agenda of the company that everyone works for.

One of the more striking techniques Ridley Scott used to blur these lines was his repeated close-ups of non-humans, indeed of mere things. Before any of the human characters have woken from their stasis, the film shows us a conversation between two of the ship's computers—a conversation that is reflected in the visors of two helmets that happen to be sitting opposite the computer screens. Later, when the adult alien claims its first victim (not counting the poor guy whose body hosted the alien in the first place), Scott cuts to a close-up of the ship's mascot, a cat, as it watches; the human victim screams, off-screen, in terror and pain, but the cat remains passive. Several scenes later, Ash is revealed to be an android when he gets into a fight with his shipmates and one of them literally knocks his head off his shoulders: the camera lingers on Ash's dangling head as his body keeps twitching and lunging, and it lingers again when the android's remains are set on fire and the skin peels back to reveal the blank, mannequin-like face mold beneath. And then, of course, there is the almost featureless face of the xenomorph itself: it has no eyes, nor any visible ears or nose, but it can sense its victims all the same. (In something of a twofer, there is even a brief shot in which the alien observes the cat.) By the time the film concludes with a close-up of Ripley sleeping in suspended animation again, the viewer is left to wonder if there is any more life or soul behind those lidded eyes than there was behind all the other bestial, mechanical faces that the camera lingered on.

And, as it happens, one of the most effective close-ups concerned the "space jockey" it-self—an entity that seemed to almost grow out of its ship, thus blurring the lines between organism and mechanism even more. As the human explorers step away from its remains, the camera zooms in past them to come in tighter on the creature, even though it is mostly hidden in shadow; Scott seems to be telling us that the key to the movie may be lurking somewhere in there.

If only he had left it at that. Instead, Prometheus shows little interest in what the "space jockey" represented, purporting instead to tell us what the "space jockey" actually was—which turns out to be a much less interesting question. When he peers behind the mask—for, yes, it turns out now that the humans in the first film were looking at a spacesuit, and not an exoskeleton—Scott reveals that the "space jockey" was actually an alien that looked a lot like us, just taller, more muscular, notably lacking in pigmentation, and bald. So where the previous film blurred lines in a provocative way, the new film restores them; and the "space jockey" that once seemed so, well, alien to us is now much less so.

Once again, Scott tries to elevate the material, to make the new film more than just another sci-fi movie, but this time he does it less through aesthetic choices and more through speculation about the origins and destiny of human life. The story proper begins at the far end of this century, as a couple of archaeologists discover evidence in Scotland that aliens visited this world at least 35,000 years ago and left behind a star map pointing to one of their worlds. The archaeologists immediately assume that these aliens were no mere visitors to our planet but the actual creators of humankind, and they persuade one of the world's richest men to finance an expedition to that world, ostensibly to see if they can meet our makers and get answers to life's Big Questions.

What they find, however, is a lot more humdrum: lots of dead "space jockeys" and a stash of black goo that, upon coming into contact with human and animal bodies, quickly takes over those bodies and turns them into monsters of one sort or another. And unlike the xenomorphs of the Alien films, who at least had a plausible life cycle, the monsters of Prometheus seem random and arbitrary. So, too, are a number of the plot twists, such as an android's decision to infect one of the team leaders with the alien black goo because, well, why not? Indeed, arbitrariness becomes almost a virtue unto itself: twice, characters say that they believe in God, or in the alien origins of life on Earth, because "It's what I choose to believe," as though the choice didn't need to be based on anything.

By the end, the film has pretty much abandoned the truly Big Questions, and all we are left with are considerably smaller ones, such as where the "space jockeys" came from, and why they seem to have tried to wipe out the human race 2,000 years ago.[3] These sorts of unresolved plot points might draw some viewers into the sequel, should it ever be made. But they hardly compare to the deep, disquieting vision that hit viewers on such a visceral level back when the first film came out.

1. A number of fans, including myself, think the first sequel, James Cameron's Aliens (1986), was at least the equal of Alien and might even be an improvement on it in some ways.

2. Why did the "engineers" leave star maps on Earth, many years ago, pointing to the planet with their weapons lab and not, say, their actual home planet? Why did the Weyland corporation hire such mutually antagonistic people for this mission? Why do the scientists make so many scientifically unsound decisions, like taking their helmets off within minutes of arriving in a foreign environment? (Have they never heard of the viral havoc that was wreaked when Europeans first arrived in the Americas?) And so on, and so on.

3. Believe it or not, Ridley Scott has actually suggested that the "space jockeys" may have decided to wipe us out because the Romans killed Jesus, who was apparently an emissary of theirs:movies.com/movie-news?/ridley-scott-prometheus-interview/8232

Peter T. Chattaway lives in Vancouver, British Columbia and writes about movies. He blogs at patheos.com/blogs/filmchat/

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