Just in time(ish) for the release of ALIEN: COVENANT, I thought I’d look back at Ridley Scott’s two previous encounters with Xenomorphs, Engineers and Last Women Standing.ALIEN (1979) It’s sometimes hard to believe that this was only Ridley Scott’s second film. The confidence shown in this intelligent, atmospheric and dark space nightmare his astounding, and it has quite rightly become an icon of both science-fiction and horror cinema. A slow, creeping fear embeds itself in your vitals, and like all of Scott’s best films, it’s visually flawless and said visuals prime for decoding hidden meaning.
The characterisation is lean and unfussy – Kane (John Hurt), Brett (Harry Dean Stanton), Ash (Ian Holm) – all simple but memorable creations, particularly when they die (not a spoiler nearly 40 years after the fact). Then of course there’s Ripley (Sigourney Weaver: sublime) who arrives so fully-formed a presence and a hero; strong, level-headed and independent, finding herself in a bad situation and puzzling her way out of it. I know there are plenty of fans out there who prefer ALIENS, but I can’t get past James Cameron softening the character to the extent he did by making the maternal instinct her driving force. Aliens was a good film about mothers and they needed a human counterpart to the Xenomorph queen, but why did it have to be Ripley? Why did she have to lose so much of her independence and agency?
Alien maintains its sweaty tension throughout, and plays cleverly with our fear of the unknown and makes the most of the cramped, hemmed-in setting, not to mention Scott’s long-running theme of the people running the show behind the scenes being the most terrifying, inhuman threat of all. You’d be hard pressed to guess the order of the crew’s grisly ends if you go in cold, and who’ll make it out alive, as you often can in contemporary horror. You might want to poke holes in the DIY spaceship sets and archaic computers, but I see it as all part of the charm. I’d still love to know whether the camera knocking against a crate in the film’s opening tracking shot was an intentional early jump-scare or a happy accident…PROMETHEUS (2012) I was really hoping Ridley Scott was going to do justice to his own legacy when this came out five years ago. Did he? Ehhh… If you just had one word to describe Prometheus, it would be inconsistent. Scott’s long-awaited return to the genre that made his name is far from triumphant, but it’s by no means anything to be ashamed of. It’s undeniably visually spectacular, demonstrating just what Ridders can conjure up when a budget isn’t holding back his imagination (see David marveling at the holographic galaxy whirling around him) and there are occasional glimmers of Scott’s past glory with the ideas on show, but it does seem at times like they’re making it up as they go along.
Michael Fassbender is excellent as the android David, entertainingly channeling Peter O’Toole and creepy childlike curiosity, but a mid-reel change in his personality comes out of nowhere, seemingly happening just because robots in these movies tend to either die or reveal a hidden agenda. Noomi Rapace is decent as the God-fearing archaeologist Elizabeth Shaw, and thankfully doesn’t try to imitate Ripley. The rest of the cast are unfortunately made up of under-performing stars (Charlize Theron on steely autopilot) and TV actors who were doubtlessly hired because they were cheap. You do get a few memorable skin-crawling body horror shocks, but elsewhere events just don’t justify characters acting so monumentally stupidly.
Unlike the original Alien, Prometheus plods between set-pieces, indulges in the dull and provokes more new questions about the origins of the Xenomorphs than it answers. The big ideas are there, but are not handled with enough insight or creativity, which results in a diverting, but not particularly satisfying film. Prometheus might have ended up better if it leaned more heavily on the Alien-ness or became its own thing rather than being stuck in the grey area it finds itself in, something I’m hoping that Scott will rectify with Covenant. SSP