NEWT: "My mommy always said there were no monsters,
no real ones; but there are."
RIPLEY: "Yes, there are, aren't there?"
Aliens, 1986, 20th Century Fox Pictures
VASQUEZ (Jenette Goldstein): "You always were an asshole, Gorman."
Aliens, 1986, 20th Century Fox Pictures
DISTEPHANO (Raymond Cruz): "We thought you were dead!"
RIPLEY: "Yeah, I get that a lot."
Alien Resurrection, 1997, 20th Century Fox Pictures
The first two movies of the Alien series, Alien  and Aliens , not only are among the greatest of science fiction movies, but they are classics of the genre. They also represent the best and most iconic role played by Sigourney Weaver, who starred in the first four movies as officer Ripley, the only survivor of the first movie. The second movie, Aliens, was written and directed by James Cameron, who was building the career that would lead to the two most successful movies of all time, Titanic  and Avatar . Weaver herself had a significant part in Avatar -- to me, the only really genuine and likable character in that movie.
The third and fourth entries in the Alien series, Alien3  and Alien Resurrection , were let-downs in terms of the quality of the series, and they received very mixed critical and popular responses. Indeed, the abrupt death at the beginning of Alien3 of characters that had survived Aliens, Newt, Hicks, and Bishop (Carrie Henn, Michael Biehn, and Lance Henriksen), struck many participants in the earlier movie, including director Cameron, as an outrage. Indeed, I can only view it as a betrayal of the emotional investment that audiences had made in those characters, especially Newt. The best way to have dealt with Alien3 would have been to pull a "Dallas" in the next movie, i.e. have the whole thing written off as a bad dream (as was one whole season of the television series "Dallas"). This would have been consistent with the "bad dream" theme of Aliens and would have made it possible to pick up in a proper way where that movie left off.
This was not done. Alien Resurrection, the next movie, nevertheless represented a credible attempt to recoup the series from the previous disaster. Although still not a critical or popular favorite, I do think that Alien Resurrection is a worthy addition to the series and does contain some of the most memorable lines of all the movies. Perhaps that was because the script was written by Joss Whedon, who was responsible for the television series "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and the memorable but short-lived science fiction series, "Firefly." Whedon reportedly was unhappy with the way the film came out, but I don't think he has anything to regret.
Finally, in 2012 Ridley Scott, the distinguished director of the original Alien, returned to the Alien story. Filmed in some secrecy, it was not long before the release of Prometheus that the annoucement was made that this was even an Alien movie. Although chronologically a "prequel," Prometheus does not connect up to the storyline of Alien. However, it does not seem to be what is now called a "reboot" in the movie business, i.e. starting the whole story all over again and possibly contradicting the other movies. Instead, this movie begins new storylines that potentially could connect up with Alien, but not in any way that is yet obvious. At the same time, Prometheus answers some of the questions left by the other Alien movies, while raising many other questions. It is also thematically much larger than the previous Alien movies, occasioning much debate about whether this ambitious enlargement even works. While the ending of Prometheus is clearly designed to lead into a sequel, such an additional movie was not in development at the time; and even now plans for a sequel appear to be progressing only in a desultory fashion. If Scott intended this to be a stand-alone movie, the plot would be uniquely open-ended and unresolved -- and frustrating.
My own experience with the Alien movies began in 1981. When Alien was released in 1979, there was a great deal of comment about the feminism of having Ripley being the heroic, surviving, and triumphant character. The prospect of some kind of political moral to the story, however, was not attractive to me, and I did not see the movie.
A bit more than a year later, I was starting the Spring semester at the University of Texas at Austin. It was January, and the Texas Union had decided to run Alien as the midnight movie every night of the first week of classes. I decided to go. There was some kind of mixup on the first night, and when I walked in at midnight, the movie had already been running a good hour. Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) was already wandering off to meet his death. Nevertheless, I watched the rest of the movie and then came back the next night, when I was able to watch the whole thing. I ended up going back every night the rest of the week.
This was a unique experience. In a great deal of the movie, one is aware of the darkness, vastness, and emptiness of space. Walking out of the movie at 2 o'clock in the morning, into a cold Texas January, and walking home several blocks to my apartment (at 26th & San Gabriel) through deserted streets, made this motif of the movie an extended and vivid impression. Also, seeing the movie in a theater involves a significant difference from seeing it on television: the theater is actually dark, and the darkness of space on the movie screen really is an absence of light, while on a television even blackness still glows a bit from the overall glow of the television screen. I could hardly have arranged to see the movie in such eerily appropriate circumstances, with cold, lonely darkness inside and outside the theater. I was hooked on Alien.
My personal experiences with the Alien movies continued in 2013 when Arclight Cinemas offered a March 13th special screening of Aliens at the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood. This is where I first saw E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial in 1982 -- altough the empty parking lot that used to surround the Dome is now filled with stores, other theaters, and the parking structure. For Aliens, the place was all but sold out. The audience was ethuasiastic, loudly cheering and laughing, although I could not help but reflect that many of them cannot have been born when Aliens was released in 1986, 26 years ago. I was glad to see the movie should continue to have such a passionate following. Unfortunately, unlike some other special screenings in LA, no one involved with the movie was present to say anything or answer any questions.
The recurrent theme of the Alien movies is motherhood, just as that of the Star Wars movies is fatherhood. And, as with Star Wars, we get a contrast of the true and false, i.e. in this case true motherhood and false motherhood. False motherhood dominates the first movie. We learn quite early that the central computer on the ship is called "Mother." Unlike "Hal" in 2001: A Space Odyssey , this is not an autonomous computer that does anything hostile. Instead, it is through "Mother" that we learn of the betrayal of the crew by the faceless "Company" that is often referenced in the movie. Also, when Ripley is trying to abort the destruct sequence, because the alien has prevented her from reaching the shuttle to escape the ship, and she is unable to accomplish this, her response is a very personal anger directed at "Mother," whom she calls a "bitch." This is echoed in Aliens, when Ripley likewise characterizes the queen alien during their final battle in that movie. The "Mother" computer of Alien thus simply fails to do what a mother ought to do, protect her children -- but perhaps just because, as an insentient computer, not much better can be expected.
The strongest representation of false motherhood in the movie, however, is the unnatural impregnation, gestation, and birth of the alien from the chest of Executive Officer Kane (John Hurt). This is the iconic sequence of Alien, which almost alone has immortalized it in movie lore. Mel Brooks even managed to work the horrifying birth sequence into Spaceballs , his parody of Star Wars, complete with John Hurt himself returning as the victim. Don't have the chili.
What Alien lacks is a representation of the true mother. Ripley doesn't do anything very motherly, although she does a better job of trying to protect the ship and the crew -- by refusing to let Kane back on the ship with the parasite attached to his face -- than Mother or anyone else, including Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt). Indeed, her concern for the ship's cat, which we wonder may get her killed towards the end of the movie, reminds us more of lonely cat ladies than of effective mothers. No, the true mother only emerges in Aliens, which is part of the genius of Cameron's treatment, as we shall see.
Otherwise, the imagery of Alien, especially at the alien spaceship, but also in Ripley's ship, the Nostromo, is suggestive of the interior of bodies. The entrance to the alien spaceship is through portals that look enough like vaginal openings that this detail seems to have been deleted, perhaps from delicacy, in the recreation of the scene in Aliens (in a sequence that was not in the theatrical cut of the movie). We don't get this kind of thing in Star Wars, where the ships are generally bright, theatrically lit, and technocratic. The Nostromo is messy, cluttered, dark, and damp, with the impression that this is a matter of course.
One of the drawbacks of the series is that questions are raised by events in Alien that are never answered, considered, or even addressed in any of the next three movies. Most importantly, we learn that the Company (identified as "Weyland-Yutani" in subsequent movies, or at least in out-takes from subsequent movies) has sent the Nostromo (named after the 1904 novel by Joseph Conrad) to the mysterious planet (identified as "LV-426" in Aliens) because it already knows that there are alien specimens there, whose recovery is so important that the crew is judged "expendable." The only member of the crew aware of the nature of this goal is the Science Officer Ash (Ian Holm). Ash turns out to be a robot, an android, who ultimately attempts to kill Ripley.
Now, how did the Company already know there were aliens on "LV-426"? We never find out (even after Prometheus). Even worse, in Aliens, which is supposed to be 60 years later, there is no hint that the Company ever knew anything about this business. The implication is that the records were destroyed, but why would they be? If recovering one of these aliens was so important, why would the whole matter be dropped and memory of it erased just because the Nostromo disappears? One would expect the Company to redouble its efforts, especially since it would have the cover story of looking for the Nostromo. The official Company response to Ripley in Aliens is that there has never been any evidence of the kind of aliens she describes. It doesn't make any sense. Indeed, if the records were to be destroyed, this would create the hazard of people blindly wandering into danger, which is what is supposed to have actually happened in Aliens. In that movie, the Company itself does not seem to have any malevolent role -- that is the doing of Carter Burke (Paul Reiser), a Company lawyer who seems to be personally behind the betrayals that drive the story. Otherwise, the expedition to "LV-426" is a military operation.
Apart from the perplexities of the Company's role, we are left with questions about the aliens themselves. For there are two kinds of aliens in Alien. The eggs of the predatory aliens are found in the spaceship of another alien species, whose ship appears to have been infected and taken over as will happen to the Nostromo. We see one fossilized alien, whose chest has been broken open. It is hard to understand what its living form would have been like, since it seems to have some kind of elephant's trunk which is nevertheless fused to its ribcage. But the nature and origin of this alien is never mentioned at any other point in any of the next three sequels. But we are definitely given to understand that neither the elephant alien nor the predatory aliens are native to "LV-426." So they must have come from someplace else. The only comment remotely related to this mystery is a line in Alien Resurrection to the effect that Ripley tried to wipe out the species -- which makes no sense. The alien space ship and its infection came from another place. Where was the elephant alien home world? No one even seems to be curious -- neither in the movies nor among the script-writers and producers -- until Prometheus.
The nature of the predatory aliens raises another question, one of the few science issues in the series. The aliens are slimy. And fluid gushes from their mouths as they are about to strike. Now, slimy animals -- snails, frogs -- require wet environments, or they will dehydrate and die. Our nasty aliens are supposed to be about the toughest and most adaptable of all beings -- the alien that Ripley blows into the vacuum of space doesn't seem phased by it -- yet they would actually be no more adaptable than snails. They would dehydrate almost instantaneously -- which is actually what happens as liquids instantly vaporize in a vacuum. Sometimes science fiction writers seem unaware of this.
Certainly, the slimy nature of the aliens is just a device to make them unpleasant. The ecological implications were never considered.
Apart from the bodily imagery of Alien, the grittiness, industrial look, and lived-in details of the sets established a whole new standard of realism in science fiction movies. The old blank, cardboard sets of Star Trek now look painfully cheesy in comparison. In his desire to make a sequel to Alien, Cameron said that he was moved in part by this quality. The crew of the Nostromo sitting at their dinner table smoking now gives the scene a quality of roughness, political incorrectness, and earthiness, beyond its original intention, that Cameron curiously echoed by having Sigourney Weaver call for a cigarette in her very first line in Avatar -- otherwise one of the most politically correct movies of recent memory. We also get a kind of class difference between Brett and Parker (Yaphet Kotto), the down and dirty mechanics, and the rest of the crew. This is a detail that is not that important to the story, although it does give us a moment of wondering whether Parker will be the one with the wherewithall to defeat the alien. Unfortunately, his qualities are for nought when Navigator Lambert (Veronica Cartwright) freezes up at the critical moment -- a thankless role that was echoed in her sad fate in The Witches of Eastwick .
The aesthetic of Alien seems to be due to director Ridley Scott, who has displayed similar imagination in other movies he has made (although I found his work in Kingdom of Heaven ignorant and offensive). The art and design, however, is largely from H.R. Giger, whose distinctive style contributes much of the eerie and otherworldly quality of the movie -- not to mention the actual alien.
The theme of motherhood in Aliens emerges in two striking ways. First of all, when a child, Newt, is found in the ruins of the colony on "LV-426," it is only Ripley who is able to draw her out and communicate with her. Ripley now herself becomes the good mother in relation to Newt, who responds in kind, recognizing that Ripley has survival skills similar to her own. As a team, Ripley and Newt even help save each other when the treacherous Burke releases specimen aliens in the hope of impregnating both of them. In the end, however, Newt is lost by mischance and captured by the aliens. Ripley swings into action as we have never seen her do before. In Alien, she was just trying to escape. Now, she goes in alone, against incalculable odds, with the clock ticking down to nuclear annihilation, just to rescue Newt.
This she is able to accomplish, but in the process she meets the answer to a question that is asked (in a segment deleted, as I recall, from the original theatrical release), "Where do these eggs come from?" The eggs come from the queen alien, the false mother of false mothers in the Alien series, a veritable Jungian dark Devouring Mother. Indeed, Ripley rather overdoes it, for more than her own good, since the enraged queen alien pursues her, not only through the power station, but right up into orbit and into the shuttle bay of the Sulaco. But this gives us the greatest one-on-one setpiece battle of the entire Alien series, with Ripley's power loader giving her the strength to match the alien. One simply wonders why Ripley couldn't close the outer door of the airlock with the control where she opened it.
There are other dimensions that Cameron works into Aliens. He loves this military stuff, as we know from as far back as The Terminator  and which is still evident in Avatar, despite the negative role of the soldiers in that movie. We get several vivid characters, such as, apart from Hicks and Bishop (already mentioned), Hudson (Bill Paxton), Vasquez (Jenette Goldstein), and Lieutenant Gorman (William Hope). Hudson is the sort of person who funks out before the battle but tends to rise to the occasion during it. Vasquez is played with considerable ethnic panache by an actress who is actually a nice Jewish girl -- and who now makes bras for large breasted women and sells them at her own store on Melrose Ave. One of the most memorable and poignant moments in the movie is when Gorman and Vasquez blow themselves up, taking out several aliens, helping in the escape of Ripley, Hicks, and Newt, while saving themselves from capture. This helps redeem Gorman's earlier failures.
The manner of command of the military force by Gorman, the only officer present, is an object lesson in how not to conduct military leadership. Gorman, who is not even in combat gear, directs operations from an armored vehicle, while his men are incautiously inserted into a perilous and uncertain situation. When things go wrong, he has given the wrong commands and then is the one to funk out, at the cost of the lives of much of the force -- Ripley, in one of her greatest moments, must simply impose herself and essentially assume command. This saves the day, although so little is left of their military potential that their only hope is retreat and escape -- further compromised by the lax security countenanced by Gorman, when a roving alien takes out their space shuttle.
With Bishop, Cameron continues the android motif of Ash from Alien. Since Bishop is now quite openly a robot, unlike Ash, Ripley distrusts him from the first. And we never quite know whether or not she is correct until the payoff -- until he gets them off the planet. The ultimate thematic payoff will be in Alien Resurrection.
Cameron's ideas for Aliens included even further development of the motherhood theme. Thus, in material that was shot, but was not in the theatrical release of the movie, we learn that Ripley had a daughter back on Earth who, after Ripley has drifted in space for 60 years, has already died. Thus, when Ripley meets Newt, we know that she may be looking for someone to replace what she has lost.
This is unnecessary to the story and even a bit maudlin. Ripley is not a needy person, and the plot element of the lost daughter comes close to making her into one. Nevertheless, Signourney Weaver herself rather liked this device; and Cameron has restored the material to the "director's cut" in DVD. The original cut was more artistically sound. The screening of Aliens at the Cinerama Dome in 2013 did not include the "director's cut" material.
Similarly ill advised, to me, is the brief moment, also left out of the theatrical cut, when Ripley and Hicks exchange first names. Ripley's first name is "Ellen." We need to know this? No. Ripley is a person, almost an archetype, whom we learn about from her actions. We see her become affectionate with Newt, as a mother should be, but what counts in that relationship, as it is what really counts for Newt also, is what Ripley is able to do. When Ripley takes charge from Gorman in the power plant, Newt knows that she has found a true protector. "Ellen" doesn't sound like quite the same thing, and the implied affection between Ripley and Hicks is far off the thematic track of the movie. This is not a boy-meets-girl love story. And if Cameron had any ideas about pursuing that connection later, Alien3 sure took care of it.
It may not be possible, but Cameron should have stopped being the modern director who keeps tinkering with the cut of his movie (like Lucas and Spielberg) after the original release.
Alien3, apart from its horrifying premise, displays none of the familiar themes of the series -- except that Ripley learns, to her horror, that she is impregated with an alien, a queen alien no less. Even worse, Sigourney Weaver spends most of the movie with a shaved head.
Now, Sigourney Weaver is a good looking woman, but she does not have a conventional Miss America kind of beauty. She never looks better than when she gets a little disheveled, as we originally see her in the last moments of escaping from the Nostromo. Bald does not work well with this.
Otherwise, Ripley seems to have dropped into some other kind of movie -- a prison movie. And now we know that her apparent death at the end, killing herself and the new queen alien, was supposed to set things up for the non-Ripley "Alien vs. Predator" franchise, something that was much delayed and not worth the wait anyway. Fox just had two nasty aliens on the lot and wanted to put them together. They would have been better off looking for the elephant alien of Alien.
Alien Resurrection picks up the themes of the first two movies. But there is also a brilliant difference in Ripley.
The premise is that 200 years have gone by (with no evidence, apparently, of the home planets of the slimy aliens or the elephant aliens), and the DNA has (improbably) been recovered of Ripley and the queen alien with whom she had been impregnated. Records of the events in the second and third movies evidently have not been destroyed, and the military has found a way, after some trial and error, of recreating the queen alien, with Ripley herself as a by-product of separating the combined DNA.
As we learn, however, the process of separating the DNA has resulted in a number of aborted or monstrous hybrids. When Ripley finds these creatures, the most recent one, still living, pleads with her, "Kill me" -- a tableau used more than once in South Park on the Comedy Channel, although the request itself already figured in Aliens. Even in the final product, however, the Ripley we now see, there has been a remnant of alien DNA included, as some human DNA remains in the queen alien.
Thus, we get a somewhat different kind of Ripley. Where in the other movies we may get moments of human weakness and doubt before Ripley springs into action, now that is gone. Ripley is fierce, confident, and powerful (literally) right from the beginning. She even has acid for blood. And with a different attitude: "Who do I have to fuck to get off this boat?" This is a question for the ages.
The motherhood theme of the Alien series is now back in a complex form. Ripley herself is the "mother" of the queen alien, and she does feel a connection, even a kinship, to the aliens -- much to the distress of Call (Winona Ryder, beloved from Beetlejuice, 1988), one of the crew of the smuggling ship Betty, which brings kidnapped humans to the military to receive alien impregnation. For Call is on a mission to sabotage this operation, although she doesn't get very far before it's too late.
Call turns out to be an android. Ripley no longer has a problem with that, so the roles of Aliens are reversed. Call doesn't trust Ripley, until she proves herself. At the same time, we get a marvelous resolution of the Ripley/android dynamic of the series, since Call in the end becomes a Newt substitute, and Ripley becomes a kind of mother to the sort of being who tried to kill her in Alien. This is one of the cleverest things in all the movies.
The other kinds of beings who have tried to kill Ripley, the aliens, end up as ambivalent as Ripley herself. Because of its human DNA, the queen alien, besides laying eggs, comes to conceive and bear a child like a human mother. This strange "child" is the culmination in horror for the movie -- horrible, corpse white, slimy, and monstrous, with a hideous death's head face. Yet this monster kills the queen alien and responds with affection for Ripley. He is needy, and pursues her for that reason onto the Betty, as it is escaping. Unlike the climax of Aliens, Ripley kills this creature in tears, pitty, and even affection -- but without noticeable hesitation.
Thus, Ripley reaches the culmination of her motherhood by choosing between her own (monstrous) flesh and blood and an "artificial person." She chooses the latter, which is now more human than the genetic accidents that have attended Ripley's resurrection. She has chosen what kind of mother she is going to be. This is a satisfying resolution of the story of the Alien series, as is Ripley's final statement on arriving back at Earth, "I'm a stranger here myself" -- like the "stranger in a strange land," of Moses.
Alien Resurrection otherwise has some additional nice casting choices. Dan Hedaya, a Richard Nixon-like presence memorable from the Coen brothers' Blood Simple , is General Perez, who runs the ill conceived project and doesn't last long. Michael Wincott, with his deep voice still echoing from The Crow [1994, directed by Alex Proyas], is Elgyn, captain of the Betty and the first casualty of its crew. Dominique Pinon, perhaps recruited by French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet, is Vriess, the wheelchair-bound mechanic of the Betty. The only survivors of this movie are Ripley, Call, Vriess, and Johner, played by the marvelous Ron Perlman, immortalized in his later role of Hellboy . Johner is introduced with a sufficiently nasty persona that we don't much care if he survives. But he grows on us by the end.
Ultimately in the end, however, we have Ripley triumphant, over man, machine, aliens, and time. We are still waiting for where these things have come from but, hey, where would Hollywood be if every story were all wrapped up? I just worry that Sigourney Weaver, almost exactly a month younger than I am, has outgrown action movies and probably has had her fill of the Alien series anyway.
In 2012, we have had the extraordinary development that Ridley Scott, after 33 years, has returned to the Alien series. As noted above, in Prometheus he has produced something that is not quite a conventional prequel and not really, as far as we can tell, a "reboot." Exactly how it will fit with Alien and its sequels remains to be seen.
We can tell quite early in the movie that, although we are headed to a mysterious planet, we are not returning to the scene of Alien or Aliens. The planet of those movies was identified as "LV-426" in Aliens; but in Prometheus we see on a graphic (if we look quickly) that our eponymous spaceship is headed to "LV-223" instead. On the same graphic, we are even given a distance, "3.27 x 1014 km" from Earth. That would give us the equivalent of 35 Light Years, which is about the distance to the star Arcturus. We do not otherwise hear about actual distances in the Alien movies, although a reference to the "Rim" in Aliens might lead us to science fiction sources where that term in used. While the hypersleep that we see in every movie from Alien to Prometheus implies long space flights, we are not otherwise filled in on any of the technology of space flight. It has apparently taken a couple of years to go 35 Light Years, so some kind of faster-than-light travel is necessary, but we have nothing like the details or lore familiar, for example, from the Star Wars movies.
Thematically, Prometheus begins at a very different place from the other Alien movies. In a prologue, we see a strange figure in a bleak landscape (actually Iceland) drink a fluid and then disintegrate and tumble into a waterfall. The strange figure, we later learn, is one of the "Engineers," an alien race who, by doing things like this, seeds planets like the Earth with life. Since the figure is large, muscular, and deathly pale, a friend of mind called him the "albino body-builder," and he does leave us wondering about Scott's aesthetic choices here. And there is a disturbing aspect to the scene. Why can't the Engineers seed the planet without one of their own killing himself? Why he would do this, or why the Engineers would be seeding a planet, are questions that are never answered in the movie. Since the very first scene motivates the questions, one might feel cheated, in the absence of a sequel, that there is never a payoff to the mystery. None of the thoughts or motives of any of the Engineers are ever revealed. But from their behavior, we are not left with a good impression
Next we meet a couple of archaeologists, Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace, fresh from the Swedish productions of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo movies) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green). They have been putting together extraordinary archaeological discoveries, from multiple ancient sites and civilizations, that show beings indicating a certain grouping of stars in the sky. They have been able to identify this asterism as associated with the planet "LV-223," to which Prometheus is voyaging. This sort of thing would seem to have nothing to do with the Alien stories, although it is a matter of both serious and not-so-serious speculations in science, popular culture, and fringe lunacy. But Prometheus inflates the question into something larger yet. Shaw is looking for God. It also turns out that a secret passenger on the ship, Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce, under heavy makeup apparently borrowed from Little Big Man ), who has founded the Weyland "Company," is also looking, not just for God, but for immortality.
This is where we may begin to wonder if Ridley Scott has proper control over the ideas involved in his movie. Even if we were planted on earth or derived from an alien race, this does not answer anything in the way of real metaphysical or religious questions. The Engineers are not God, or even gods. If they know anything about immorality, which seems unlikely, it is going to be as a matter of medical science, not because of salvation, resurrection, or extra-corporeal existence in a transcendent realm. Even if the Engineers were a lot wiser and more benign than they obviously are, they are not going to be the answers to the religious questions or aspirations that Shaw or Weyland might have. In the course of things, the expectations of Shaw or Weyland will be cruelly and horribly disappointed, but someone might have advised them along the way that the whole business was misconceived in the first place. Their curiosity and pursuit of the Engineers is something anyone can understand, and Weyland might (selfishly) hope for the medical extension of his life, but there is nothing ultimate, soteriological, or even salutary about beings whose every action begins to look not only vicious and malevolent but also foolish and incompetent.
Meanwhile, of course, Prometheus lands on its target planet. There are structures there, several, although only one that we ever see in any detail. Shaw and Holloway are eager to get out to explore it. This turns out to be a mistake, both because it is late in the day and because it would certainly be a good idea to explore the place, a massive rounded pyramid shape, remotely first, which they clearly could do with their technology. But Holloway especially has a giddy sort of happy-go-lucky attitude, which is ill advised. The place is grim, with the black but quasi-organic look that is especially familiar from Alien and Aliens. They quickly discover that the structure is not entirely dead, since there is free water and an atmosphere more breathable than outside. Holloway takes off his helmet, followed by the others. The foolish and euphoric mood, however, is soon punctured.
This is initiated by another character, "David" (Michael Fassbender), who evokes the other movies because he is a "synthetic person," a robot. We have seen him awake as the other characters are in hypersleep. He amuses himself, among other things, by watching Lawrence of Arabia, monitoring the dreams of the sleeping Shaw, and practicing what we later learn is a reconstructed human proto-language, which everyone is hoping will be intelligible to the Engineers. In the pyramid, David, who seems familiar with the inscribed glyphs, which are also controls, manages to turn on a holographic recording of the last minutes of its inhabitatants. They are fleeing. Our characters follow the images, which pass through a door, except for the last one, which is decapitated as the door falls closed. As the images stop, we stand before the door and the dead torso. David gets the door to open, and they find the head.
It is the elephant alien of Alien. Something we have not seen since the very first Alien movie. Behind the torso and head is a large chamber. There is no sign of the other fleeing aliens. Instead, the chamber is full of small upright cylinders. At the rear is a large sculpture of an apparently human head, but also on the wall an image of another kind of creature, which seems not unlike the predatory aliens of the earlier movies. The cast enters the chamber, not noticing that there are some kind of worms in the floor, or that the cylinders begin to ooze black liquid (borrowed from the X-Files [1993-2002]). This level of carelessness is hard to credit in people, let alone scientists, who would be familiar with space travel and who must have encountered life forms elsewhere (as referenced in Aliens), some dangerous. David, however, does notice; and against instructions he bags up one of the cylinders, unseen by the others (who are taking the alien head).
Meanwhile, one of the other crew, Fifield (Sean Harris), who has released small, floating mapping drones into the structure, which fly about making laser images of everything, has called it quits. He doesn't like what he sees, and is ready to go back to the ship. Millburn (Rafe Spall) goes back with him. Incredibly, they get lost. This is hard to believe. Fifield not only supervises the technology that is mapping the place, but he seems to have access to his own drones. Yet he cannot find his way back to the entrance, when the other fools in the crew have no difficulty at all doing so. And they must leave quickly, when they are advised by the ship that a storm of "silica," i.e. sand, is on the way. Fifield and Millburn are trapped in the pyramid -- which we later see itself has a human face sculpted on the exterior. The ship could not have done a flyby and noticed this earlier? They did that in Aliens.
As the foolishness and carelessness of this whole business begin to add up, something more sinister develops. David returns with his cylinder, opens it up, and removes a quantity of the black ooze. Meanwhile, Shaw, Halloway, and others take the alien head to the lab. They sterilize it (?) and do some imaging. The elephant-like appearance is deceptive. We are seeing a helmet. Cutting it open, a very human head comes into view. It is the sort of albino body-builder that we saw at the beginning of the movie. And so at long last, we see what the elephant alien in Alien really was: a humanoid being in a space suit. Although centuries old, Shaw thinks that the head can be reanimated with some electricity. It explodes instead. We are at least given to understand, although never actually told, that the alien had been infected with the black ooze, which is what reacted badly to the electricity.
This is all one of the key revelations of Prometheus, and a point of most extraordinary connection to the original Alien movie. But Holloway is not happy. It looks like the Engineers are all dead, mysteriously killed by their own creations, whatever those were -- we don't know yet. So, apparently seeking God like Shaw, Holloway takes to drink in despair. This is a bad idea. David has spiked a bottle with a bit of the black ooze and gives it to Holloway. Why he has done this, we never learn. What David is up to, what are his motives and intentions, is something that remains as much of a mystery as the motives and intentions of the Engineers. This is a point of considerable frustration in the movie, adding to the loose ends that prevent a proper resolution of the story.
Infected with the ooze, Holloway spends the night with Shaw, who meanwhile has learned that the DNA of the Engineer looks to be identical to human DNA. Meanwhile, Fifield and Millburn, trapped by the storm, have been wandering around inside the pyramid. They come upon a pile of dead aliens and later find the chamber with the cylinders. The floor is now covered with ooze; and the two of them not only casually enter but are intrigued rather than fleeing in panic when a creature rises from the ooze. This doesn't make the slightest bit of sense, especially when they have already expressed alarm when it is reported to them that the drones have detected, intermitently, something alive in the structure. To then be faced with a cobra-like alien and act like it is all a joke, rather than recoiling in terror, is not very good script writing. If they were drunk, it would make a little more sense; but they are not. And, of course, they are being set up to be attacked, as they are. Such a thing is what Siskel and Ebert used to call an "idiot" plot device, which is something that happens in order to produce a certain effect even though only idiots would act in such a way. Fifield and Millburn were idiots to get lost in the pyramid, but their desire to leave and their fear of the structure are wholly inconsistent with the idiocy and complacency they display at the sight of living and moving danger.
The next morning Shaw, Holloway, and the others head back to the pyramid. They find Fifield and Millburn apparently dead, with ooze all over the place, and Holloway suddenly begins to fall ill. Even back at the ship, Holloway has noticed a tiny worm coming out of his eye. Now the infection spreads quickly, and he is in distress. The visit to the pyramid is called off.
As they return to the ship, another character of the movie springs into action. This is Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron). We have met her as the representative of the Weyland Company on the Prometheus. Later we learn that she is actually the daughter of Peter Weyland and is aware that he is on the ship. While a hologram of Weyland has told everyone that Shaw and Holloway are in charge of the expedition, Vickers is the one clearly giving orders to everyone, including the Captain of the ship, Janek (Idris Elba). Indeed, while Fifield and Millburn are being attacked, Vickers and Janet have retreated for a tryst, leaving no watch on the bridge -- just another example of the carelessness and lack of discipline in the conduct of the expedition. Nevertheless, Vickers, like Ripley in Alien, is not going to let a person with an unknown infection onto the ship. She burns up Holloway with a flamethrower, although he is also actually asking her to do this. No one knows that Holloway is infected only because David has already smuggled the ooze aboard. This is good evidence that Vickers does not know what David has been doing. We never learn that anyone knows what David has been doing.
Traumatized by all this, Shaw is soon informed by David that she is pregnant. Since we already know that Shaw was sterile, a single night with Holloway cannot explain what has happened. It is obvious, and David says so, that the pregnancy is the result of Holloway's infection. Like Burke in Aliens, David apparently wants to return her to Earth with the alien fetus. Shaw is not going to wait, and she must use some violence to get to the automated surgical unit that she already knows that Vickers has in her quarters. In another moment that defies our credulity, Shaw discovers that the surgical unit, which Vickers placed on board precisely for her own benefit, nevertheless is not programed for specifically female surgical needs. Shaw must remain awake and instruct the unit step by step to perform a Caesarean Section and remove the alien fetus. And it is a nasty one, already large enough to give Shaw pains worthy of Rosemary's Baby .
Meanwhile, the body of Fifield turns up on the ground outside the ship. Without the caution either of Vickers or Ripley, a crew member opens the cargo bay and wanders out to investigate. The result is multiple dead crew members and more work with the flamethrower. Stumbling out of surgery, where it looks like (!) the alien has been killed, Shaw discovers that Peter Weyland is on board and is getting ready to visit the alien works. Indeed, while Shaw and Holloway were coming to grief, David has again been off on his own. He discovers an alien space craft under the pyramid; and, wouldn't you know it, it looks exactly like the derelict alien spaceship in Alien. David discovers the control room, learns to use the controls from another holographic animation, and also finds a living Engineer in stasis. Peter Weyland will attend his revival.
In this business, David is clearly acting on instructions from Weyland. But we almost get the sense that he already knows that there will be a ship there -- although we never have a hint that Weyland wanted him to infect Holloway. How he could possibly know about the ship is something that seems impossible. Nobody in the movie even knows that the aliens exist until they get out there. Regardless, Weyland, David, Vickers, Shaw, and others revive the Engineer. He is not a happy camper. David tries to talk to him and has his head torn off for his trouble. The Engineer never says anything. Everyone is assaulted or killed, except Shaw, who is able to run away.
The Engineer preps the ship for takeoff. And if we were ever in doubt that this is a ship just as in Alien, that is thoroughly resolved. A chair, just like in Alien, rises out of the floor, the Engineer settles in, and a suit and helmet close around him, converting him into an elephant alien. The elephant's trunk is attached to the front of the suit because it is a breathing apparatus.
Shaw alerts the Prometheus. The alien ship is full of cylinders, and its course is to Earth. It will deliver the deadly ooze to all life on the planet. Captain Janek realizes that the only thing he can do is bring down the alien ship by crashing into it. While up to this point we might have wondered if the alien ship would prove to be the actual ship in Alien, this possibility is now erased. Janek and his officers, in good fatalistic cheer, bring down the alien ship in a suicide flight. Vickers bails out before the crash, along with her quarters which actually constitute a detachable lifeboat.
Now, if a large tall object is falling towards you, the sensible strategy is to run laterally across its prospective footprint. This gives you the shortest distance to go in order to avoid getting crushed. In Hollywood, however, this provides for insufficient suspense; and we often see characters, like both Shaw and Vickers in this case, who are confused enough to try to outrun the falling structure in the direction of its fall, in order to give it the maximum chance of falling on them, as it does with both of them in Prometheus. Another idiot plot device. Shaw is saved by a gap between rocks, which keep the structure off her. Vickers appears to be crushed. However, in Hollywood again, if we see neither the death nor the corpse, it is likely that the victim has survived. It is hard to understand why Vickers would have escaped off the Prometheus in the first place, if she is just going to be killed a few minutes later. It seems like a waste of Charlize Theron -- although with all the loose ends in this movie, I begin to wonder if Ridley Scott will remember to write her into the next film.
But Shaw is in some trouble, with her air running out. She is able to make it to Vickers' lifeboat and recharge her oxygen, but then she discovers that the alien fetus she removed from herself has now grown large, trapped in the operating room. Simultaneously, David is able, although decapitated (and still functioning, unlike Ash in Alien), to radio Shaw that the Engineer, who survived the crash, is coming after her. Since the Engineer will accomplish absolutely nothing in killing Shaw, he would seem to be acting entirely out of spite. This does not work out well for him, since Shaw releases the monstrous alien fetus, which finds him an agreeable target indeed. After a fashion, he is hoist on his own petard. It is also a nice Hollywood trope, that the villain is undone by his own villainy.
Shaw confides to David that, stranded on the planet, her situation is hopeless. But David says that there are other alien ships. How does he know this? We have no clue. So Shaw fetches David's parts, and the last we see, they are taking off in a new ship. David expects she will want to go back to Earth, but Shaw instead wants to find the Engineer home world, whose location is in the navigation system of their new ship. As Captain Janek had originally observed, "LV-223" is not the Engineer home world, but their weapons laboratory -- a laboratory where things have obviously gone very wrong. Will David ever tell her that he was responsible for the death of Holloway? Or why? Meanwhile, we have no information about the fate of Vickers. If she has survived, she has some major challenges ahead of her. The alien fetus, in classic Alien fashion, has impregnated the Engineer, whom we last see giving unnatural birth to a creature that is quite similar, although not identical, to the predatory alien that we have seen in all the previous movies. Another loose end, and a deadly one if Vickers still lives.
Prometheus is an ambitious movie. I must credit Ridley Scott for that. We have the familiar Alien themes, of motherhood, the android of suspicous intentions, and the survivor battling female -- in this case perhaps even two of them. Shaw outdid Ripley of Alien3 by removing the alien inside her own body, and then immediately dashing off to other heroics. But Shaw always has doubts and confusions that Ripley never had. Previously, it was just kill or be killed, although Alien Resurrection gives Ripley some small sympathy for the aliens. Shaw's conflict is a little different. She was looking for God. Finding out that the Engineers are hostile and vicious, and victims of their own hostility and incompetence, leaves her with the sort of affect as though she had been betrayed by Jesus. Why did the Engineers turn on humanity and plan to destroy us? That is actually a good question, which we can really hope to see answered in sequels, but at one level the answer is easy enough: They were all too human, or perhaps not even as human as the best of humans. She has been looking for God in the wrong place right from the beginning; but even at the end of the movie, amid the death, wreckage, loss, horror, and disillusionment, it is not clear that she has even yet quite gotten this point.
With all these things going on, one problem with the ambition of Prometheus is that it all but sinks under the weight of its loose ends and unanswered questions. We don't know about the Engineers. We don't know about David. We don't know about Vickers. We don't know about the rest of Shaw's quest. And, although we now know about the identity of the elephant alien and the origin of the predatory aliens, we don't know why it all went wrong for the Engineers, let alone why a single derelict ship ended up on the "LV-426" of the first two movies, or how the "Company" knew about it. This is a lot to work with if there are going to be other movies. If not, it is like an open wound of narrative. And in Hollywood, you never know if the sequels will ever get made. Presumably, Ridley Scott has enough weight in the business that he can make at least one more movie if he really wants to. Since the film has made 400 million dollars world wide, it was no embarrassment at the box office. At the same time, The Last Airbender made over 300 millions dollars world wide and was nevertheless considered a failure, with little prospect for the sequels required by the source material. So you never know. But the Alien series will be cheated if the story of Shaw, and perhaps Vickers, is not continued.