GREY MATTERS: ALIEN VS. PREDATOR VS. ALIEN VS. PROMETHEUS

GREY MATTERS: ALIEN VS. PREDATOR VS. ALIEN VS. PROMETHEUS

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For months Twentieth Century Fox has been frothing us up over Sir Ridley Scott’s return to the Alien business with Prometheus. But for me, this is an occasion to not only celebrate the uncelebrated—Paul W.S. Anderson’s fantastic Alien vs. Predator—but to see through Scott’s contributions and mourn their horrible legacy.

First: Scott didn’t think up Alien’s feminist hero angle. All reports indicate that just sort of happened at the behest of producers David Giler and Walter Hill. Nor did he think up the paradigm-shifting H.G. Giger bio-mechanical alien design. Nor the story.

What he deserves credit for is saying yes to those elements.

But above and beyond that, what Scott—an ace adman whose Chanel #5 ads fused wealth, sex and property to almost pornographic levels—really brought to Alien (1979) was class. And Class.

Writing about Prometheus recently in Box Office, James Rocchi, after trashing the unimportant Alien vs. Predator (2004), just up and said it’s “nice to have Sir Ridley classing the neighborhood back up.”

Yes, ‘Sir”. As in knighted by The Queen. And “classing” things up, one assumes, like he classed up Hannibal with those splendidly art-directed, scrumptiously-lit scenes of Ray Liotta eating his own brains.

But why would you need "class" in a films about chest-bursting phallus monsters? Knowingly or not, Rocchi had used the correct verb.

Back in the late 70s, there’s no way that Scott could help but understand the discomfort we colonials felt around art and the class struggles we’re not supposed to suffer from. Watching Alien, you can see how he capitalized on that discomfort, on the way many Americans were still not quite sure how to process, say, a Bergman film. Did you act as if you got the long pauses, unfamiliar allusions, and the beauty for its own sake? Or should you just walk out, and fear being judged an idiot?

Doing what worked so well in the Chanel ads, he slathered Alien with style and class, and with the glacial pace, mood lighting, anti-hero casting, and doleful music he guessed we’d associate with "serious films." By the time the first finished print rolled through a projector with a really long, 2001-looking spaceship named after Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo and Howard Hanson's august Symphony No. 2 ("Romantic") rolling over the end credits, Scott may have imagined Americans who wouldn’t be caught dead seeing low-class fare like Friday the 13th feeling downright continental about watching what Scott himself called “the Texas Chain Saw Massacre of science fiction."

A Chain Saw, that is, about working-class stiffs deceived by an upper-class android, in which a blue-collar girl (Sigourney Weaver) kills the Giger menace.

British critics like the indispensible Kim Newman (author of Nightmare Movies) saw through the class story, seeing a pose that hid a monster/gore/Ten Little Indians hybrid whose plot required its characters to seek out dark places where they might get killed. But for Americans, that cold, humorless seriousness was the key to what made Alien so damned scary.

James Cameron understood that "serious" was a one trick pony: his war movie remix sequel, Aliens (1986), went for creature battle and feminism, blowing Scott’s pretense and future grunge chic out the air locker: the film was a huge success.

Alas, both Alien 3 (1992), wrought by the future king of high faux seriousness, David Fincher, and Alien: Resurrection (1997) both behaved as if somber, existential gloom—the Sir Ridley touch currently being pimped in the Prometheus teasers like the “Happy, Birthday, David” viral videos, which are basically ruling-class Danish modern architecture porn disguised as futurism—were the key to Alien riches. This proved incorrect.

But then came Paul W.S. Anderson, egalitarian king of deep focus mayhem and why-the-hell-not, ripping any shred of swank out of both the Alien franchise and its déclassé Predator brother, an 80s rasta hunter-monster that was either all developing-world anger-subtext or just a super bad-ass space demon, in a film that pitted one against the other to the death! Finally, some fun, for fuck’s sake!

Anderson is the creator of the terrifyingly strange Event Horizon (1997), the neo-grindhouse exploitationer Death Race (2008), and Resident Evil: Afterlife (2010), which proved that he demonstrably owns the most visionary sense of spatial geometry in modern cinema. He loves mixing, matching, and fusing ideas, conveys a palpable sense of sheer cinema-making glee, and most critics despise him as an aesthetically base-born, second-rate creator of vulgar garbage. 

But beyond these inaccurate judgments lie deeper, troubling, truly dispiriting things that go far beyond anything in any Alien film. I’ll get to that in a minute.

In Anderson’s alternately inspired and nutso screenplay for Alien vs. Predator (or AvP), an African American environmental scientist Alexa (Sanaa Lathan) leads a crew of experts to the Antarctic, where they discover a vast sub-glacier pyramid in which the titular Reagan-era monster icons are about to do battle.

But first, a whopper of a casually sacrilegious backstory posits humanity as just another race, made intelligent enough by predators to farm and worship predator gods, sacrifice themselves, and unknowingly become impregnated with aliens, assuring predators of awesome hunts. And if that doesn’t work out, they can blow up the city and start all over again a millennia later.

And then, back to the present day, amid the pyramid’s Aztec, Cambodian and Egyptian wall carvings, Alexa teams up with Predator to battle the alien queen mother, whose twice the size of either of them.

Anderson stages the main event like some Aztec SF Götterdämmerung, but it’s spiritually the original Kong v. Dinosaur with 21st century technology.

For anyone who’s loved the wonders of Willis O'Brien, Jan Švankmajer, Ray Harryhausen, the men-in-suits of Toho, or other toilers in the strange discipline of bringing the inanimate to life, AvP is like a screaming memorial to gods and monsters made of dead materials.  If Neil Gaiman had relayed this, or if Guillermo Del Toro had filmed the same story, there would be worship.

But Anderson? Too low class, honey. But like I mentioned, it’s more than director issues.

I worry that our always-coded class agita and blind reverence for high seriousness over all considerations has so mangled our appreciation of genre values that people might walk out of Mario Bava’s transcendentally gorgeous Hercules in the Haunted World (1961) or Gareth Edwards’ Lovecraft-in-the-jungle Monsters (2010), because the effects are so “unrealistic” (code-phrase for “not enough money”) and the dialogue “not good enough” (code-phrase for “not ironic, hiply detached, or displaying another luxury commodity trait prized by entitled classes”).

No doubt, Prometheus will offer the usual Scott attributes—as with Blade Runner (1982) and Alien, the out-sourcing of designs to the most exclusive and expensive creators on Earth; the ice-blood mise-en-scene; and gold standard blood and guts effects.

But Anderson? He does what only he can do: His unique mental mad lab, cutting and pasting an endless fountain of pop art, geographic, child-dream, King Kong, multi-culti-architectural, exploitation, Chariots of the Gods, and Lord knows what other fantasies. I imagine him laughing, maybe a little crazily, while the sparks fly.

Ian Grey has written, co-written or been a contributor to books on cinema, fine art, fashion, identity politics, music and tragedy. Magazines and newspapers that have his articles include Detroit Metro Times, gothic.net, Icon Magazine, International Musician and Recording World, Lacanian Ink, MusicFilmWeb, New York Post, The Perfect Sound, Salon, Smart Money Magazine, Teeth of the Divine, Venuszine, and Time Out New York.

SIMON SAYS: Trying Harder: What PROMETHEUS Gets Right

SIMON SAYS: Trying Harder: What PROMETHEUS Gets Right

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One character in Prometheus sums up why Ridley Scott's return to his 1979 science fiction milestone is as refreshing as it is, in just two words. The protagonist in question is an android, arguably the first in the series since Aliens who’s more than an extension of the people who programmed him. Typically, androids are understood to be mental blank slates in the Alien films, so it makes sense that in Prometheus, David (Michael Fassbender) is treated as a tabula rasa. In fact, one character points this out late in Prometheus's plot, reminding him that he can't feel the emotions he professes to. So it's fitting that, when asked what his boss has communicated to him, David says: "Try harder." 

Prometheus, more ambitious than any other Alien sequel, has an impressively massive scope, both literally and figuratively. The film's mammoth CG and concept art-heavy sets are matched only by its over-arching theological speculation. Of course, because Alien 3 and Alien: Resurrection both went through production hell, their stories are understandably incoherent. But even Aliens, James Cameron's perfectly adequate follow-up to Alien, has relatively staid aspirations. 

The Alien franchise, up until Prometheus, delivered less and less of a payoff. This is most evident in the degrading of the relationship between three key figures in each film: the lead human protagonist (usually Ripley); the robot; and the Xenomorph. In Alien, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) was the last survivor of the Xenomorph's attack on the Nostromo. She manages to escape the hazards of A mission whose main directives are unclear to all but one of its crew members. Ash (Ian Holm) is the voice of "the company," a phrase over-used in the Alien movies to describe the Weyland-Yutani Corporation. The company's motives are hidden and in this case, immediately dangerous. The Xenomorph thus represents an idiosyncratically weird fusion of technology and primal sexual tension (holy freeholey, H.R. Giger, to what libidinal depths did you plunge to come up with that concept art)—as well as all the trauma and emotions the otherwise bloodless company has suppressed. So it stands to reason that Ash admires the perverse "perfect[ion]" of the Xenomorph's feral but chilly behavior. The Xenomorph is the monster that Ash wants to become but cannot, since he was made in his creators' image.

Ripley's relationship with the Xenomorph is similarly not personal. In Alien's futuristic office space, Ripley is just one grunt among many. For the longest time, she's not the lead protagonist, just a survivor, more a concept than a character. This is striking given who Ripley is presented as in the forthcoming sequels. Each time, she's treated as the reluctant host to the Xenomorph's parasite. In Aliens, the aging Ripley's ticking biological clock gives her nightmares about motherhood, including one in which an alien shoots out of her guts. Her relationship with Newt (Carrie Henn) is simple: she is the child that Ripley wants, but the Queen Xenomorph is blocking her. The aliens are thus once again extensions of Weyland-Yutani, but this time they ultimately represent the monster the company might gradually turn Ripley into. 

The most complex character in Aliens is thus Bishop (Lance Henriksen), the one representative of Weyland-Yutani consistently portrayed as both an emissary of "the company" and an individual. In Alien, Weyland-Yutani employees only start to exist as individuals once they reject the mandates of their bosses. This is also true of David in Prometheus, who says that when his master dies, he "will be free." So it's refreshing to see that Bishop, at the end of Aliens, stands by Ripley and Newt in their final fight against the Queen. In that one moment, Bishop sets up the archetype that screenwriters Damon Lindelof and Jon Spaights will follow for David in Prometheus. Bishop's nature as a more human-like model is apparent in his lack of interest in the Xenomorphs. He, like Ripley, is there to save lives. The mission that he's on is thus not one that sympathetically associates him with the Xenomorphs. Instead, it's assumed that Bishop is trying to be, as the saying goes, "just one of the guys," a point succinctly illustrated during the famous knife trick scene.

Unfortunately, the next two sequels only perpetuate the more psychologically lacking aspects of the franchise. In Alien 3, Ripley grapples with her nascent feelings of survivor's guilt on a prison planet full of convicted murderers and rapists, some of whom have reformed. Ripley relates with the prisoners, all of whom are at least nominally atoning for their crimes. But that identification inexplicably makes the alien the cause of Ripley's feelings of impotence: in her head, the Xenomorph’s survival  is her responsibility and her fault. That theme is never fully explored but it's assumed that Ripley, who tries to get a prisoner to help her kill herself before she (and the alien she will soon give birth to) cause further damage, feels responsible for the Xenomorphs. Her death at the end of Alien 3 is not cathartic, however, because it's a drastic reduction of Alien's themes to a surreal fight between a specific character and a world-ending monster.

Furthermore, the man who created Bishop returns in the last scene of Alien 3, predictably representing Weyland-Yutani's psychopathic interest in studying and profiting from the Xenomorphs. Ripley briefly revives the robo-carcass of Bishop earlier on—meaning the Bishop android that was pretty much destroyed by the Queen at the end of Aliens. But Bishop's human creator's random appearance at the film’s conclusion is as good a sign as any of how un-nuanced that film's portrayal of "the company" and its androids have become.

That being said, Alien: Resurrection, a consistently entertaining but often ridiculous and mostly brain-dead sequel, is even more unambitious. The film starts with a heady theme: what does a post-Ripley Alien movie look like? Ripley's clone is the film's main heroine, once again restructuring the “Alien film” as a personal fight between her and the Xenomorph: ironic, given that the film's main theme is supposed to be evolution and the way that time has changed things. The Xenomorph may have transformed into a weird human-alien hybrid called a "Newborn" by film's end, and the robot Ripley deals with may be a lady (Winona Ryder), in fact. But there's nothing to suggest that anything that Ripley's relationship with these emblematic characters has grown or drastically changed from what we've seen in the last three films. Call (Ryder) is a sympathetic companion and is defined as an individual throughout Alien: Resurrection. There are thus no substantial stakes in her relationship with Ripley. And the Newborn is still just a dangling thread that Ripley has to get rid of so she can die easily. Call also has no real fascination with, or even strong hate for, the Xenomorphs or the Newborn. She just wants to kill the monster and not "die."

This thankfully brings us back to Prometheus, a film that finally builds on the foundation that Scott built with screenwriters Dan O'Bannon and Ronald Shusett. Scientist Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) is circumstantially different than Ripley: she gets in over her head in her quest for answers. Shaw's actively searching for the unknown, unlike Ripley, who just happened to stumble upon it. Shaw is thus guided by the same impulses as David, a character who embodies a potentially pure drive towards scientific exploration. David is only corrupt because his master is corrupt. The deaths of a couple of other characters in the film suggest that Prometheus has a naive but intriguingly moralistic through-line: discovery for flawed reasons is dismissed. 

Unlike some other characters, Shaw has no ulterior motives. She genuinely wants to see, do and learn more than anyone else on the Prometheus, the ship that has replaced the Nostromo. The aliens in Prometheus, called Engineers, are the tantalizingly close realization of Shaw's search but ultimately, her encounter with them is not what it could be.  She does not learn anything from that originally wanted to. The aliens that Shaw encounters have no answers for her, leaving her right where she started at the film’s beginning.

That having been said, there is a serious danger inherent in these creatures, made clear when David suggests that the Engineers may have just made humans for the same reason man made androids: "because [they] could." But at the same time, there's a romance to David's actions. He idolizes the Engineers, and calls them "a superior race." But he also admires Peter O'Toole's Lawrence of Lawrence of Arabia, even going so far as to dye his hair an Aryan blond to match his messianic hero. David stands in awe of the Engineers and gets to "live" ultimately because he has that drive to learn and do more to learn about Prometheus' aliens.

By film's end, David and Shaw choose to continue their search for answers to big questions. And while that resolution's thematic bottom line is fairly simplistic, it's also what makes Prometheus's conclusion the second most satisfying in the series. To dream, to continue to strive for something greater than yourself and, yes, to try harder, in the face of the horrifying and the cruel is a very noble thing.

Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in The Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, The New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, Extended Cut.

VIDEO ESSAY: Ridley Scott’s PROMETHEUS Timeline

VIDEO ESSAY: Ridley Scott’s PROMETHEUS Timeline

It’s perplexing to survey the recent surge of excitement from sci-fi movie fans about Ridley Scott. Sure, Scott’s two directorial sci-fi films—Alien and Blade Runner—set the benchmarks for the sci-fi horror and the sci-fi futuristic thriller, respectively, but Scott hasn’t directed a sci-fi film in thirty years. In fact, Scott hasn’t garnered much critical or financial success for a large chunk of his recent work (Body of Lies, Robin Hood, Kingdom of Heaven and A Good Year). So this excitement must be the result of two forces: 1) the studio’s clever marketing strategy of highlighting the fact that Scott only directed the original Alien, thus forgiving those late, lackluster spin-offs in the franchise; and 2) moviegoers’ desperate yearning for a credible companion piece to that same landmark 1979 film (e.g. Roger Ebert on the fourth Alien film: “There is not a single shot in the movie to fill one with wonder”). Considering these notions, Scott’s newest film, Prometheus, is destined to come under harsh scrutiny.

For starters, Prometheus was long thought to be a prequel to Alien—until Ridley Scott vehemently insisted that Prometheus was not a “prequel” per se, but a film that occupied the same fictional universe—a dark, capitalism-gone-awry space frontier full of privately funded space vessels and government-manned cargo ships—Scott created with Alien. This notion clashes with the studio’s marketing strategy of anchoring both Scott and Prometheus with Alien trademarks (the similar font for its title in the trailer, a strong female lead battling monstrous beings, etc.). As a result, much Internet speculation has surfaced regarding the possible linkage between Alien and the new Prometheus; where would Scott’s new film take place and would it feature the franchise’s aliens? The irony here is that Prometheus—once shrouded in secrecy—has become one of the year’s more transparent blockbusters. After releasing three (yes, three!) teaser videos announcing the arrival of its first theatrical trailer back in December 2011, Prometheus began a viral marketing campaign illustrating the visual history of its own place in Scott’s fictional universe. And if one were to do some homework and logical placement of events, the Prometheus-universe timeline would look something like this:

2023 – Weyland Industries Founder Peter Weyland gives a bold speech at a TEDTalks event, declaring humans’ new roles as Gods because of their ability to create human-like “cybernetic” individuals (a reality embodied in the Alien franchise, with Androids like Bishop and Call).

2089 – Archaeologist Elizabeth Shaw discovers an ancient map in a cave and then sets off a series of events leading to a space expedition to discover the origins of human life.

2093 – The Weyland Industries expedition crew, aboard the spaceship named Prometheus, lands on the distant moon LV-223. Instead of the origins of human life, they discover destructive beings (but not the titular monsters from Alien). The crew is killed. In the end, one of these destructive beings evacuates LV-223 in an ancient space pod of some sort.

The next date is not a Prometheus viral video; it is a known event from the original Alien film.

2122 –The crew of USCSS Nostromo (the cargo vessel carrying Alien heroine Ellen Ripley) investigates the planetoid LV-426 (which wouldn’t be too far from LV-223) and discovers a wrecked alien ship. Lo and behold, they find the fossilized remains of the destructive being from Prometheus.

In conclusion, Scott seems to have created a “peripheral prequel” to his historic sci-fi horror film Alien. There are no direct character lineages (outside of Weyland Industries) or same alien threats (presumably). The important difference between Alien and Prometheus seems to come down to Scott’s polarizing themes. With Alien, Scott set out to rewrite the space opera (e.g. Star Wars, Star Trek) into a terrifying gore fest. Judging from the ideas and content in the Prometheus viral videos (the origins of life, man’s ambition to play God), Scott now looks to expound on the hazards of ambition and hubris. If that’s the case, then maybe Scott’s thirty-year absence from sci-fi is worth the wait.

But this is all speculation. Maybe Scott just wants another monster to pop out of someone’s chest. We’ll find out on June 8th.

Nelson Carvajal is an independent digital filmmaker, writer and content creator based out of Chicago, Illinois. His digital short films usually contain appropriated content and have screened at such venues as the London Underground Film Festival. Carvajal runs a blog called FREE CINEMA NOW which boasts the tagline: "Liberating Independent Film And Video From A Prehistoric Value System."