‘Prometheus’ and a Lament for a Franchise That Might Have Been
Prometheus, the first entry in Ridley Scott’s potentially interminable Alien prequel series, is infamous for the questions it leaves hanging in the air.
For a comprehensive list of the small spoiler-y ones, I’ll refer you to Red Letter Media. The CliffsNotes version is that Prometheus is bogged down by characters with unclear motivations, other characters that are just outright dumb and plot threads that don’t come off as fully baked. This won’t be news to anyone who’s seen it. Or even heard about it, for that matter.
But having recently re-watched Prometheus, the big question I have now is the same big question I had after first seeing it in 2012:
Why is this even an Alien movie?
This is not to be confused with “Why aren’t there frickin’ Aliens in this frickin’ Alien movie?!” Because (SPOILER ALERT for a five-year-old movie) Prometheus holds off on introducing anything even remotely like the classic xenomorph until the very end, this was definitely one of the questions people had. The director, however, seems to have confused it for the only question.
“[Prometheus] went straight up there, and we discovered from it that [the fans] were really frustrated,” Scott told Yahoo Movies. “They wanted to see more of the original [monster] and I thought he was definitely cooked, with an orange in his mouth. So I thought: ‘Wow, OK, I’m wrong’.”
Welp. This explains Alien: Covenant.
Although it’s technically a sequel to Prometheus, the name of the movie isn’t the only thing that screams, “Fine, here’s the prequel you [bleeps ]wanted! Are you [bleeping] happy now?!”
The marketing for Alien: Covenant has promised a movie that will go back to the well that Scott first dug back in 1979. Within will be a close-knit crew of space explorers getting picked off one-by-one in an orgy of ultraviolence, complete with facehuggers and the good ol’ penis-shaped, acid-blooded monsters that first made the leap from H.R. Giger’s imagination to everyone’s nightmares four decades ago.
Fine. All well and good. I like a good Alien movie as much as the next genre nerd. And judging from the Rotten Tomatoes score (he said with his tongue at least half in his cheek), “good” is what this one’s gonna be.
But, pardon me for wishing that the sequel to Prometheus was more Prometheus and less Alien.
In fact, it kinda sucks that this series has anything at all to do with the Alien franchise.
[HOT TAKE ALARM SOUNDS]
Oh, stop it.
Thing is, I actually like Prometheus. I can’t say I love it, mainly for reasons referenced above. But I’ve watched it several times and I just can’t bring myself to not like it.
Although it doesn’t check every box on my rewatchability checklist, it does check a few. It clocks in at a reasonably well paced 124 minutes. There are some cool scenes, and even one truly great scene — the med pod sequence, yo.
Then there’s Prometheus’ best quality: its sense of immersion.
Like Alien, Blade Runner and The Martian, Prometheus is proof that Scott knows how to do science-fiction. Every visual in the movie is breathtaking. And between the sets, the gadgets and the creatures, the production design is just…[Italian chef kiss].
And even if it errs in providing answers — the Blu-Ray marketing team clearly hadn’t seen the movie — Prometheus does play with questions that even a cynical bastard like myself can’t help but be intrigued by.
Where do we come from? Why do we exist? What is our relationship with our creator? What if our creator isn’t the hugging type?
Make no mistake, Prometheus is very much a movie about gods. So why the hell was it shoehorned into a franchise about monsters?
Best I can tell, it’s because that was simply the idea from the beginning.
Not the very beginning, mind you. Alien wasn’t yet a franchise when Scott left it behind after directing the first movie. It became one when James Cameron gave the world Aliens in 1986, thereby cementing the Alien franchise as one of the great franchises in Hollywood.
The “great” started to tarnish when meddling studio suits bullied an inexperienced David Fincher into crapping out Alien 3 in 1992. Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s equally crappy Alien: Resurrection, released in 1997, was the dagger through the series’ heart. The two Alien vs. Predator movies released in 2004 and 2007 relegated both titular monsters to schlock status.
Enter…Er, re-enter Scott.
“Honestly? They’ve squeezed the franchise dry,” he told MTV in 2010, adding: “I’ve always avoided sequels, unless I felt there was something fresh.”
Scott tabbed Jon Spaihts, whose lone credit was 2011’s The Darkest Hour, to write the screenplay. As he would later tell Empire (h/t Collider), his script had basically the same plot (scientists on a mission to find the “Engineers” who created humanity) but with standard Alien fare mixed in. Eggs. Facehuggers. Xenomorphs. Et cetera.
But then the suits at 20th Century Fox had second thoughts.
“They were interested in doing something original and not one more franchise film,” Spaihts told Empire. “That really came to a head at the studio — the major push to focus on the new mythology of Prometheus and dial the Aliens as far back as we could came down from the studio.”
At a time when seemingly everything is part of an existing franchise, this is the kind of thing that makes the letters W, T and F dance around in one’s head. It could be because the studio did some research and found that fans weren’t ready to line up for another Alien movie.
Or, it could be because of the Lost guy.
No, not that one. The other one. Damon Lindelof was asked by Scott to read Spaihts’ script and sound off with his thoughts. And he had thoughts, alright.
“I felt Jon had done a number of really smart things,” he later told The Hollywood Reporter, “but I tried to figure out why is it that they are sending the script to me? What is it that they think that I can do? I anticipated what those things might be, and then I sent an email.”
Thus began the shift away from an Alien prequel toward something more original. Lindelof and Scott sought to play down classic Alien features and play up the Engineers. As Scott himself put it to Deadline in early 2011:
“While Alien was indeed the jumping off point for this project, out of the creative process evolved a new, grand mythology and universe in which this original story takes place. The keen fan will recognize strands of Alien’s DNA, so to speak, but the ideas tackled in this film are unique, large and provocative. I couldn’t be more pleased to have found the singular tale I’d been searching for, and finally return to this genre that’s so close to my heart.”
In other words: This is not an Alien movie, but it’s not not an Alien movie either.
The marketing for Prometheus stuck with that message. Consider the first teaser trailer:
For the most part, you could watch that and get no sense that Prometheus was tied to the Alien universe. But the “keen fan” would indeed pick up on the familiar way the title comes together, as well as that one familiar-looking spaceship and that familiar-looking spaceship interior.
And, oh yeah, the fact that the entire trailer is basically a remake of possibly the best trailer of them all:
As the marketing machine kept churning out sneak peaks, what remained notably absent were any signs of traditional Alien monsters. One could suspect that Scott and the studio just didn’t want to give the good stuff away, so as to maximize its effect when the movie finally hit theaters.
In the end…Uh, no. Not really, no.
Something like the classic xenomorph does eventually show up in Prometheus. But it really is only “something like” it, because…Well…
Of course, that’s also the very last shot of the movie. And because Noomi Rapace’s Shaw and Michael Fassbender’s David have already left the planet by the time that thing comes bursting out of an Engineer, it’s not there to tease what they’ll be running from in the next movie. It‘s a mere Easter egg, thrown in there seemingly just so Scott could check a box on a list of Alien must-haves.
And it clearly wasn’t a long list, as the other Alien references scattered throughout Prometheus can be counted on one hand.
There was the appearance of the Weyland-Yuta…Er, just Weyland Corporation logo:
The planet they go to has an “LV_[Number]” classification:
Hey, that mural that looks oddly familiar:
And then Space Jockey’s horseshoe-looking spaceship goes boom:
And that’s pretty much it.
It suffices to say that Prometheus only has a bare minimum of connecting tissue to the Alien universe. What’s more, it doesn’t connect in a way that makes a whole lot of sense.
Yes, there ends up being a Space Jockey in a crashed horseshoe spaceship. But it’s neither the same Space Jockey nor the same crashed horseshoe spaceship that John Hurt and friends find in Alien. In fact, that was on a completely different planet. That was on LV_426, not LV_223.
Confusing? You bet. Yet not nearly as confusing as how a movie that’s supposed to take place before a movie that had technology like this:
Somehow has technology like this:
Did the inventor future tech die somewhere in between Prometheus and Alien, thereby forcing society to reenlist the retro tech guy? Or did retro tech just come into fashion on its own? ANSWER ME, MOVIE.
“Oh, who cares?” the movie seems to say. “Just go with it.”
Or, here’s a better idea: Just cut it all out completely.
Cut out the Weyland Corporation — and Guy Pearce’s Peter Weyland, who’s an odd fit for Prometheus to begin with. Don’t use the LV_[Number] system for planet names. Change the design of the Space Jockey and his ship. Remove or change the xenomorph mural. Cut the final shot altogether.
And like that, voilà! What you’d have is a completely different movie.
Maybe this wouldn’t fix all of Prometheus’ problems, but it would free it of the constraints of having to build a foundation for Alien. It could have been the start of its own franchise with its own story to tell. One much grander in philosophy and in scope.
Basically, it would have been free to be what Scott sounded so jazzed about making once the project shifted away from its original intention. He even hinted at where the storyline could go, telling Movies.com in 2012:
I’d love to explore where the hell [Dr. Shaw] goes next and what does she do when she gets there, because if it is paradise, paradise can not be what you think it is. Paradise has a connotation of being extremely sinister and ominous.
What might that look like? This prologue for Alien: Covenant provides a hint:
So, two things.
One: I would watch an alone-in-space movie with Noomi Rapace and robot Michael Fassbender.
Two: I would watch THE SHIT OUT OF a movie in which robot Michael Fassbender carpet-bombs an unsuspecting alien population with havoc-inducing black goo.
Instead, I wonder if this sequence is even in Alien: Covenant. And while the Covenant crew seemingly does end up on that planet, the promotional material strongly indicates that they only deal with the fallout of the black goo bombing, not so much the larger consequences*.
*Apologies in advance if I end up being wrong about all this.
Imagine, instead, if Alien: Covenant was actually Prometheus 2 and that the dropping of the black goo was the climax instead of the prologue. Then it becomes all too easy to imagine a wholly original trilogy of movies that goes something like this:
Prometheus: Mankind goes searching for God.
Prometheus 2: Mankind confronts God, incites war.
Prometheus 3: All-out war between Mankind and God.
Such a trilogy would offer a ton of thematic rabbit holes to dig into, and would also allow for an increase in scale with each movie. The start could be a small, self-contained movie and the end could be a true epic. With a director like Scott at the helm, it could have been something truly special.
Alas, that’s not what we’re getting. What we’re getting instead is a series that dared to tiptoe out onto that path, but which is now course-correcting onto a path that’s more well-beaten than a dead horse.
Again, I’ll take it. If nothing else, far be it from me to complain about Ridley Scott making anything in the realm of science-fiction.
But oh, what might have been.
What might have been.