Ridley Scott directed Alien, his second motion picture, during the back half of 1978. He was 42.
I’m not here to dissect this most seminal of films. I’m not here to discuss Scott’s pre-Alien career – although it will forever haunt me that he almost designed the Daleks for their debut in 1963 – but to look at what happened 30 years later, when Scott returned to helm the prequel project that would evolve into Prometheus and, later, followup Alien: Covenant.
Prometheus circles the nightmarish collapse of a voyage to discover the origins of man, in the same way water circles a drain. It’s a fever-dream of a film, the result of a hybrid screenplay by Jon Spaihts (which I have read, and found extremely dull) and Lost mastermind Damon Lindelof, with contributions from Scott all over the place. He wasn’t supposed to direct it at all (he wanted TV advertising whiz Carl Erik Rinsch – the man behind commercials like Shell’s ‘Shapeshifter’, to helm the project) but relented to the overwhelming demands of 20th Century Fox (now 20th Century Studios, a subsidiary of Disney, since 2019) and allowed his fixation on the one loose thread of the original film to lead Prometheus (originally titled Paradise, as in Paradise Lost) into a creepy, cranky nightmare place.
See, when you make your career with a film about a big penis monster allegorically raping a crew of cargo haulers, you start to ask yourself questions – questions like “what kind of god allows that?” and “am I that god? What does that say about me?”. And there was a loose thread, as said, in the presence of the vast mummified creature that featured in a key scene in Alien, the so-called ‘Space Jockey’, assumed to be the pilot of the ghost ship on the barren moon LV-426. Scott had instinctively felt this alien was benign… And yet, Prometheus features a whole host of them, unmasked as the enigmatic ‘Engineers’, the architects of humanity, identical down to the DNA – and yet several times our size, with doleful black eyes and goth-pale skin… And they are decidedly malignant.
Malignant really is the word. Prometheus hinges on a ‘black goo’, a weaponised viral super-cancer that makes monsters out of men and simultaneously phallic/yonic ‘hammerpedes’ out of wee little worms. It turns the sperm of one expedition member into a delivery mechanism for a rapidly-gestating ‘Trilobite’ (big nasty octopus thing) that, in the most memorably unpleasant scene in the film, archaeologist Shaw (a truly magnetic Noomi Rapace) extracts from her own body via a robot surgeon. Later, this Trilobite impregnates an Engineer – revealing itself as simply a very big Facehugger, and allowing then film to end on the reveal of ‘the Deacon’, a strictly biological take on the previously eerily biomechanical ‘Xenomorph’ (a name I do not care for, but will use anyway).
And all of this horror, all of this baroque and bizarre violence and mayhem, happens at the inscrutable whims of the Engineers, who are almost entirely absent save for the above mentioned murderous bastard who ends up eggo preggo. Scott and Lindelof and Spaihts create these nightmares entirely to answer his one lingering, haunting question, the question of what manner of god he, Ridley Scott, is.
And then there is David-8.
David is the prerequisite android of the film – prerequisite because Alien has the shock reveal that Ian Holm’s itchy, twitchy rules-obsessed Company man Ash is actually a “goddamn robot”, full of milky fluids and freaky entrails. Since Ash, the synthetics of the franchise have included Bishop (a loyal technically minded Marine) and Call, a ‘second-generation’ synthetic designed by other synthetics who shared a fascinating, memorably bizarre familial-yet-sexual tension with Ripley 8 (no relation, but a xenomorph hybrid-clone of the original Ripley). David is – because this is a prequel – an older model. But he’s more sophisticated than his successors (Covenant will specify that he was so advanced and so close to human that he made people uncomfortable), and his motivations significantly more ‘mundane’ than any Weyland-Yutani agent.
David wants to kill his dad and (in the absence of a mum) fuck everyone else. As he goes about creating the apex of apex predators, he is himself the apex Freudian predator.
David (elegantly, meticulously played by Michael Fassbender) is a pervert. A thousand rape fantasies play out behind his eyes, even while he styles himself after Peter O’Toole as T.E. Lawrence (as in Lawrence of Arabia) and conducts himself with terrifying, public schoolboy efficacy, a sneering efficiency.. He’s a predatory bastard who resents that he is a machine – and thus a slave – almost as much as he resents that a human being made him. As the crew of Prometheus discover that their makers, their ultimate ancestors, are actually absent, errant psychos who mass produced black goo to commit omnicide on planet Earth (implied to be some kind of retribution for – no, really – the Biblical crucifixion), David’s eyes are already unclouded. He really, really hates people, especially his ‘father’, the phenomenally decrepit Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce). He recoils at our touch – at the touch of flesh he knows, in his evil mechanical guts, is slowly dying – and he is obedient in the same way the Devil is trustworthy (that is to say, he is literal and he is abusing your faith).
So David unleashes the mayhem in Prometheus and he does this because he thinks that if we want to meet our makers, we deserve to suffer for that knowledge as much as he has suffered in meeting his. We are meat, to be slaughtered and sullied.
So, to recap so far – Scott comes back and isn’t sure about any of it until Lindelof introduces a Chariots of the Gods scenario that allows him to reconcile his own thoughts about his status as ‘the god of Alien’ with the loose end of the Space Jockey. David is to us as we are to the Engineers – an experiment that has immediately exceeded all expectations and caused us unimaginable suffering. David has a species wide Oedipus Complex.
So if Prometheus is about anything – and it’s about a lot of things – it’s about the collision of the adult questions, the big questions we hope secretly will never get answered like “what are we here for” and “why do we exist” with that most terrible question a child asks, “what do you and mommy do when you close the bedroom door”. Learning that human beings exist at the leisure of baffling intelligences with motivations so remote to us that they seem inscrutable… The terror of learning that your parents are fallible, but with lots more blood and gore and death.
And then Tony Scott died in real life.
I am about to do some very crude, very sharp reads of Covenant. If you are uncomfortable with the idea that Ridley Scott might have put his feelings about his much-mourned brother into an Alien film – if you are uncomfortable with my trying to parse that out – please feel free to stop reading.
Tony Scott also made movies. They were not like Ridley’s movies. Where Ridley made wild swings for some secret truth about the human experience (and regularly flopped at the box office) with a sharp focus on production design and vast staggering scale (Blade Runner, Legend, Gladiator and so on), Tony made movies that made stupid amounts of money for Jerry Bruckheimer. He made sexy, sensuous action pictures like Top Gun and Man on Fire. He made weird cranky freak movies like DOMINO and DEJA VU.
When Tony killed himself, I think it is fair to say absolutely devastated Ridley, and to say that this pain is all over Covenant – which picks up decades later on the Engineer homeworld where David, absolutely mad with power, has wiped out all animal life with the black goo and run a series of experiments to produce the ‘perfect organism’ – the true Xenomorph – that culminate when the crew of Covenant arrive and pretty much everyone dies horribly.
David has a successor in the Covenant roster in the form of the physically identical (but American-accented) Walter, a newer model android who, crucially, has less going on upstairs. Yes, he pines romantically for his crewmate, the suddenly-widowed Daniels… But he would never act on this (except to protect her from harm), because he can’t, just as he can’t compose a symphony or even truly imagine. And of course, David finds this tragic. He finds his ‘brother’ tragic, in his limitations, in his self-sacrificing nature, in his apparent simplicity. David may be a mass-murdering lunatic who actualizes his rape fantasies by creating a mobile penis monster with vagina dentata instead of a mouth, but – he’s got a vision. Even if he can’t remember who wrote Ozymandias, he understands it in his… Soul?
But Walter is, you know, a better person. He’s not got fucked-up murder-rape fantasies and he’s not bred a perfect killing machine in his basement and he certainly hasn’t committed genocide for ‘the art’. David may be a superior android, a visionary artiste, a maestro murderer… But Walter has heart. The limitations placed on him by Weyland-Yutani, the ever-present megacorp that owns the ships we see throughout the saga and doesn’t give two shits about the lives of the crews? They make him, in a measurable and perceivable way, a kinder, gentler being than the mad, bad, dangerous David.
Which is very interesting, to me. And it should be noted that while the Company is a big deal in all the Alien films (excluding Resurrection, where it’s been absorbed by the biggest company of all, Walmart), we never saw the top dog until Prometheus. We never understood why Weyland-Yutani is so violently and callously obsessed with the Xeno beyond ‘profit’. Now we do – now we know that Peter Weyland wanted to beg the Engineers for immortality, running counter to his unwanted daughter (Meredith Vickers, played by Charlize Theron) and her claim that a king has his time and then he dies.
But besides this dry and dusty lore-keeping and wet and bloody mayhem, besides the apparent soul-baring in Covenant, there’s something else that keeps me coming back to the duology of Alien prequels, and that’s the possibility that they’re commentaries on themselves. Like The Matrix Resurrections or Mad Max: Fury Road, they’re films that see the return of a genre trailblazer working against the staggering investments of a corporate body (20th Century Fox for Scott, WB for Lana Wachowski and George Miller) and their inane reductive demands (Fox tried to get Prometheus down to a ludicrously tame PG-13 for maximum four-quadrant return, WB micromanaged Resurrections and Fury Road to a similarly constrictive extent). There’s a rebellious streak to all three pictures, an anti-corporate pro-artist sentiment, and all three chart what could be described as allegorical journeys into the making of their own selves. Prometheus even sees the ostensible leader of the mission have the rug pulled under them to reveal that it was all the work of an aged maestro.
In being such deeply personal films – but shot in Scott’s trademark remote, detached style – Prometheus and Covenant can be deadening, numbing viewing. The idiot decisions made by genius characters can seem baffling and perplexing (although for my money they’re entirely too plausible, as the real-life scientists I’ve met are, to a one, dumb as shit outside their chosen fields) and the motivations of David and the Engineers can seem entirely opaque. But it doesn’t matter, truly, what an audience takes away from the films. They’re a statement.
So what’s it all for? What do Prometheus and Covenant achieve? Ultimately, they make a bold claim about what human beings are ‘for’. We’re crude, we’re violent, we’re rock-stupid more often than not – but we live to create, be it through art or through sticking bits of ourselves into other people and waiting nine months for the turkey to be done. David, of course, believes this is pretension, that it’s a limitation, that the ‘perfect organism’ would be a harrowing machine of violence and rape. But David is a chump, doomed to failure, and even though the Disney buyout of Fox has stranded these prequels in a perpetually unfinished state – a trilogy of two – we know he’ll end up stuck on the miserable LV-426, dead as a dodo, his machinations for naught. Ellen Ripley will show up and fuck up his perfect composure forever and ever, amen.