On the Road to Prometheus is a series of retrospectives on the Alien franchise, in anticipation for Prometheus, which arrives in theaters on June 8th.
When Star Wars took the world by storm in 1977, all the major studios scrambled to find more scifi to put out on the market. The only spaceship story 20th Century Fox had on hand was a dark, atmospheric script titled Alien by Dan O’Bannon, pitched as “Jaws in Space”. O’Bannon had previously worked with John Carpenter on Dark Star, a scifi comedy that set into motion his desire to give scifi a different spin, this time in the direction of horror, and the blowout success of Star Wars gave him that chance. Ridley Scott was hired to helm the project, which was partly decided based on a fear that the material would be handled as a B movie by another director. And with surrealist artist H.R. Giger brought on to design the bleak, oppressive sets and the iconic (albeit elusive) visual design of the xenomorph, one of the best science fiction films of all time was born.
For being such a special effects heavy film, and one that had such a (relatively) limited budget, Alien looks pretty great all these years later. Hallways are filled with fragments of objects, tubes, pipes, gears, and other broken-down contraptions. Everything appears labyrinthine yet minimalist, futuristic yet decaying, familiar yet alien. The plot is sparse, and yet has multitudinous layers under its surface. Who or what is the Space Jockey, the giant alien creature sitting at what appears to be a control console in the derelict spacecraft? Why does he appear to be manning a giant gatling gun? It’s implied that the xenomorph eggs may be shot onto foreign planets as a form of warfare, but we’re never entirely sure. We watch as the crew clumsily try to understand what’s happening, what the creature is, how to react next.
Movies today like to force-feed us answers, but Alien is surprisingly restrained, with so many hints and allusions you don’t even notice that very little overt plot is actually happening. There’s the obvious Freudian imagery, allusions to life and death throughout the set design, and layers of feminist undertones permeating the story. This is a film of incredible depth and contradiction, especially one that could have went the way of the B picture (and, indeed, was pitched as such in several places; it went by the title Alien: The 8th Passenger in most markets).
Its biggest strength, and in turn its biggest contradiction, is the mark it left on cinema. It’s inspired countless imitations – horror flicks that jack its ominous tone and terrifying scares – yet lack the one thing that truly made it scary: its pacing. Slow, creeping, lingering shots that burn themselves into your retinas, images that leave you hanging even after countless viewings, unsettlingly unsure of what may be lurking around the next corner. We’re almost always left in the dark (often literally) about what to expect next. Even the alien changes in appearance, nary giving us a good look at its adult form (this was partly out of necessity, as Scott didn’t want the xenomorph to ever look like a “man in a suit”).
Prometheus, which opens this June, intends to revisit this mysterious, frightening world, and hints that some of our questions may finally be answered. Will this be the return to form for Ridley Scott we’ve all waited for? Surely we’ll all appreciate another visit to the universe he helped create, and at worst it seems we’ll be getting a great looking scifi summer blockbuster. Maybe, if we’re lucky, we’ll get some answers to all those questions he left us with, answers that we’ve waited over 30 years for.
Score: 10 out of 10