Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Loving the Alien: Prometheus and a Review of the Alien Quintet from Memory

Warning: the following article is extremely SPOILER heavy

I usually eschew movie reviews on my blog as more able, more literate, more funnier and…er…more grammatically correct cinema scribes are legion on the internets.  Nevertheless, my own conflicted opinion of Prometheus, Ridley Scotts return to the universe of his seminal space horror, prompted me to finally make my long delayed entry into this overcrowded arena.

In Prometheus, android crewmember David (Michael Fassbender) reflects that "big things have small beginnings."  It could be that he refers to the tiny glob of black goo he holds on his fingertips - a cosmic slop that just might hold the key to understanding of the birth of all human life - but it may equally hold true for the Alien saga itself.  This twisting and evolving series has been a constant movie presence in the first three decades of my life. As a kid I loved all things alien related and even dressed as Kane from Alien – complete with polystyrene chestburster – for the fancy dress party at my aunties wedding.  A rough calculation suggests I must have seen Alien when I was just 11 or 12.  That's probably close to child endangerment...

Alien on Board: Kane (John Hurt) in Alien (1979)
But enough of my small beginnings for the time being.  Alien (1979) was released when I was not even two years old and it is in this taut, bleak and claustrophobic sci-fi shocker we find the small beginnings of Prometheus.  Here, the crew of the deep-space haulage ship Nostromo are stirred from hibernation to answer what they believe is an extraterrestrial distress signal from a mysterious source.  They discover a strange biomechanical spacecraft whose sole occupant appears to be a long dead and fossilised alien corpse, it’s chest burst ominously open from the inside.  The famous sequence that follows loses little of it’s horror over repeat viewing.  Crewmember Kane (John Hurt) unwisely inspects the yonic lipped opening of some grotesque egg just a little too closely.  The egg disgorges a clawed crablike organism that immediately attaches itself to his face, incapacitating him and – as we later discover – impregnating him with the embryo of a vicious killer xenomorph.  Showing some hint of grim slapstick timing even in its earliest years, this alien-on-board decides to messily explode from Kanes stomach around the dinner table.  With the assistance of the only special effect in the movie that has notably dated rather badly, the newborn puppet-on-a-stick scurries off into The Nostromo, leaving the bloodsoaked crew in shock.

What follows - as the Alien matures quickly and begins to eliminate the crew one by one - is a brutally efficient stalk and slash thriller set aboard the cramped confines of the spaceship, with a creature that can’t be reasoned with or understood.  The mystery of the movie is maintained as the gradually diminishing crew are too busy fighting for their lives to take the time to reflect on specifics of their situation.  Similarly, the viewer is kept as much in the dark as the alien itself, the tension rising as our glimpses of the creature and its gory handiwork are largely offscreen or obscured by shadow.

Unlike Star Wars, the Freudian nightmares
of Alien were never likely to inspire a family
friendly line of merchandising.
This is perhaps what frustrated me a little when I first saw Alien.  I’m not sure how young I was, but I do remember wondering what all the fuss was about. I was plainly too young to appreciate the dark psychosexual undertones and it didn’t quite deliver the white-knuckle terror promised by the fusion of the mysterious and doomy VHS sleeve coupled with my hyperactive and adolescently perverse imagination.  I think I was at an age that equated tension and fear with the illicit exploitative thrills of the trashy horror and action cinema I was forbidden from watching.  Perhaps that was precisely because I was forbidden from watching such movies. In my early teen mind, Science Fiction in particular demanded spectacle – and if it couldn’t deliver spectacle, then outrageous sleaze would suffice.  John Carpenter’s The Thing had delivered spectacularly and I had expected much the same from Alien.  Shamefully, I recall being more excited in the potential suggested by the gaudy videotape art of sleazy Alien knock-offs like Xtro or Inseminoid.  Maybe I had been desensitised: but I doubt this was the case, as just a glance of the grimy battered cover of a pre-prohibition videotape of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre had given me sleepless nights for weeks.

The classic Alien from Alien
A couple of years later, as I began to appreciate there was more to cinema than simple B-movie shock value, I realised that Alien was a far better movie than I was able to recognise at such an early age.  The fact that Alien has established itself comfortably as a genre landmark of both science fiction and horror, yet is also such a unique beast in it’s own right, is testament to its its enduring power.  Incidentally, neither Xtro nor Inseminoid maintained their imagined positions as unseen classics far beyond the crawl of their opening credits – although, for the record, Xtro is better and does have some demented charm.

Alien is enjoyable as a harsh and dark burst of spook-house horror but the many rich ideas and concepts buried gestating inside the very simple primary tale are what truly give the wider universe its imaginative fertility and longevity.  The Alien itself, designed by Swiss artist H.R. Giger, is a perfect killing machine right from the grotesque moment of its birth.  Its terrible efficiency makes the unresolved mystery of its origins more compelling.  Giger’s biomechanical set designs, that mirror the carapace of the xenomorph, suggest the sense of a much bigger horror taking place on a grand scale.  The look and feel of his nightmare surrealist landscapes is genuinely unsettling, all the moreso when introduced into the worn-out blue-collar future world of The Nostromo’s crew of weary space truckers.  

Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) in Alien
The solid cast of adult character actors, including Tom Skerritt, Yaphet Kotto, Ian Holm, Harry Dean Stanton, Veronica Cartwright and Sigourney Weaver, meant it was hard to know who - if anyone - would survive.  Of course, it was Weaver, as Ellen Ripley, who would eventually emerge triumphant as lone survivor.  According to the structure of the slasher movie, she would be considered the Final Girl, but Ripley was not a typical teenage final girl, she was a woman, and whilst her largely male colleagues were violated, penetrated or impregnated, Ripley eschews the traditional hollow victory of the Final Girl, neither sexually degraded nor stripped of her femininity in order to survive.  This is quite an achievement, considering she spent the climax of Alien stripped to her underwear and menaced by what is essentially a psychotic dripping phallus. Weaver would go on to be the star of the next three movies and as firmly associated with the series as the titular xenomorph itself. Ellen Ripley didn't even emerge as a principle character until a third of the way through the movie, yet by the finale she had taken on an iconic status.

Ripley gets tooled up in Aliens (1986)
It’s no surprise that the franchise would come to be typified by the work of auteur directors, keen to take part in a slimy tenticular game of exquisite corpse with such rich material.  The sequel, James Cameron’s Aliens (1986), immediately exceeded all expectations when we watched it for my fourteenth birthday party.  Whilst it was faithful to the concept and character of Alien, it had evolved into a full-blooded action movie.  In the grim and gritty 70’s, heroism in American cinema was served with a side order of self-loathing, pessimism and bleak resignation.  By the 80’s, the post-Watergate, post-Vietnam hangover was over and a new spirit of jingoistic Reganomic bombast was its replacement.  In the movies, might was right and so might was mighty, outrageously so.  I may plead irony in retrospect, but I loved the epic ass-kicking cinema served by cartoon musclemen such as Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Lundgren and Van Damme.  Once again, the politics may have escaped me, but the explosive and unashamed heroics of Commando, Rambo and their ilk were a guaranteed good time.  I suppose it was natural that, when my youthful rebellion finally kicked into gear, I would become such a born-again die-hard liberal and Guardian reading fickle apologist.  So it goes.

Anyway, it was the eighties now – and this time it’s WAR!  Ripley has been rescued by her employers, the distinctly shifty Weyland-Yutani corporation, only to find she has been drifting in deep space for 57 years.  Her own daughter has since grown old and passed away.  She’s naturally kind of traumatised.  Nevertheless, a chance at redemption comes in the unlikely form of Paul Reiser as a creepy representative of the company who informs Ripley that the planet on which she first encountered the xenomorph has since been colonised.  It now seems that all contact has been lost with the colony and so a team of hardened space marines intend to return to LV426 in order to find out what is going on and, if necessary, kick some slimy ass.  Ripley, as the only non-feline survivor of the earlier alien encounter, travels with them.  Initially she is there in an advisory capacity but as things go badly wrong, she once again steps up to take charge and save the day in an ass-kicking capacity.

Have you ever noticed the similarities between the James Cameron screenplays
for Rambo: First Blood Part II and Aliens?

You might think that with all this talk of ass kicking there was a danger that the franchise had lost its dark and doomladen atmosphere, but whilst there is all manner of military-tech-pornography and initial macho bravado from the marines, the DNA of Alien was too grim and twisted to be fully subverted in such a way.  Instead, Cameron wisely uses these tropes to emphasise our vulnerability and weakness against the ferocity of the aliens.  That’s aliens, plural – as there are hundreds of them now, thanks to the heroic egg-laying efforts of the Alien Queen.  She is Cameron’s major new addition to the life cycle of the aliens and is an incredible and frightening presence thanks to practical effects work from the very talented Stan Winston.

In characteristic fashion, James Cameron adds some 
cannon to the Alien canon in the form of the Colonial
Marines weapon of choice: the M41A Pulse Rifle

Cameron also chooses to build on the suspicious motives of Weyland-Yutani, picking up where Alien left off and further building up the scheming corporate puppetmasters as the ‘human’ villains of the piece, caring little for their colonists or employees and with an agenda to use the ‘alien situation’ to their own advantage.

Finally, in a way, Cameron also re-engages the with the gender politics of Ripley.  No longer willing to be a victim or a bystander, she is the only person in the team to truly understand their predicament and effectively takes charge of the mission.  Along the way, she rescues a young colonist girl who acts as a surrogate daughter.  It is this fiercely protective maternal motivation that results in Ripley’s final showdown with the Alien Queen – two mothers fighting for their families.  You could argue that female empowerment might be more eloquently demonstrated than through a climactic ass-kicking beatdown, but it’s powerful imagery and seems appropriate in a series where reproduction itself is an act of violence and gender roles are tangled and subverted.  Also, it was also the Eighties.

This is probably the closest to a happy ending that the series has for us – with the Queen defeated and Ripley and her adopted ersatz family returning home.  If you think Ripley has suffered enough and deserves to settle down to a quiet and peaceful life at home, you had best look away now, because there’s another storm coming.

Alien 3 (1992): Not particularly a date movie
If we choose to view Alien and Aliens as reflections of the neuroses of the respective decades from which they were spawned, then David Fincher’s Alien 3 (1992) could be seen as the bratty Generation X stepchild of the then-trilogy.  It is grungy, intense and very angry at its parents.  An unwelcome stowaway, in the form of an alien facehugger, causes the crash landing of Ripley’s escape pod on an isolated prison planet, immediately killing her potential love interest and adopted daughter.  To make already dire matters worse, the unwelcome stowaway has also stowed away an even more unwelcome stowaway in the form of an embryonic Alien Queen inside Ripley.

In the opening ten minutes of the bleakest entry to the series, Ripley has lost everything she has fought so hard for.  Nevertheless, Ripley isn’t willing to go the full Cobain without a fight.  Realising there is another xenomorph loose on the planet, Ripley attempts to warn the small community of inmates of the danger they are in but her pleas fall on deaf ears.  In fact, they seem more concerned about the sudden appearance of a woman in their male-only community.  This concern is made more acute by the perverse adherence to pseudo-religious beliefs from some inmates and a deep and threatening misogyny from others.  Before long, however, an Alien begins munching it’s way through our brutal band of brothers and it’s yet again clear that Ripley represents their only hope.  This time, there is no technology or futuristic weaponry to assist them.  The prisoners lead a largely monastic life and so their struggle against the lone xenomorph is a bloody dirty battle of wits.

In a final twist, a tooled up Weyland-Yutani delegation arrives to save the day – or at least to save the Alien Queen just ready to hatch from Ripley.  Finally realising that she can’t risk the Alien falling into their untrustworthy hands, Ripley throws herself into a molten pool, sacrificing herself to save all of humanity – and flip the bird to her ex-employers at the same time.  It's a much-maligned movie, that both begins and ends with a defiant "F*ck You!" to the audience and, as a result, it is the most alienating of the alienating of the Alien movies.  It was also the first of the series that I was old enough to legitimately see at the cinema and so, fortunately, I was also responsive to the nihilism of the teen zeitgeist. Well...I had a checked shirt, at least.

Nevertheless, in retrospect it seems a downbeat but more-or-less fitting conclusion to the series.  It’s a return to the sombre and dark territory of Alien, but incorporating some of the additional mythology of Aliens.  It’s a reflective piece, with the quiet and intense atmosphere giving Ripley’s character a chance to breathe, pause and reflect.  The sequence leading to an unexpected love interest with prison doctor Charles Dance is touchingly played – giving Ripley a chance to show some of the vulnerability that the chaos and machismo of the previous movies gave her little time for.  Aside from it's attitude, there are other more serious structural problems with Alien 3.  There are too many faceless convict characters, although a strong frontline includes the ever-reliable Pete Postlethwaite, Charles S Dutton and Brian Glover. Considering the Alien on the loose here was birthed from a cow - thus adopting some of the host species characteristics - it is disappointing that the opportunity was missed to have Glover terrorised by a hyrbid Kestralien.  I would have enjoyed that.

The narrative gets a little confused towards the end and parts of the movie feel truncated and awkward, which seems to be the result of the notably troubled production.  Fincher had a famously bad time in the Directors Chair as he was seemingly trusted as a stylistic voice by the studio, but not with the story – his fury at their meddling in his attempt to forge a personal vision should be a lesson learned for all producers who want an auteur for their big budget movie; you may get art, you may get a crowdpleasing popcorn hit, but you can’t rely on both.  Fincher often refers to Alien 3 only as that movie, which is unfair as his distinctive voice is quite evident in the final cut.  The entirely unnecessary next entry, however, is where things really start to go wrong.

Alien Resurrection (1997): The cloned Ripley 8 meets
her newborn: a humalien hybrid that rejects the Alien
Queen and looks to Ripley as it's true genetic mother 
figure. It's all rather creepy.
In Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Alien Resurrection (1997), military scientists have made a clone of Ripley from a trace of her Alien-corrupted DNA in the hope of recreating the Alien Queen inside her for some presumably nefarious military reason. Having successfully reproduced both Ripley and the latent xenomorph, chaos inevitably ensures when a group of space mercenaries, including Jeunet regulars Dominique Pinon and Ron Perlman, interfere and release the aliens to take over the Space station before it reaches Earth.  Winona Ryder is an android terrorist and Ripley also ends up as the surrogate mother of a newborn humalien hybrid creature...or something.  The very fact that I can't untangle a clear and coherent synopsis from memory demonstrates just how muddled and confused this movie is.

On paper, it must have seemed a great twisted idea. Jeunet had established a reputation as director of wildly imaginative surrealist masterpieces such as Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children – however, without his usual collaborators and in inheriting a project that had been awkwardly gestating for some time previously, little of Jeunet’s dark magic seemed to make it to the screen. There is some intriguing Grand Guignol here, particularly in the scene where Ripley 8 meets what is left of her preceding seven cloned sisters, yet overall it fails to reproduce the mystery or tension of Alien and the action sequences are too perfunctory and flat to invoke the excitement of Aliens

Prometheus (2012): Installing a massive
 sculpture of your massive face in your
massive spaceship is probably a tad
And so we return right back the beginning again with Prometheus (2012).  Set thirty years prior to the events of Alien, archaeologist couple Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) discover a star map shared by several unconnected ancient cultures. Believing this may be a clue to the origins of humanity, the Weyland-Yutani Corporation sponsor their passage on an exploratory mission alongside the crew of the titular spacecraft Prometheus.

Upon arrival, the discovery of a strange exterrestrial complex yields further hieroglyphic and holographic evidence of an absent and mysterious alien race either long dead or dormant.  Shaw christens these alien beings Engineers, believing they support her creationist belief that all life on Earth was a result of these cosmic beings.

Inevitably, it quickly becomes evident that there are hidden agendas – both alien and human.  The Engineers turn out to be far from benign and all too late Shaw realizes that what may have at first appeared to be an invitation could instead have been a warning.  This is a nice touch as it mirrors the misinterpretation of the warning signal as a distress call that first drew the crew of the Nostromo to their own alien doom.

In exploring the role of the Engineers as its central narrative, Prometheus picks up on perhaps on one of the most intriguing mysteries of Alien: that of the dessicated “space jockey” discovered by the Nostromo but quickly forgotten, not only by the embattled crew but in the subsequent movies of the series.

Prometheus (2012): An Engineer sans 
Doh-Nutters inspired spacesuit
The Engineers themselves are an incredible CGI creation.  In the prologue, we witness what appears to be one of these beings sacrificing itself to create life on a distant planet that may or may not be our own.  It turns out that the elephantine remains we saw in Alien were actually some kind of biomechanical spacesuit.  Beneath the suit, these large and imposing beings appear much closer to human beings, yet bigger, ripe with swollen musculature, more primal and powerful, almost an athletic parody of Classical Olympian Gods.  With eloquent use of the uncanny valley, they are familiar to us and almost beautiful, yet repellent and utterly alien at the same time.

While the sole remaining resident of the complex discovered by the Prometheus team slumbers in stasis, the visitors work to understand the meaning of what they have found and are troubled by a whole menagerie of small creatures, seemingly birthed from the mysterious black goo of life. The same gunk also manages to mutate one of the crew into something quite odd and messed up.  The snakelike scurrying beasties have properties like acid blood that mirror those of the xenomorph but there doesn’t feel like any uniformity to the transformational properties of this ooze.  This jars awkwardly with the gloriously reconstructed Giger designed backdrop and these additions feel overcomplicated and somewhat confused.

The Engineer from Prometheus formerly
known as The Space Jockey from Alien 

This is the problem of the film as a whole: Prometheus works best with the BIG things but suffers when it comes to the small stuff.  There is epic scope and scale, with some truly stunning world building, but the detail in the more intimate moments - from the vicious alien flora or fauna to the subtleties of minor characterisation - feels lazy and ill-defined.

The relatively calm reaction of the crew to their unimaginably important discovery is an example of how this weakness damages the movie. The haste of the narrative to disclose its epic creationist mythology leaves us little time to share the journey or absorb the implications alongside the characters. Perhaps our future descendents are just a little more ambivalent about everything – but even the swiftness that our intrepid away team, in an alien and potentially hostile environment, immediately abandon the safety of their breathing apparatus the very moment it's discovered the air could be breathable detracts from the big ideas of the movie. All but the principle cast feel very loosely sketched, to the point that toward the end of the movie I had a great deal of trouble telling the secondary crew apart. A special mention should go to one of the least convincing members of the cinematic scientific community since Keanu Reeves discovered the secret to successfully using sonoluminescense to create stable bubble fusion in Chain Reaction: the Angry Geologist played Sean Harris.  At least his character motivation is clear: he "f*cking loves rocks!"

Definately NOT loving the alien:
Noomi Rapace in Prometheus
Where characters do manage to become three dimensional, it is largely due to the efforts of the individual actors to overcome the underwritten script.  Noomi Rapace is clearly a Ripley analog, which is a shame as she gamefully tackles one degradation after another but never feels like she is given the chance to make the role her own.  Charlize Theron does her best to add a hint of vulnerability to a rather flat role and Idris Elba similarly brings a likeable charisma to the jaded captain of the doomed spacecraft.  It is telling that the standout performance is from Michael Fassbender as David, the distant and morally ambiguous android member of the crew.  Admittedly, he is not human and so does not have a clunkily scripted attempt at personality to deal with – but what he achieves in a nuanced and subtle physical performance practically dominates the feature.  Early on in the story, in an attempt to approximate a human identity, he studies Peter O’Tooles performance in Lawrence of Arabia for inspiration.  He subsequently channels O’Toole for the remainder of the movie, making us question what is beneath the façade of his every action and intention.  Scott cited the David Lean's muscular epic as the inspiration for Prometheus and the success of Fassbender here makes me wonder whether he should have encouraged writer Damon Lindelof to follow suit.

He's got the whole world in his hands:
Michael Fassbender in Prometheus
The undercooked script is all the more infuriating as the broader story and mood of Prometheus does effectively, for me at least, feel very much like it’s set in the same universe as the original trilogy.  This may be placed in stark contrast when compared with Alien Resurrection, which does not.  Of course, all the movies contain an element of sequential narrative and shared design cues – not least in the xenomorph itself – but the tone, feel and attitude of the wider universe established in Alien truly only feels wrong in part four.  The crew of the Nostromo from Alien, Hicks from Aliens or even Brian Glover from Alien 3 could make an appearance in Prometheus and it would feel quite natural. In contrast, the only way that some of the eccentric pantomime characters of Alien Resurrection could make an explicable cameo in any one of the other films would be if they’d stepped in briefly from some bizzaro mirror world.

Some people also had a problem with the gleaming new design of the technology used by the intrepid travellers of Prometheus as they feel it’s inconsistent with the dirty and run down ‘used future’ of the preceding films.  It’s not something that bothers me. Prometheus, after all, is a prequel, set in 2089.  The doomed crew of the Nostromo would not encounter their xenomorph until three decades later in 2122 – not to mention that by the end of the series a full 291 years have passed.  That’s long enough for any kit and associated caboodle to be rendered irreparably FUBAR.  The only contradiction in technology I might question is whether Lance Henriksen is really an upgrade of Michael Fassbender?

The Xenomorph we all know and love
Even though Prometheus takes a very different approach to Alien, it clearly shares inspiration and antecedents: most notably in it’s return to writer HP Lovecraft for the source of its cosmic horror.  Alien scribe Dan O’Bannon openly acknowledged Lovecraft’s influence on the original movie. In Alien, Ian Holm's character Ash famously states that the alien is "unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality...a perfect organism...whose structural perfection is matched only by its hostility."  This is a truly Lovecraftian notion: the alien isn’t evil in the conceivable sense of human morality.  Rather it is a force of dark nature, beyond our understanding.  Prometheus takes us further into territory that the late O’Bannon, a longtime Lovecraft enthusiast, had long hoped to realise, sharing much of it’s big idea with Lovercraft’s classic tale At The Mountains of Madness.  This story recounts the adventures of a scientific expedition who discover the remnants of a strange and ancient alien race that may have been responsible for creating humanity as well as a race of monsters who appear to have the terrifying power to destroy us all.  Sound familiar?

With this rich heritage mind, it’s almost a shame that Prometheus still feels the need to make so many more additional and slightly clunky nods to the canon.  This is most troublesome in the closing 20 minutes in which there seems to be a rush to introduce a version of xenomorph we all know and love.  It turns out that the xenomorph is a bioweapon, created by the Engineers to wipe out the more disappointing of their planetary creations - but we only have the word of Captain Idris Elba to account for this and he doesn't have time to explain the workings behind this sudden epiphany before he crashes the Prometheus into the departing Engineers vessel.  Never mind, the crew seemed to trust him implicitly: no-one questioned where he got Stephen Stills squeezebox from either.  

This late-stage attempt to definitively assimilate the Alien legacy felt too sudden and incongruous. It just wasn’t needed and there was already enough connecting tissue between the prequel and the series that it would have been more convincing to leave some of these questions unanswered and mysterious.

Of course, Prometheus has some new mysteries of its own: What does the black goo actually do?  Why cast a 44-year-old Guy Pierce as the elderly stowaway Charles Weyland only to spend his entire short appearance in not-particularly-convincing prosthetics?  Why go to all the trouble of setting up the story to appear to take place on the planet from Alien, but then throw a rug from under us by stating this is actually a different planet? 

HR Giger's iconic "horseshoe" spacecraft has travelled further than
any other vessel through the series despite only spending a brief
ten minutes in the air at the climax of Prometheus

Perhaps these loose threads are calculated to set up a second movie.  Scott has already begun to talk up the possibilities of a sequel but Prometheus leaves questions I find simply confusing rather than compelling.  With apologies to my friend Ted: I’m not really all that interested in a cosmic re-imagining of Cast Away with Rapace as Tom Hanks and Fassbender as Wilson.

Perhaps what disappointed me most about Prometheus is a more mature reflection of the same teenage reservations I’d had following the playground hype of Alien.  Prometheus arrived with a sense of genuine mystery: I’d learned by now not to build my expectations around what had gone before – but instead I was secretly hoping for an epic game-changer, a mind twisting spin on the secrets of the saga.  Instead, it seemed that Ridley had exactly the same uncertainties as to what form this new chapter of the canon would take as I did.  Its an interesting movie and I enjoyed it, but I can’t help but feel it’s not going to inspire the same obsession, the same teenage birthday screening excitement and the same long term cultural impact on our current age restricted audience as its antecedents did on my generation...

All the same, who am I to judge?  I've met younger people who have some affection for Jar Jar Binks...but that's another story, of another retroactive prequel, in another galaxy, far away...