Ridley Scott’s Alien prequels have attracted much controversy. Some have praised them as fresh and innovative, while others have criticized them as unrecognizable from the original classic. Longtime fans have nitpicked both Prometheus and Covenant, but nitpicks are often symptomatic of a much larger issue. The biggest complaint fans had with Prometheus and Alien: Covenant wasn’t character development, plot holes, or even the series moving away from the Alien itself. It was the gradual stripping away of the unknown.
A UNIVERSE EXPLAINED
Prometheus’ original script, titled Alien: Engineers, was originally more in line with a classic Alien film, following a research ship’s encounter with the monsters while searching for the mysterious Space Jockey. Scott however vetoed this, feeling the monster had become boring. His solution was admittedly daring; fundamentally change the nature of the Alien universe. His method was to have everything tie back to humanity in some way.
With this in mind, the Alien prequels have spun a story of humanity planting the seeds of their own destruction. Prometheus explained the Space Jockey was in fact the creator of mankind and its strange appearance was merely a suit hiding what was essentially a man underneath. Similarly, Covenant revealed that the title creature was never in fact an alien, but was instead an insect, bio-engineered by a man-made android known as David 8. Though things like character and plot holes received a fair amount of criticism, most negative opinions focused on these revelations. Why is that?
HUMANIZING THE INHUMAN
The first problem deals with unfamiliarity. Scott’s prequels offered human faces and explanations for some of the series’ biggest questions. The Space Jockeys were giant people, and the Alien was a byproduct of our meddling with machines. This had the impact of humanizing these creatures, making them a lot less mysterious and a lot more familiar. Prometheus screenwriter Jon Spaihts explained this decision.
[They] are interesting entities not fully explained, but to keep an audience interested in those things it couldn’t be abstraction, it couldn’t be a purely ‘alien story’ about things we can’t relate to. It was going to have to be connected to our own story. Somehow the story of those creatures was going to have to be connected to the human story, not just our history but our fate to come.
Spaihts’ thinking is every similar to the Halloween sequels, namely the decision to make Laurie Strode and Michael Myers siblings. In the original Halloween, Laurie was targeted at random. It was the randomness that made it frightening. Michael was a stranger to Laurie, and what happened to her could have happened to anyone. That changed once they were siblings. It couldn’t have happened to anyone because nobody else was Michael’s sister. In bringing the two closer, filmmakers actually weakened their dynamic. Them being strangers is what made it work. Alien worked in a similar way.
Apart from the Nostromo, every design in Alien was based on the unfamiliar. The planet, the Derelict, the Space Jockey and the creature itself were all made as otherworldly as possible. Doing so created a sense of scope, which made the claustrophobic atmosphere all the more overwhelming. The Nostromo was the only safe place because outside its battered hull, there was nothing recognizable to latch onto. Like Halloween, this was a universe of strangers. Scott’s prequels turned that universe into a human centered one. The Space Jockeys created us, they were us, and the Alien was just an extension of our machines, and therefor us. What was once a vast, uncharted ocean, now looked a lot more familiar, and a lot less treacherous.
REQUIEM FOR MYSTERY
Fans had been asking questions for many years about where the Alien came from, what its purpose was, what the Space Jockey was, what its motives were and the like. Scott sought to explore those questions with his prequels, and after decades finally gave fans a definitive answer. How satisfying this answer was notwithstanding, was an answer even necessary?
The Alien was effectively turned into a modern Frankenstein monster, with David 8 as the mad doctor. There is a place for such stories. Godzilla for instance had its monster created by human meddling, which worked since Godzilla was an allegory for the atomic bomb. Since Godzilla was a stand-in for nuclear war, him being created by man worked. For Godzilla, explanation is important. Alien was cut from a different cloth. Here, it wasn’t the answer, but the question itself that was appealing.
The Halloween series again shows the power of the question. Carpenter’s original never explored Michael’s madness. According to Carpenter, not explaining the killer allowed audiences to project onto him that which scared them most. Any attempts at answers only weakened the character, as was the case with Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers. Curse revealed Michael’s killings were done on behalf of a cult. As with Covenant, the cult were the real masterminds behind the murders, and as with Covenant, Michael took a back seat to this new, more dire threat. Like the Alien, questions made Michael more frightening, and answers made him less scary.
Mystery is one of horror’s most essential components. Nothing is more frightening than the unknown. Though sequels detailed the Alien’s reproductive process, neither it nor the Space Jockey were ever explored in detail. That created questions, questions that prompted decades of discussion where fans filled in the gaps with their darkest fears. Not giving an answer made one seem unattainable, and made this universe seem all the more unfathomable. Ridley’s prequels sacrificed that mystery, and by extension, the audience’s ability to add their own fears into the mix. A little mystery lets in the viewer’s imagination, a far more frightening tool than any filmmaker could ever use.
There are those who say none of this matters. Ridley Scott did create the Alien universe, so who better to answer these questions than the original author? There is a problem with this argument. Alien was born before Ridley’s career even began.
Alien was written by two science fiction writers named Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett, who discovered Swiss artist H. R. Giger while working on an adaptation of Dune which never materialized. After Fox picked up the script, it was re-written by David Giler and Walter Hill, who contributed much of the film’s memorable dialogue as well as the AI characters that since became a series staple. Only after all this was Scott hired to direct the project based on the success of his first feature, made well after O’Bannon and Shusett first submitted their script.
While Scott did contribute the film’s rich visual style and lobbied for Sigourney Weaver as his leading lady, to say that he created the Alien universe is fundamentally untrue. Many of the elements people credit him with, such as the AI characters, were not his own. Ridley was part of a team, and it was their collective vision that made Alien a success.
Even the worst Alien sequels, including Alien vs. Predator, left the creature’s origins a mystery. Since they didn’t alter the mythos itself, they were easier to forget. Scott’s prequels were the first to tread into that territory, a risk that didn’t pay off at the box office. Covenant’s sales dropped by a staggering eighty percent by its second weekend due to negative word of mouth. Coupled with its advertising campaign, Covenant became the first film in the main series to lose money.
It would of course be unfair to vilify Ridley Scott for trying something different, but his approach seems to miss the appeal of his own film, an appeal written in the title itself. Alien worked so beautifully as a title since it was both a noun and an adjective. The series wasn’t just about a creature from another world, but was infused with a strange sense of unknowability that made it vast and frightening. Sometimes less is more. In adding more, Ridley Scott’s prequels have taken away most of what made the series so ‘alien.’
[Sources: Furious Gods: Making of Prometheus]
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