The Prometheus Problem
The eagerly awaited sequel to the “not an Alien film but has its DNA… but it’s really an Alien prequel but also it’s not” is about to be upon us. That might seem a long winded way to say Prometheus but there is a method to the muddled madness.
Prometheus came out in 2012 to somewhat lukewarm response from fans and critics expecting a return to form for the franchise, mainly because Ridley Scott was back in the director’s chair. There were warning signs before the film was released however that things were going in a confusing direction.
Firstly, the film was changed from being a straight up Alien prequel – replete with face-huggers, chest-bursters and the star of the franchise, the xenomorph – to one that would run parallel to the original Alien franchise. This is fine in theory but the trailer for Prometheus, one that mirrored the original Alien trailer in sound design and logo presentation, sold us something much more connected to the Alien franchise.
Damon Lindelof – oft the whipping boy of online fanboys for supposedly ruining Jon Spaihts original script, Alien: Engineers– said after the release of Prometheus that a potential sequel would “tangentialize even further away from the original Alien.” With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that this won’t happen. The sequel is called Alien:Covenant, not Prometheus 2.
Blaming Lindelof is easy (mainly because of the lingering backlash to the finale of Lost) and also unfair (I refuse to criticize the man who co-created one of the best TV shows of all time, The Leftovers). The director of a movie is the captain of the ship and you really need to go there first if you are doing the blame game and Scott was equally involved in the story crafting process as Lindelof and Spaihts were.
Alien: Covenant also leads us to the other problem of Prometheus, the name “Prometheus”.
What was supposed to be a haughty gesture to our origins as humans (via Greek mythology because the public just love it when you class up B-movies) ended up being really bad marketing. If your film is connected to the Alien franchise, prefix it with “Alien”. You can still call it Prometheus, just put “Alien” before it.
Similarly, it didn’t help that 20th Century Fox and Ridley Scott were toying with a PG-13 rating even during production of the film. An Alien film should be two things; firstly it should say “Alien” or “Aliens” in the title; and secondly, it should not be for children. A violation of these two things is inimical to making a good Alien film.
We also now know that Elizabeth Shaw- the female lead in Prometheus – has been replaced (in this instance, likely killed off) by a new female star to take the franchise forward, Katherine Waterston.
Interestingly enough, there are persistent rumours that her character may have a familial connection to the original hero of the franchise, Ellen Ripley. This has been denied but I think they doth protest too much (Fox ordered the sites that reported this news to immediately take it down)
The Ghostly Ties that Bind and Gibson’s Alien 3
And here we get to the looming connection between Alien:Covenant, Aliens and William Gibson’s vision for Alien 3. Going back to (in a more meaningful way and not just putting the name “Alien” back in the title) the original franchise is smart because it’s what fans and critics really wanted from Prometheus but Prometheus seems to have a lot in common with some ideas that cropped up in William Gibson’s draft for Alien 3. But first, a brief history lesson.
William Gibson, acclaimed novelist and godfather of the cyperpunk genre, was hired by David Giler (you see his name and Walter Hill with producer credits on every movie in the franchise) in 1987 to work on a 15 page treatment by Giler and Hill. The movie picks up right after the events of Aliens, effectively side-lines Ripley (Weaver, reportedly, wasn’t in a hurry to rush back to the franchise and was happy to sit Alien 3 out except for a cameo appearance) and makes Hicks and Bishop the main protagonists.
The Alien 3 that the world got is an abortion of a movie, let’s not pretend otherwise and let’s not pretend that plot wise, it makes any sense. That Ripley or Hicks wouldn’t have scanned the ship for eggs or more Xenomorphs after what they had been through simply doesn’t track.
What Gibson’s Alien 3 does right however is the only thing that makes sense plot wise for continuing on events directly after Aliens, the Alien Queen deposited genetic material inside Bishop’s entrails from which an egg develops. It’s a fascinating read, that not only keeps the beloved characters from Aliens alive (Ripley is in a coma for Alien 3 but the plan was for her to fully return in Alien 4 and yes Newt is also safe in this version), but it features ideas and material that would go on to be used in Prometheus and Alien: Covenant.
Gibson’s script is the first to hint that the xenomorphs may have been created by a superior intelligence:
Perhaps it is the fruit of some ancient
experiment… A living artifact, the product of
genetic engineering… A weapon. Perhaps we are
looking at the end result of yet another arms
Sounds very Prometheus-y and it should be because another plot point expounds upon this as the Weyland-Yutani weapons division begin experimenting with the Alien DNA which they find has the ability to alter other genetic material on contact:
That’s a biological structure? More like
part of a machine…
The alien form makes contact with the human DNA. The transformation is
shockingly swift, but its stages can still be followed: the thing seems to
pull itself into and through the coils, and for an instant the two are meshed,
locked, and then the final stage. A new shape glows, a hybrid; the green and
red beads have been altered beyond recognition.
It sounds an awful lot like the “black goo” from Prometheus but perhaps the most original part of Gibson’s script is the alien spores.
We know for sure that spores feature in Covenant, mainly because the trailers have all but shown them and how they work, and it would seem as if they produce the neomorph (the albino looking cousin of the Xenomorph that is new to the franchise).
Gibson’s script differs here as a great deal of tension is brought out in the script by not knowing who is infected (Hicks included) and in Gibson’s script, it is referred to as “the change”. Those infected suddenly tear off their skin and change into a fully-fledged xenomorph.
The beginning of a new era or the spectre of the past?
It is truly a shame that Gibson’s script never got made as it’s a tense, action packed script that would turn out to have some very influential ideas and directions for the franchise. The finale of Gibson’s Alien 3 not only promised a visit to the alien home world (or as Bishop puts it to track them to their source and “find the point of origin”) to wipe out the xenomorphs once and for all but it is also teased that some of the Alien DNA made it back to Earth and into the hands of Weyland-Yutani.
It would have been costly for sure but it had the potential to be an epic end to the series.
More than anything the spectre of James Cameron haunts the entire franchise, even Scott’s prequels. Cameron expanded the mythology and perhaps most crucially, when you think of Ellen Ripley, the image you have of her is the gun-toting badass from Aliens, not Alien and certainly not Alien 3.
Compare and contrast the image of Katherine Waterston’s Daniels and Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley and you can see Scott owes much to Cameron’s indelible and iconic imagery. The ghosts of the past loom large on Alien:Covenant and we’re about to find out if Scott can truly bring the franchise back to life or if he’s merely just recycling the ghosts of the past.
Alien: Covenant is released on the 12th May