God Doesn’t Build In Straight Lines – taking the Alien prequel off-road in Ridley Scott’s Prometheus (review)
So far, we’ve seen Alien done as horror movie, war flick, spiritual drama and Gothic comedy, so it’s about time somebody’s tried to do it as science-fiction.
(Ridley Scott 2012)
Well, is it or isn’t it? If you mean, is Prometheus an Alien prequel, then yes, of course it is: you don’t get Ridley Scott taking spacesuited pioneers to a planet whose name is LV-something without being on speaking terms with his 1979 breakthrough. But the more interesting question is to ask, “is Prometheus a Doctor Who story in disguise.” Well, is it or isn’t it?
Some backstory is required. In 1982, only two-and-a-bit years after Alien premiered in the UK, the BBC broadcast a Doctor Who story called Earthshock, in which archaeologists investigating a cave system were picked off one-by-one by a faceless android killer, controlled from space by the Cybermen. The story owed an obvious debt to Ridley Scott’s classic – but viewers with longer memories recalled an earlier story, 1975’s The Ark In Space, in which insectoid aliens laid their eggs inside human bodies while they lay comatose in cryo-sleep aboard a space station. It’s quite possible that Scott had seen it and borrowed from it; in fact, as a young member of the BBC Design Department in the early 1960s, he came very close to designing the Daleks.
Why is this relevant to Prometheus? Well, when we first meet Noomi Rapace’s heroine, she’s investigating a cave system, whose secrets soon send her scurrying to the stars in search of answers. And, big giveaway this, she’s a scientist called Elizabeth Shaw – the name and profession of the Doctor’s companion played by Caroline John during the 1970 season of Doctor Who. Either somebody, somewhere, is taking the piss, or Prometheus is a sincere attempt to grapple with the ideas and iconography of a very different kind of science-fiction from earlier Alien films. First time around, Ridley made a slasher movie in space; this time, he’s created a cerebral puzzle of overreaching ambition, about gods and monsters and the belief systems of science. Which is very Doctor Who.
Consider the title: Prometheus. In Greek myth, that name is a warning not to wrestle with the status quo, for Prometheus tried to make gods out of man and was condemned for his hubris. In science fiction, too, the name has connotations: The Modern Prometheus was Mary Shelley’s subtitle for Frankenstein. Everything points to a morality lesson, especially as we know from six previous films that you really don’t go looking for xenomorphs…but look at Liz Shaw V2.0. She’s neither naive fool nor arrogant dilettante, simply a woman interested in the universe and looking for answers. That’s a very Doctor Who attitude to science, and a far cry from Ellen Ripley’s ‘survive-or-die’ blue-collar Everywoman.
The common denominator, of course, is Weyland-(soon-to-be-merged-with)-Yutani, the malevolent corporate enemy at the centre of the Alien universe, which isn’t interested in anything unless it has a profit margin. Science for science’s sake is a worthy cause in Prometheus; it’s when there’s an agenda that you have to worry. This is commendably searching stuff, especially in a summer blockbuster whose existence is itself that of a brand extension from Rupert Murdoch’s multi-national empire; add the fact that Scott casts the Aussie-accented Guy Pearce as Weyland and this is a case of biting the hand that feeds.
Sadly, the film doesn’t quite square the circle. How can it? There is a checklist of items the film has to deliver on: a feisty female lead; a creepy android; ominous discoveries aboard dark, deserted spaceships; body horror set-pieces. And the problem is compounded by handing things to a director who has been here before – we know Ridley can do this stuff in his sleep, which takes the element of surprise away from authorship as well as content. The screenplay pulls in two directions at once, setting up obvious Alien tropes and then bashfully backing away in the hope of finding something new. Occasionally, this pays off (the early day-in-the-life of an android sequence, beautifully acted by Michael Fassbender, is creepy, comic and a fresh insight into old clichés) but at its worst, it’s like watching Alien fan-fiction. At one point a character comments, “God doesn’t build in straight lines,” and it feels like the wistful lament of the film itself, hungry to go off-road but fearful of leaving the pre-ordained track.
This schizophrenia extends to the origins story of the xenomorphs themselves. On one hand, there’s a very definite Fingerprints Of The Gods vibe to the mysterious ‘Engineers,’ the extra-terrestrial beings that Shaw believes influenced life on Earth. On the other, why is the android skulking about trying to get an alien to gestate? The latter plotline is familiar territory from Alien films of old (and leads to Prometheus’ queasiest, most-WTF moment) but it doesn’t quite tally with the fact that everybody else in the film is less interested in what than in why. The film’s Doctor-ish contemplative urge is forever being dragged along by the relentless narrative momentum of the A-word. Which brings me back to the original question: is it, or isn’t it?