“And Yahweh was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So Yahweh said, ‘I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created—people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.’” ~ Genesis 6:6-7
Primordial terror. That’s what Ridley Scott’s Alien did for space travel in 1979, just as Jaws had done for the beach four years before. The idea of implacable, efficacious, and simple death embodied in a creature put in a room (or a boat) with human beings. Scott brought in Swiss painter H.R. Giger’s haunted Freudian imagery for the alien’s design, sadomasochistic fusions of flesh and metal imbuing the film with a palpable sense of disconcerting otherness (i.e., alien). This move, along with Scott’s laconic evocation of dread, elevated a boilerplate slasher flick set in space into something more aesthetically substantial. Much has been written about the themes at work in the film, but I trust Scott when he says (as I have read) that it was simply about scaring the crap out of people. He simply found some ideas (male impregnation, evolved biological killers, chest-bursting, all that unctuous seminal slime) that would set people’s nerves on edge so that their defenses were worn down by the time the beast started killing off those helpless crew members in the dark.
Prometheus, functionally Alien‘s prequel, reads like a somewhat bookish attempt to identify the original film’s distilled essence (primordial terror) and plumb that thematic well for its roots. If senseless, implacable death freaks us out like nothing else–what’s going on there? What’s the reductio ad absurdum of our deepest fears?
You have to admire the film for its ambition: if Alien skewed towards the slasher end of the Texas-Chainsaw-Massacre-meets-2001 spectrum, Prometheus skews towards the grand cosmic mystery end. Eighty years from now the Weyland Corporation sends a manned spacecraft somewhere far away to investigate clues about the origins of life on earth. On board are scientists, engineers, flight crew, corporate reps and an android. The planet they land on contains some answers, more questions and a primordial soup’s worth of squirmy dangers. How they got there, who they were intended for and who they might yet harm are points of interest in the film. Scott twists thrills and ideas together unapologetically, aware of the need to entertain enough audience members to justify the budget needed to craft visually bold science fiction in a post-Avatar world.
As befitting the best Ridley Scott films, it’s visually marvelous. I usually feel as though CG somewhat cheapens a film’s visual effect, but it would seem that technology has caught up with the director’s vivid imagination. We’re caught up with the explorers within this intricate biological desolation, one alive with texture, dust and rough edges. And rather than the kitschy synthetics of so much effects work, there’s plenty of viscous bodily fluids (and other bodily things) sloshing around to remind us that human flesh is on the line. I know I’ll never think of a Cesarean section the same way again.
I am sad the same can’t be said for the music. Scott’s other science fiction works established their emotional tones early on, both Alien‘s scraping industrial strings and Blade Runner‘s moody synth laments contributing to senses of screamy portentousness and angsty android dread, respectively. But Prometheus doesn’t begin to find its aural tone until well into the first act, and throughout the score is a so-so generic pastiche of epic spaciness. That the film remains strong despite such a huge oversight speaks to its finely crafted nature, its near-masterpiece degree of genre proficiency.