Why 'Prometheus' Remains the Most Misunderstood 'Alien' Movie

Ridley Scott came close to doing what the best sequels and prequels have accomplished: daring to explore something different.
Left, Photofest; Right, courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox
Michael Fassbender in 'Prometheus' (left) and 'Alien: Covenant'

As the marketing for Alien: Covenant ramped up, the studio seemed bent on communicating one simple message: "this is the Alien film that you've been waiting to see!"  There will be face-huggers.  There will be chest-bursters.  And of course there will be Xenomorphs.  And everything from the title — which unlike its predecessor, Prometheus, opted to include the word 'Alien' — to the posters to the trailers have communicated that message.

It's interesting then to flash back to 2012's Prometheus and recall how differently the studio and filmmakers approached that installment — its marketing, narrative and visuals — and how distinctive of a film that we got because of it.

With that film, director Ridley Scott and writers Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof openly declared that they were making something other than the "alien film that we'd been waiting to see."  And many fans were not pleased, accusing Prometheus of being drawn out, boring and too exposition heavy.

And while it wasn't without its glaring flaws — some thinly drawn motivations, some rather irrational characters, and some undeniably contrived plot turns — I would argue that Scott and his screenwriters, because of that fresh focus, were able to craft a new chapter in the Alien franchise that came close to accomplishing what the best sequels and prequels have accomplished. 

Part of the reason that AliensThe Empire Strikes Back and Terminator 2: Judgment Day were such fantastic sequels was they dared to do something narratively and thematically different, while still remaining visually and aesthetically comparable to what had come before.  In those sequels, it would be an all-out war with the Xenomorphs, Luke would spend half the movie training with a green Muppet and the ultimate baddy would become the protagonist.  Even so, the aliens would still be performers in latex suits, the Millennium Falcon remained practical model, and the terminator exoskeleton would be full-size puppets.

And so it was with Prometheus.  Scott was hell-bent on constructing, in reality, as much as possible, quite literally extending the largest soundstage in Europe — found at Pinewood Studios — by an extra third, to maintain the same sort of texture and realism found in his 1979 original.

For similar reasons, many of the creatures and gore effects were done in camera as well — the infamous med-pod scene featuring a fully realized animatronic alien.

And even while no other Alien film had been shot in 3D, Scott's compositions and camera moves on Prometheus imitated those seen in his past films, which themselves highlighted their environments' depth.

But having laid that foundation and established that connective tissue visually and aesthetically, the most fantastic aspects of Prometheus — like the aforementioned sequels — were what it then did differently.

In Charles de Lauzirika's documentary The Furious Gods: Making Prometheus, director Scott stated — and I would say accurately so — "you really wrung it dry [with those] four films."  We'd gotten the sci-fi horror film with Alien and the straight-up action film with Aliens and, more or less, variations of the same with Alien 3 and Alien: Resurrection. They were humans in confined spaces, battling Xenomorphs.

Consequently, what the director wisely chose to do with Prometheus was open up the world, visually, narratively and thematically.

Looking at the designs of the ship interiors or planet exteriors, for example — especially as compared to those found in the 1979 Alien — they were so distinctly open and vast.  The Nostromo in Alien was this cramped, worn down mining vessel that happened upon a crashed ship on the dim and atmospheric LV-426.  And the Prometheus was this extremely well-funded exploration craft that embarked on this adventure to the vast and clear LV-223.

And those visuals appropriately connected to Prometheus' very daring and grandiose philosophical explorations.  That story wasn't just about monsters chasing humans — even as it did feature such sequences — it was about who created those monsters and why and whether we, as a species, were just a destructive and vile.  

It's a shame then that Prometheus received as much flak as it did, that negativity seeming to have pushed the filmmakers, with Alien: Covenant, back towards something more akin the first four Alien films.  But even while Scott — who now openly considers the de-emphasis on the actual alien in Prometheus to be a mistake — ended up repurposing a number of the same beats found in previous installments, he's still too inventive of a filmmaker to throw all of Prometheus' boldness and diversity out with the bathwater. 

As actor Michael Fassbender — who played synthetics Walter and David — said in the aforementioned documentary, "[with sequels] you've got to maybe sort of upset people, or take that risk."  And Alien: Covenant does that, maintaining a few of the ideas that made Prometheus so fresh and interesting, while also delivering the thrills and chills fan have come to expect from this franchise.  So in the end, even as it's neither the most original nor most balanced film, Alien: Covenant may still be "the Alien film that you've been waiting to see."

For more from Alien: Covenant, take a look at why the Xenomorph remains horrifying to audiences decades later, this handy primer for what you actually need to know before seeing the latest sequel/prequel and our interview with star Billy Crudup.

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