Feature: Prometheus (Somewhat) Unbound
A preview of footage from Ridley Scott’s forthcoming Alien prequel raises more questions than it answers, but gives a tantalising glimpse at the big ideas behind the latest instalment. FMV Magazine’s Simon Lord tells us more.
The Alien films hold a particular fascination for those of a sci-fi bent. Shorn of the technological gimcrackery and cod-mythology of Star Wars or Star Trek, their fascination comes from somewhere darker and more primal. The real unity of the four original films (let us not speak of the Predator crossovers in polite company) was the terror of isolation, confinement a long, long way from Earth, being stalked by a shadowy entity of relentless malevolence. It’s all there in the original tagline. “In Space No-one Can Hear You Scream.”
Which is why the rumours that Ridley Scott, director of the original Alien, was back at the helm for that film’s prequel set nerd hearts aflutter. For all the directorial pedigree that has been thrown at the series in the intervening years (Fincher, Jeunet and, er, Cameron) it was Scott whose vision made the first film, whose collaboration with the surrealist artist HR Geiger birthed the original Facehugger, Chestburster and the Xenomorph with its elongated skull and iconic ‘little mouth’. It was even his hidden hand which wriggled inside the original Alien’s egg.
Rumours have circled Prometheus from the beginning, and the studio has gone to extraordinary lengths, even in this age of leaked synopses, trailers and scripts, to keep the film’s concept and plot a secret. Speculation abounds (as speculation tends to), and there was even speculation that some of the speculation was false and being speculated deliberately by 20th Century Fox in an attempt to throw online Facehugger-huggers and Xenomorphiles off the scent. Actors were sworn to secrecy, sets were kept locked down, NDAs flew hither and thither.
So a mysterious ‘footage preview’ of Prometheus at Leicester Square this week, and an audience with Sir Ridley himself, along with actors Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender and Charlize Theron was too intriguing to pass up. Invites arrived at the last minute, phones and recorders were confiscated by heavy security. They were serious about secrecy – or putting on a good show. After all, sometimes secrecy can be its own publicity. A breathless (or nervous) Fox marketing exec stammered that we were “The first people in the world outside of the studio” to see this footage. 3D glasses were donned, turning the audience into a Woody Allen convention, and we waited.
What followed was an abridgement of the film’s setup. We see Rapace’s Shaw and her partner Holloway discovering a cave painting on the Isle of Skye, showing strange figures pointing towards the stars. Next we jump to Fassbender’s android Michael pottering around the deserted spaceship Prometheus like a clockwork Geisha as the crew are brought out of suspended animation. First up is Charlize Theron’s Vickers, a Company type who does dripping exercises after the long hibernation. Apparently the brief glimpse of this in internet trailers led to feverish speculation that the film featured Theron doing naked press-ups, which is heartening evidence that the fanboys don’t care solely for Space Jockeys and continuity errors.
The crew then have a briefing from a 3D hologram of the horrendously aged and now-deceased Peter Weyland (an unrecognisable Guy Pearce), who sent them on the mission. The slightly weird sensation of watching 3D-within-3D is a sobering reminder of how much closer to the future we are now than in 1979 – accentuated by Fassbender controlling the briefing from what looks suspiciously like an iPad.
Shaw and Holloway tell the crew are told that their archaeological digs have revealed that ancient civilizations who had no contact with each other produced the same pictogram of a figure pointing at a constellation of six stars. They are now orbiting a life-supporting moon around a planet around one of those stars. The creeping sense that we’ve been here before (I swore not to mention Alien vs. Predator but this echoes that film’s pyramid-map briefing sequence pretty heavily) is then blown away by a spectacular landing sequence, ably piloted by Idris Elba’s Captain Janek. Prometheus has landed.
From here we accelerate into what is essentially an extended version of the trailer, but with some tantalising extra footage. The crew explore a temple-like structure, find a giant Buddha head surrounded by ominous egg-pedestals, the then lo! The ship’s scanners pick up life-forms. The walls begin to move, and from there it’s all running, jumping, chasing, screaming, earth-shaking and portentous snatches of dialogue. Someone gets something in their eye, there’s some ectoplasm between some fingers, Rapace freaks out and becomes covered in livid veins, there’s a flash of what may be a King Cobra crossed with a vagina, and a svelter, younger version of the mysterious ‘Space Jockey’ from the original film. The earth is in danger, we hear. Well, thank heavens. This is what we came for.
And then it’s over. More questions raised than answered? Perhaps. “In all the other films, nobody had asked a very simple question.” says Ridley Scott. “Who is the big guy in the chair? The Space Jockey. How did he get there? I watched the three subsequent Alien FILMS being made, and they were all jolly good in some form or other… Does that sound competitive?” Scott deadpans. “But I thought the franchise was fundamentally used up.”
What’s obvious from the off is how keen everyone is to avoid comparisons to the existing films. Scott insists that Prometheus is not a prequel per se. “it gradually adjusted itself to much larger questions and therefore now the actual connection to the original Alien is barely in its DNA.” It was the premise of Prometheus as a standalone project which lured him back to the franchise, and this premise, the brainchild of co-writer Jon Spaihts, seems to be the very thing Fox have been cagey about letting anyone in on. But what is it? What are they hiding?
We get the first possible inklings from Noomi Rapace, who landed the lead role (and the inevitable Sigourney comparisons, which she dismisses with an elegant toss of the head) after her dark-eyed turn as Lisbeth Salander in the original Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. “[Shaw] is a scientist, but her father was a priest, so she was raised close to God. And so she’s looking for something, this whole mission is very personal to her. When things go wrong she has to become a survivor and a fighter, and I’m not sure that she is so convinced at the end of the movie.” Mind you, forcible penetration by an Alien facehugger would probably challenge one’s faith in a benevolent creator more effectively than Richard Dawkins could ever do. Scott mentions that Rapace’s character does have one particularly harrowing scene which “could be compared with” the creature bursting out of John Hurt’s chest, but then clams up.
Michael Fassbender adds fuel to the fire. He plays the robot David, whom his creator Weyland describes as “The closest thing I have to a son”, at which the android seems to straighten in his seat like a hopeful child, and also to flinch imperceptibly at the word ‘thing’. Perhaps all is not as programmed behind his eerily clear eyes. “He’s curious. Like the gods in Greek mythology who are almost jealous of human beings, for their mortality. Maybe he feels left out.” There’s God again. Fassbender goes on “Michael has been programmed like a human being. Will his programming start to form its own personality? Or are all human beings programmed too? Did someone create us? Are we programmed to go into a certain job, to make a certain decision at age thirty two that will lead to something that happens at thirty five…is everything pre-programmed for us in life? Or do we have free choice? That’s kind of interesting. So we just sort of played around with all those things.”
Theron takes over this thought. Her character is a Weyland employee. “Traditionally not very trustworthy” is the chair’s understatement on the portrayal of the Company in the Quadrilogy films. But, says Theron demurely “she’s actually there for a very personal reason, of which I cannot speak.” Again, the shroud of secrecy. Sir Ridley watches her impassively, and you get the sense that he is directing the surrounding hype and rumour, drip-feeding the reveals, building tension, just as surely as he directed the movie itself.
From what each says – and what they don’t say – we begin to see the outlines of some big philosophical ideas about free will and predestination, religious faith versus scientific proof, human exceptionalism against the reminder that we are all, ultimately, creatures (remember the word’s origin in the Latin for creation), driven by our DNA, and who or whatever put it there. In several interviews Scott has come back to this same image of Prometheus sharing the original film’s DNA. Some kind of inside joke? Put it together with Fassbender’s teasing about the humans on the mission being ‘programmed’ just as surely as Michael, and the possibility that the mission was predestined long before Weyland (who has his own kind of God complex) launched it.
The thought that we are we biological robots following impulses programmed into us by some extraterrestrial intelligence is impressive, and troubling. Could it be that Shaw will indeed ‘meet her maker’, only to find that ‘God’ is quite other than she imagined?
The film does have all the trappings of a creation myth. We are reminded, subtly and not-so-subtly, that the Titan Prometheus gave fire to Mankind. If some alien race either seeded us (as in Francis Crick’s speculative ‘Panspermia’ theory) or guided us along the way (as in 2001: A Space Odyssey and the eccentric writings of Erich von Däniken, whom Scott has cited as an influence on the film), what is their purpose? Is life on earth, or the Earth itself, not all it seems?
This is where the mystery of the ‘Space Jockey’ (as the fans affectionately nicknamed the dead being in the first film who is discovered with a hole in his chest, having presumably incubated the Aliens) comes in. We see him in Prometheus, along with the vagina-cobra thing, which could be the Xenomorph in a previous form – remember that it takes on the physique of its last host. “There is a little bit of it right at the end that gives you a connection” says Scott evasively.
So it’s a new story, but it’s set in the same universe, with nods and winks to the original film. It asks big questions about free will and determinism, human nature and scientific certainty. It presents a myth of origins, and a threat to mankind’s future that’s bigger and badder than the original Xenomorph. It’s not a reboot, it’s not a prequel, but the master is back on board and it looks like, when it seemed like the Alien films had run out of steam, Prometheus might just be something to get excited about. Or maybe that’s just what Ridley Scott wants us to think.