As a science fiction movie Prometheus is certainly flawed but not terrible. Unfortunately Prometheus isn’t just a science fiction movie, it’s a prequel to the Alien franchise and in that regard it’s an utter disaster. In attempting to explain the origins of the title Aliens the movie succeeds only in making one of the most terrifying creatures in movie history a lot less terrifying. To understand how it managed to do this you have to understand what made the Aliens so disturbing in the first place and that is: Evolution.
Looking back at Alien and Aliens all the major plot points revolved around the life cycle of the Aliens. Whether it’s the egg, facehugger and chestburster in Alien or the Queen and hive society that were revealed in Aliens. Basically every time things get worse for the human protagonists it’s because the Aliens have entered a new phase of their life.
The Aliens are incredibly powerful, fast, vicious, and adaptable animals. They erupt from their egg, latch onto your face, implant their larvae inside you and incorporates your DNA into its own before killing you by bursting out of your chest. It then grows up quickly and runs around either eating your crewmates or dragging them back to the nest to be used as an incubator for more Aliens.
No doubt all that was enough to keep Ripley and the other characters gripped in fear. But all of those things were simply the reason why they were scary. What made them so disturbing was that they did all those things because they evolved to be that way. All their behaviours, that we find so horrifying, are mere adaptations needed to survive on whatever God forsaken planet they’re from.
Lets not forget that every time humans have encountered the Aliens they’ve essentially been an invasive species, a shark in a koi pond. With no natural predators and ample food they dominate the environment. But for the first two phases of their life they are little more than a parasite. Like a mosquito or a tapeworm. Chances are that on their world they are not even the top of the food chain. There is something bigger and scarier out there that hunts the Aliens.
In that light you realize that they’re powerful because something out there is more powerful. They are fast because something is faster. They are vicious because they have to compete for food. The larvae develop inside a host because it’s harder to be preyed upon that way. They incorporate the DNA of the host because they need to adapt quickly to ever changing conditions. They grow quickly because predators kill them when they’re small. They have acid blood to put a bad taste in the mouth of anything trying to eat them. They hunt in packs because they are too weak individually. The Queen Alien lays hundreds of eggs because so many of them die and “they mostly come at night” because they are afraid of something in the day.
What is truly and deeply terrifying aren’t the Aliens themselves, but the incredible force of nature that created them. It’s that very thing that is implied when one of the characters in Alien states: “Perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility… I admire its purity. A survivor…”
Now let’s jump to Prometheus where early on they ditch the subtly and have a character explicitly state that the plot of the movie defies hundreds of years of Darwinian evolution. Great. Off to a good start.
We then go on to learn that humans were created by an alien race of big-humans called Engineers, who were going to destroy humans with this weird black goo stuff, which a robot finds and poisons one of the crew members with so when he has sex with main character she gets pregnant with an octopus, that she removes with a surgery machine but which then grows up and attacks the big-human alien. When it’s all over and the credits are about to roll the first Alien erupts from the chest of the big-human. Huh? Exactly.
And just like that the terror is gone. Instead of the Alien’s impressive physical attributes, complex social structure and intricate breeding cycle being a product of some awesome natural force, we’ve learned that they just popped up by accident. The Alien is nothing but the genetic lovechild of some interstellar gang bang between the universe’s most incompetent scientists. *
The Aliens were created by a one time fluke, rather than a process that’s playing itself out billions and billions of times. Instead of being left with the ominous feeling of “what else is out there?” we’re handed a “Ah, don’t worry about it! Nowhere out in space is there a whole planet swimming with these things, it’s just one ship, on one planet.” What a relief.
When it comes right down to it though, the biggest failing of Prometheus is that the Aliens never needed an origin story. They’re not like Darth Vader or Hannibal Lecter where you wonder what happened to them to make them so evil. They’re not like that because the Aliens aren’t characters they’re forces of nature. They don’t need to be explained anymore than we need to explain that Jaws was created by an evil wizard. It was always enough for them to just exist.
If an Alien prequel had to be made though, I would have stuck with what made it scary in the first place: nature. Go to the Aliens home planet and have David Attenborough narrate a documentary about them.
“And after a brief struggle with the Facehugger…it’s all over. In a few short hours new life will burst forth from the chest and the cycle will begin anew.”
Watching Prometheus, I’m sure I’m not the only one who would have welcomed that intriguing British accent telling me “It’s all over.”
*I categorize both the Engineers and Humans as incompetent scientists. The depth of their stupidity and professional shortcomings could be the subject of its own article. One, unfortunately, I do not have the time or patience to write.