An Open Letter to Prometheus (and all Prequels)
Waiting six months for you will be difficult enough. The latest film from renowned director Ridley Scott, you present his return to the science fiction genre; a genre he helped shape with 1979’s Alien and even more so with 1982’s Blade Runner. Already known for his intensely visual storytelling and attention to detail, these two films represent the pinnacle of Scott’s abilities as an auteur. Rich in their visual artistry and depth of sound and set design, these two films continue to be heralded among the most influential in the genre, laying down the blueprints for virtually every film to follow. With you, Prometheus, Scott gives us a film whose tagline reads “The search for our beginning could lead to our end,” indicating a story that is sure to be a grand epic. The question that seems to be on most people’s minds is: “Is this film a prequel to Alien?”
Prequels are a shaky concept to tackle in film, perhaps even more so than sequels. Sequels at least have a full palate from which to draw its elements, with all of the characters and events laid out, while also granting leeway to proceed in all new directions not necessarily indicated by the previous film. The potential to expand on the established rules, and possibly break them (in a hopefully reasonable and logical manner) adds a touch of excitement. The audience may have its own ideas on where the story could go, but is usually willing to take the ride toward an unknown result. Prequels are a tad bit more precarious. Once again, the rules are established by the original film, but in a sense, they have to be much more strictly adhered to in order for the linear progression to function. It’s almost a process of reverse engineering. Also like the sequel, the audience will have its own ideas on what could have been, but with end results already being known, the unraveling of preceding events must not only satisfy expectations but must also do so in a manner that remains true to the end result. There is also the inherent problem that most prequels and sequels face of having to live up to the success of the original film; a problem that most Hollywood execs solve by simply rehashing the formula and story instead of taking chances and telling new stories that enhance the timeline.
In my personal opinion, most prequels tend to be much more poorly handled than sequels. The most recent example would have to be The Thing, the remake/prequel of John Carpenter’s 1982 film, itself a remake of the 1955 film The Thing from Another World. Yes, it contained some competent acting and direction and presented the requisite prequel setup of the Norwegian team discovering the titular creature, eventually leading to their demise and setting up the opening moments of the 1982 film. The ultimate problem with the film is that it was totally unnecessary. Carpenter’s film set up the mystery of the Norwegian camp and the discovery of the creature in such a way that the audience could fill in the blanks simply by virtue of the progression of the story. Sure, there’s a moderate delight in seeing the human face split in two (explaining the burnt carcass Kurt Russell found) or perhaps the bloody axe in the door. But at the same time, these were questions that didn’t even need to be answered. The whole implication by the end of Carpenter’s film already gave us all we needed to know that the same basic sequence of events took place – if not in the specifics, then certainly in the atmosphere of paranoia, mistrust, and violence – rendering the prequel pointless. And then there are the Star Wars films, which I think I need not pursue much further other than to say that the mystery of Anakin Skywalker’s descent into evil, while given a grand and almost operatic setup in the original trilogy, was ultimately to be explained as the actions of a confused, impatient, and ultimately troubled boy whose angst got the better of him; unsatisfying to the point of insulting.
So let’s get back to you, Prometheus, and explore the question of your status as a prequel to Alien. By now, most people have read about how you originally were conceived as a forerunner to Alien, and that as time progressed, Scott’s assertions were that you would not be a prequel, but would contain “strands of the same DNA” and that you would take place “in the same universe as Alien.” That would seem to indicate a peripheral connection as opposed to a direct one, and sounds like a reasonable statement on the part of a filmmaker who strives for excellence and originality; however, from the one-minute-and-10-second-long trailer unveiled in late December, those statements would seem to be dubious at best. I’ll be the first to admit that trailers are specifically designed to capture an audience’s imagination and pique curiosity enough to draw them in, and so it would make sense to reveal those “strands” to appeal to the plethora of Alien fans waiting to see what you have in store… and those strands are pretty goddamn strong!
From your title gradually fading in segments in a manner similar to Alien’s opening credits, to the Weyland-Yutani company’s logo on the vehicles, to a passing glimpse of the Space Jockey’s pilot chair emerging from the platform, to a room full of ampoules that bears a striking resemblance to the egg chamber, a brief shot of a character in a spacesuit whose helmet seems to be in a state of acidic corrosion, and finally, various images of the derelict spacecraft during its crash landing on the inhospitable planetoid. All of this would seem to indicate that you are more than in the same universe, but may actually be the prequel that many would be excited for.
So what’s up with Scott’s statements that you’re not a prequel? To start with, your story is different from Alien. As indicated by the aforementioned tagline, a group of interplanetary explorers searches for clues to the origins of mankind, ultimately encountering something so dangerous that it could signal the end of humanity as we know it. That’s a far more epic and even mythical scenario than the rescue mission gone awry that was Alien. If we refer to the earlier point that most prequels and sequels tend to simply repeat the story and formula of the first film, (and indeed Aliens was in many ways a more action-packed, bullet-riddled version of Alien… in fact, come to think of it, Alien 3 and Alien: Resurrection were also little more than variations on the first film) then by all means, you’re not a prequel as Hollywood would normally pursue. And again, it would be in the best interests of the filmmaker’s artistic sensibilities to present a wholly new and original story so as not to run the risk of repetition and stagnation. There is also the absence of Sigourney Weaver as Ripley, or a younger actress to play the role in a younger incarnation; contrary to the title of the franchise, all of the Alien films seemed to be primarily focused on Ripley, so her absence would further drive the point that you’re not a prequel.
Except… once again, from the images in the trailer, I can say with a large amount of informed speculation and a minor amount of certainty that you are. To prove this point, one need only listen to Ridley Scott’s DVD commentary for Alien on either the 1999 edition or the 2003 Quadrilogy edition. On at least one occasion, Scott states an intention (or at least an idea) to pursue the origins of the Alien and the Space Jockey, going so far as to speculate that the xenomorphic creature was some form of biological weapon utilized by whatever species the Space Jockey was. As we consider this possible explanation (one that is highly plausible given the duplicitous intentions of the Weyland-Yutani company throughout the series), as well as the presence of the spacecraft and the Space Jockey in the trailer, it’s easy to surmise that you, Prometheus, would be focusing on the Space Jockey’s species rather than the xenomorph, immediately connecting you to Alien without focusing on that particular creature.
The influence of H.P. Lovecraft on the artwork of creature designer H.R. Giger aside, several filmmakers and scholars have remarked on the similarity between Alien and Lovecraft’s novel “At the Mountains of Madness” (a connection strengthened by the late writer Dan O’Bannon’s later direction of The Resurrected, based on another of Lovecraft’s works). Both stories deal with a human expedition to an inhospitable and unexplored region where they encounter hostile extra-terrestrials. However, you seem to take the connection even further by exploring the origins of mankind, possibly leading to its annihilation. This has even more in common with “At the Mountains of Madness,” almost to the point of being a verbatim synopsis. In Lovecraft’s story, members of the expedition are slaughtered with the survivors learning that human beings were created as an accidental byproduct of the Elder Things’ creation of the Shoggoth slave creatures. Once again, this is speculation on my part, but I don’t think it illogical to presume that your connections to Alien are more than peripheral. Could it be that your story would revolve around the Space Jockey species having some implicit connection to the origins of mankind similar to the Elder Things, with the xenomorphs being analogous to the Shoggoths, thus further supplanting Scott’s commentary? It’s a possibility.
Another point in Scott’s commentary that could perhaps indicate his ineptitude with vocabulary would be his statements of the planetoid on which you and Alien take place not possessing an atmosphere. He states the planet is “gaseous” but clearly says that the planet does not have atmosphere. Given that the actual definition of atmosphere is a layer of gases that surround a material body of sufficient mass, held in place by said body’s gravity, it’s clear that Scott is simply not concerned with the proper usage of the term. Of course, Scott is often reviled for his lack of concern for various other aspects of filmmaking given the tendency of some of his films to go over budget and his near ignorance as to the needs of his actors (a quality he defends in the Alien commentary as a matter of “casting correct,” thus solving “50% of your problems” and allowing him to focus on the more technical matters). Bearing this in mind, it’s entirely possible that Scott would not consider you to be a prequel simply because you do follow a different story whose “strands of DNA” would ultimately lead us toward Alien. And then, there is the final strand… the beacon that drew the Nostromo to the planet in the first place. Once again, speculation on my part, but as your trailer begins with a disrupted recording of a despaired voice saying “I’m sorry,” it could be that very transmission. Sure, it was unknown whether the transmission was of human origin or not… at least, to the crew of the Nostromo. As Alien pointed out, the company seemed aware of the creature’s existence, so it is clear that not all of the facts were presented. Could it be static interference or deterioration over time, or could it be the company’s duplicity coming into play that the transmission as the Nostromo crew heard it was deliberately unclear? Again, it’s a fascinating possibility that it would be exciting to see played out.
And there’s the rub: through all of this supposition and speculation, I am now in the very dilemma with regards to audience expectations of prequels that I described earlier. I now have a scenario in my mind of how you could play out as a prequel to Alien; a scenario that may be completely different and unrecognizable to what you will ultimately offer on your June 8th release date. It could be that your story truly is completely different and I could stand to be disappointed in you, not necessarily as the film you are but as the film I would’ve wished you to be.
But then, that is the risk in going to see a new film, isn’t it? We’ve been fooled by trailers before (as proven by the poor reception of The Devil Inside, whose trailer showed a film with much potential, the reality presenting a pile of absolute garbage), so to base all of these theories on a minute-plus-long trailer might seem like jumping the gun; I wouldn’t argue. But once again, the point of the trailer is to pique interest in the film. Even if all that I’ve hypothesized about here turns out to be at best inaccurate and at worst completely false, I’m still excited to see you, Prometheus, and hope that even if you’re not a prequel to Alien that you will still be able to provide me with a thrilling spectacle of science fiction horror the likes of which I haven’t seen in more than a decade.
Looking forward to our eventual meeting,