Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Remember the Titans

So, uh, yeah, if you haven't seen it, now might be a good time to go away.


OK, let's just lay our cards on the table right now: this was a pretty fucking awesome movie. I'm not even going to lie, or try to act cool, or pick out all the problems. Uh-uh. I wanted this movie to be cool, it is cool. It gave me everything I wanted, most of what I expected, and a bunch of stuff that was a complete surprise.

I am - how do we say? - a fan of the Alien films. The good thing about being a fan of the Alien franchise is that, and this should not be understated, the original films are really, really good. I rewatched the series in the weeks leading up to Prometheus and I was again struck by just how striking and well made the first three films actually are.

The first is a stone classic, universally recognized, no qualifications.

The second was just slightly less, but succeeded on its own terms by being in many respects radically different than its predecessor. It had different themes, different ideas, and succeeded in being almost as well-made a movie as the first.

The third is definitely not as good as the first two but is nevertheless still a very good movie, a mood piece with an entirely different vibe from its ancestors - and a few script problems - but which nevertheless manages to be a coherent and unique entry in its own right.

The fourth - well, I love the fourth even though it's kind of stupid. No, scratch that, very stupid. But the fact remains that it's a gorgeous film that manages to look fantastic without having a single brain cell in its head. I watch it every time I come across it on cable and I'm always struck by the fact that it is compulsively watchable. What that team could have done with a better script!

So anyway.

I don't just like the movies, is the thing - the Alien himself has lodged himself permanently into my subconscious in a way I can't quite explain. He's the best movie monster, period. The Alien tickles that same part of my brain that love Hellraiser and H. P. Lovecraft, although not necessarily in quite the same fashion. The intimation of cosmic horror, unknowable malevolent savagery lurking across the stars, gleaming, sexually charged. These guys pop up in my dreams from time to time. The perverse life cycle, predicated on parasitism, rape, and murder - is there a monster fantasy more effectively creepy than the Alien? Nothing comes close. The reason these guys have stuck around so long is that a lot of thought went into how to make the most intentionally disturbing monster conceivable. The monster doesn't just kill - it rapes, it violates, it takes over your body and makes it into an incubator for something even worse. And yes, ultimately, it does kill. 

We've had three decades to wonder about these strange beasts, where they come from, their purpose, their possible masters. There's been a great deal of ancillary material under the bridge. Some of the stuff has been OK - Dark Horse has published a great many Aliens comics, and some of them have actually been worth reading. Some of them, er, haven't. But none of it was "real." Fox gave Dark Horse free reign to explore the mythos, establishing concepts like an Alien homeworld, a prehistory, the motivations of the "Space Jockeys," their relationship with the Predators (a relationship that, in hindsight, would have been so much cooler if left solely to the fans' imaginations) - all very well and good, but none of it "real," any more than, say, Splinter of the Mind's Eye or Lungbarrow.

Of course, part of the appeal comes precisely from the lack of elaboration. If you watch the four Alien films - even Resurrection - they're all adamant in their desire to keep the focus of the stories on the characters (or, really, the character) at the expense of any cosmic shenanigans. You don't get space opera, you don't get big-picture consequences, you have one woman who keeps having to relive the worst day of her life over and over again, fighting the very worst embodiment of mankind's fears of the unknown wrapped up into on black shiny carapace. And there is something extremely satisfying in that: we get spoiled by too much information. Mystery is a very powerful tool. It works because our imaginations are almost always more evocative than reality. Mystery is all about potential - once you solve a mystery, once you reveal a secret, you have to be careful you're not losing something far more important in the process. Mystery gives the imagination lots of space in which to play: fill up those wide-open spaces with parking lots and don't be surprised if people go away. As much as I love the Star Wars prequels - and I do! - on a very basic level even the biggest Star Wars fan must acknowledge that the Clone Wars we actually saw on film and television could not compare with the Clone Wars that lived and grew in our collective imaginations since 1977.

So with that in mind - what gives? Why decide now to answer these questions? Do we need these answers?

As someone who dearly loves these movies, I am delighted with the answers we get. I like the fact that the answers we get are the kinds of answers that inevitably lead to even more questions. I love the fact that the movie essentially answered our questions while also telling us in no uncertain terms that we had been asking the wrong questions all along. I also like the fact that - despite the fact that there we no capital-A Aliens in the film (except for that one little cameo), it was still all about the Aliens. I've seen a couple people online who have asked whether or not the film would have been better without any ties to the Aliens films, and I have to say that that seems almost like an unintelligible proposition - what movie they would have had if they hadn't set out specifically to make a movie that explored the biological life cycle of the Alien creature? That's what the movie is really about, even though it's technically about other things: xenobiology. If you had told me just a few years ago that they would ever release a movie that was really just two hours about the life cycle and biology of the Aliens, I would have said you were crazy, no one would pay to see something so wonky on the big screen - as it is, that's exactly what we got, and I could not be happier.

So I'm going to do something I don't usually do. I would like to continue writing about the film, answer some of its critics, maybe get a little wonky regarding Alien biology. I've been a bit pressed for time the last few weeks - end of the semester and all that - but I'm currently strapped in front of my computer for long periods of time. So I'm going to keep updating this post with ideas as they come to me, or to answer questions as they appear in the comments. Because, frankly, I'm just really in love with this film and I would much rather talk about all the cool parts of this movie than grade a pile of student papers right now.

Questions from the comments:
1) How the Engineer dies via giant proto-facehugger in the remains of Vickers' part of the ship rather than in the pilot seat of his own, to later be find by the crew of the Nostromo

2) How, when Shaw's last message both a) is an actual verbal message and not just a distress signal, and b) so explicitly warns all comers away from the planet that the Nostromo only gets a signal and does not receive the message? I mean, at least in Aliens we could assume that if Weyland-Yutani got to it first they would just ignore/destroy it, but that doesn't explain how the Nostromo gets it; and finally

3) How, when everything we see is supposed to be setting up for what the Nostromo finds in Alien, does everything end up happening on a totally different planet than the one in Aliens?
I am going to discuss these questions en masse because they seem to be getting at the same kind of confusion. It's a question that, honestly, never even occurred to me as a problem until after I got home from the midnight showing and logged on to see what people were saying about the film. Sure enough, these questions or variants thereof appear to be the single most common problems people had with the film.

The reason why these questions never bugged me is very simple: the crew of the Nostromo in the first Alien land on the moon LV-223. The crew of the Prometheus land on the moon LV-426. Different worlds, different stories, same universe. 

So, the answer to the question "How, when everything we see is supposed to be setting up for what the Nostromo finds in Alien, does everything end up happening on a totally different planet than the one in Aliens?" is simple: it was never supposed to be setting up the first movie precisely. I don't know why so many people got the idea that it was. It never says or even implies anywhere in the film that this is the same planet, in fact, it explicitly says at the beginning of the film that it isn't the same planet. Now, you can't expect most viewers to know off the top of their heads that the planetoid in the first film was LV-426 and the planetoid in the new movie is LV-223. (I knew that because I had just rewatched Alien a few weeks ago and the number was fresh in my head, but barring that, there is always Wikipedia.) But if you thought that the two planets were the same, even though they looked completely different, with different climates and atmospheres, well, that's not on the film. That is strictly your own expectations which had nothing to do with any information that was or was not given in the course of the film. There was never any label on the movie posters that stated explicitly that the events of this movie would lead directly to the events of Alien

We know it's the same universe but it's a completely different planet. It's not fair to bring in materials from outside of the film, because I think we can all agree to the principle that any film that requires recourse to information outside the film in order to be understood has failed on a very basic level to communicate what it needed to communicate. Still, for the purpose of clarification, here's a quote from screenwriter Damon Lindelof, taken from Wikipedia:
If the ending to [Prometheus] is just going to be the room that John Hurt walks into that's full of [alien] eggs [in Alien], there's nothing interesting in that, because we know where it's going to end. Good stories, you don't know where they're going to end.
Again, from Lindelof:
A true prequel should essentially proceed [sic] the events of the original film, but be about something entirely different, feature different characters, have an entirely different theme, although it takes place in that same world.
So, not to belabor the point - it was never supposed to be a literal "prequel" to Alien in terms of it setting up the direct events of the (later / earlier) movie. The filmmakers were very upfront about this. And even if you had never seen a single interview or read a single press piece about the film, the film itself was very upfront about this. There was never any intention of producing a bait-and-switch.

All throughout the film's promotion both Scott and Lindelof were chary of using the word "prequel," and I didn't really understand why - since the film so obviously was a prequel. But I think now I understand the reason why: the word "prequel" appears to carry the expectation that the story is going to directly and literally precede the original. We have Star Wars to thank for that, I suspect, because those prequels were very much about filling in all the dots in the years directly leading up to the opening scenes of A New Hope. Would people have been upset if the Star Wars prequels had actually been about the founding of the Jedi Order five thousand years or however long BBY, with nary a Skywalker in sight? Or if the Star Wars prequels had been about another group of Jedi on the other side of the universe doing something equally (or even more) interesting but only tangentially related to the actual events of the Star Wars films? 

So: the events on LV-223 don't add up to the tableau of the first Alien because it's not the same world. Whatever happened on LV-426 prior to Alien, we don't know. And, despite rumors to the contrary, it is extremely unlikely that any sequel to Prometheus would answer that question, and there's one very simple reason for this: the derelict that the Nostromo found on LV-426 had been abandoned for hundreds, if not thousands of years. Although the eggs remained in working order (and given the hardiness of the aliens themselves, who knows how long they could halve remained in perpetual suspended animation? or even if, as some have speculated, that the eggs in the cargo hold of that derelict were held in suspension by the Engineers themselves, and so could have remained perpetually "ready" as long as the motion detecter around the egg chamber wasn't disturbed), the Engineer corpse was already halfway to petrification. The timeframe doesn't work at all. Whatever that story is, it's probably unrelated to the events of Prometheus - but now, having seen Prometheus, and having seen just what kind of fragile control the Engineers actually had over their weaponry, it's not that hard to speculate about what probably did happen.

As to the question of what happened on LV-223 after Prometheus? We don't know that, either. But what we do know, and what we've known since 1979, is that the encounter on LV-426 was not the first time humanity had encountered the aliens. If you recall, Ash knows what the crew are facing. He says, explicitly, when asked by the crew members if he had any prior knowledge about the alien, "I can't lie to you about your chances, but . . . you have my sympathies." Weyland-Utani knew what the alien was. They probably had access to all the information from the destroyed Prometheus . . . except (possibly?) for the contents of the bio-weapons themselves - given that one of the Engineer ships is partially destroyed and one of the ships is stolen by Elizabeth Shaw and David. (As for the surviving alien himself - without any food or living creatures left to breed with, he'd probably live a lonely life, assuming he could survive the poison atmosphere [which he probably could, at least for short periods, since we've seen that the aliens can survive short periods of time in total vacuum] and wasn't caught in one of those deadly shrapnel storms that scour the planet's surface periodically - all of which adds up to the idea that the Engineers knew what they were doing when when they built that cache on such a hostile world.) In any event, Weyland-Yutani would still know that some serious shit had gone down on LV-223, would undoubtedly have intercepted Shaw's last transmission,  and the knowledge that the universe was littered with potentially lucrative derelict spacecraft filled with incredibly potent biological weapons was probably all they needed in order to make the retrieval of any and all alien specimens their topmost priority.

J. asks a simple enough question:
Tim, what did you think about all the 2001 parallels? The old man sending holographic messages after he was "dead" reminded me of Foundation a little too.
Short answer? I noticed the 2001 parallels straight away while I was watching the film - I didn't get the Foundation bit, but I see if now. (Complicated by the fact that Hari Seldon wasn't a delusional old man who had thrown his money away on a boondoggle after, I guess, one too many viewings of Cocoon.) I don't think these parallels were unintentional and I don't think they detracted from the film at all.

On the contrary, I thought that the allusions were just that - allusions - inserted in order to highlight thematic parallels, and I think for the most part these were fairly successful. In regards to 2001 specifically, Prometheus is obviously intended to mirror that film. A ship of brave explorers set out into the great unknown at the ostensible bidding of higher intelligences who may very well have had a hand in the creation of mankind, only to have their expedition derailed by sneaky artificial intelligences? Which is sort of what happens, but isn't: the expedition in 2001 is clearly intended to be a completely benign mission predicated on multinational cooperation and scientific curiosity. At the onset of Prometheus, because the first human characters we meet are a pair of spunky scientists, we think that's what this mission is about, too . . . but as the film wears on we begin to understand that that was never what the mission was about, not even remotely. It wasn't even really about corporate greed. 

(Which was a great fake-out, by the way, predicated on our knowledge of previous entries in the Alien franchise and Charlize Theron's seemingly despicable Meredith Vickers. We see her and her attitude and we immediately think of Paul Reiser in Aliens, and we think we have the whole thing figured - but that's precisely not what happens, not at all. She is the real representative of the Weyland corporation's interests - not her crazy-ass father who liquidated his own company in an attempt to meet Space-God - and she is certain throughout the entire movie that the whole expedition is a terrible boondoggle. She is also precisely right, but she's doing it anyway because people do stupid things in order to try to win approval from distant parents.) 

It's about human megalomania and essentially one man's desire to live forever, and what happens when something that should be the most profound revelation in human history is boiled down to the most basic of selfish human desires. Putting this idea next to 2001 is an excellent use of foreshadowing - instead of some mind-expanding deus ex machina that takes humanity to the limits of evolution, the apotheosis in Prometheus is getting crushed like a bug by a giant space ship. It goes rotten because the motivations are all wrong, all rotten. 

Here's the biggie, from Joey Joe Joe Shabadoo:

I, too, liked the movie.  However, I felt like there were a lot of plot holes, specifically with regard to the biology and life cycle of the xenomorphs.  I can buy that the Hammerpedes are the chestburster / xenomorph equivalent of the mealworms or whatever that were indigenous to the planet, but what the hell was up with Fifield skipping the whole parasite / incubator step and becoming some kind of dang ol' zombie?  His head swells up to nigh-exploding-- like the reanimated Engineer head-- but that would seem to shortstop the whole "create an army of horrible monsters" function of the bioweapon, no?  Having the mysterious black goo act MacGuffin-like, imbuing it with the ability to perform different tasks based on the needs of the plot, seems ridiculous.  Why not just have Fifield's child-xenomorph attack the crew?
This would appear to be the $64,000 Question that has most bedeviled even friendly critics of the film. On some level I have to admire the courage of the filmmakers to avoid giving in to the almost certain temptation to just give us a minute or two of Star Tek technobabble in order to explain just what the fuck the black goo actually did, why it seemed to do so many different things according to the dictates of the plot, how it could possibly be understood to behave in a consistent manner. I didn't get around to asking this question first because I've actually spent quite a bit of time thinking about the question myself - I think I have developed some answers, but you are welcome to correct me.

I will begin by going backwards - backwards, as in the explication of a plot hole of a 20-year old comic book:

From <i>Aliens: Genocide</i> #1 by Mike Richardson, Jon Arcudi, Damon WIllis, and Karl Story.
From Aliens: Genocide #1 by Mike Richardson, Jon Arcudi, Damon WIllis, and Karl Story.

This is the splash page from Aliens: Genocide #1, from 1991. I believe this was the fourth Aliens series released by Dark Horse. The plot of this series picks up directly from the previous story, wherein RIpley had saved the Earth from an alien infestation by kidnapping the alien Queen Mother from the alien homeworld, depositing her on Earth and then using her as bait to lure as many aliens as possible to a conveniently nuke-able location. (As plans go, it was definitely something that could only have worked in a comic book. I would recommend Earth War based solely on the Sam Keith art, but the story itself suffers from the same wonky-ness that seems to have infected a large percentage of Dark Horse's Aliens series - the plots only work if you don't look at them too closely.) Anyway, Genocide picks up on that story by sending a new expedition to the alien homeworld for the purpose of procuring some royal jelly for some vague industrial purpose or another. Of course, things go pear-shaped, yadda yadda yadda, you can probably write the thing in your head.

Anyway: the problem with this premise isn't actually that hard to discern, and you can probably pick it up just from the picture above. We have a planet that's been completely overrun by aliens, on which the aliens appear to be the only surviving megafauna, and which even appears to have been largely deforested as well. This maybe works OK in a licensed comic book where the idea of a whole planet covered in aliens is probably the scariest thing imaginable, but if you think about it a minute you'll see the problem.

Have you figured it out yet?

What do the aliens eat? How do they breed? How are they even breathing oxygen if the planet has such a stunted ecosystem?

While the shape of the planet is definitely consistent with what we know about the aliens' behavior, the long-term consequences simply don't make sense. Aliens are incredibly efficient and unremitting alpha predators. While fiendishly cunning, they've never shown any capacity whatsoever for resource management - that is, they either kill or infect every other animal that could possibly be seen as a threat or inconvenience. Go back to Aliens: the hive in the power plant has successfully killed every man, woman, and child - except for Newt - in the entire colony. They did so in a breathtakingly short amount of time. It was only the arrival of the Sulaco that changed any of that - it's not hard to imagine a world where the Sulaco never came, or came six months too late, where Newt was already dead and there was no one and no thing left alive on the surface of LV-426 except for aliens. So - what would they actually do? The aliens are incredibly efficient predators, able to survive in the harshest conditions, able to coordinate attacks and use rudimentary but ruthless strategy in order to defeat their enemies - basically, able to do anything but look past the horizon of what happens the moment they run out of things to eat and other animals to impregnate.

Now, it's not hard to imagine how the aliens could have evolved naturally - and I don't think the fact that the Engineers have managed to weaponize these monsters naturally implies that they weren't also the product of natural selection. It's possible that the Engineers may have found the species on a distant planet and backwards engineered the most profitable traits from the species to fit their purposes. In biological terms, we can imagine another kind of environment where the aliens grew up in a balanced ecosystem, where they coevolved with numerous other fierce alpha predators who developed methods of defeating the aliens natural defenses. Say, for instance, a planet dominated by massive carnivorous theropods who evolved impenetrable scale armor and a strong base for a saliva in order to counteract the acid blood. You can let your imagination run wild. In any event, whatever environment the aliens may have evolved out of, taking such an efficient predator out of a finely-tuned ecosystem would only result in it becoming a dangerous invasive species, like zebra mussels, or Burmese pythons in Florida. When invasive species hijack and ecosystem, if the process isn't somehow halted, the indigenous ecosystem can be annihilated.

So: what we know about the aliens is that they are incredibly efficient killers and breeders. So efficient, even, that they could be used as a weapon - the ultimate invasive species, who when freed from the restriction of any natural predator, are able to hijack any megafauna using a parasitoid reproductive system that can also adopt salient features from host organisms in order to adapt to different hostile environments. Although this might seem like a tall order for any "real" animal, it is actually completely in keeping with the behavior of another type of animal species with which we are all very familiar: bacteria. Another thing about invasive bacteria is that they are mindless. There is no regulative mechanism to prevent bacteria from reproducing completely out of control and causing the disability and death of its host organism. This is why people have been dying from bacterial infections since the dawn of time: they're not "smart" predators, or they'd be symbiotes. They reproduce uncontrollably whether or not it's in their "best interest" to do so, because that's just what they do.

(Of course, whether or not the goo is a bacterial infection or a kind of virus - two completely different types of organisms, one of which is a living creature the other of which [if I recall my high school biology] is only technically "alive" - is a question that is probably too wonky even for me, Mr. Liberal Arts Guy. At some point even though I believe a great deal of thought has been put into describing how these organisms act within the constraints of familiar biology, you have to just admit that, A) the distinction between bacterial and viral infections is not a question the filmmakers will probably ever be interested in answering and, B) it's movies, let's just wave our hands and say something nonsensical like "bacterial virus." You can go online and find a description of the way the warp nacelles on the Enterprise "work" that makes perfect sense except for the fact that it makes no sense at all, if you get my drift.)

As wacky as it might seem, while I was watching Prometheus I became convinced that I had seen this idea, or something like it, before.

(Incidentally - is it true that kids these days don't grow up watching these the way we did? It is inconceivable to me that someone might grow up in the United State of America and not have the vast majority of Looney Tunes hardwired into their brains by the time they turned six.)

Fast forward to 3:52 if you don't remember exactly what I'm talking about. See the jar that says "10,000 INSTANT MARTIANS - JUST ADD WATER"? I think that's something like the idea here, goofy as it may seem. 

The "black goo" is an incredibly efficient bacterial infection that can hijack and kill host organisms with startling efficiency. A large enough exposure - what we see in the first minutes of the film - will almost instantly kill anyone exposed. What we saw in those first minutes was someone who drank a cup of the goo by choice and experience the infection take over his body with such brutal swiftness that he's practically disintegrated. (Similar in effect to something like the Ebola virus, although from what I understand the stereotypical, violent Ebola hemorrhages only happen in a small minority of all diagnoses - the virus "just" causes systematic organ failure, nerve damage, and circulatory breakdown.) But the infection itself is efficient enough that with just a little bit of raw material - like, say, those provided by a disintegrated corpse - the infection, when introduced into a resource-rich but sterile environment - with lots of sun, water, and oxygen - would adapt and reproduce wildly. Come back in 500,000 or 1,000,000 years, and you've got a brand new biosphere based solely on the introduction of a hardy invasive bacteria into a sterile environment. (I don't know if I believe that the scene at the beginning of Prometheus is supposed to be a prehistoric Earth - in order for that to be true, that would mean the Engineers had been doing this for 4 billion years. It's easier to believe they simply engineered humanity from preexisting raw materials, a la the Celestials - than that they've been doing this for 4 billion years without cessation. But - it's sci-fi. Who knows?)

But what happens when you don't just spatter some of the goo on the proverbial empty petrie dish - what about when you introduce it to larger organisms? One of the things the infection seems specifically designed to do is to hijack the reproductive systems of available fauna. So, sure, if you fall headfirst into a pool of the black goo, it's probably going to kill you - but it's probably also going to hijack your body in a process similar to that of the Xenos vesparum parasite, which effectively turns host wasps into mindless "zombies," whose life functions are taken over for the purpose of spreading the parasite infection among other wasps. It's probably going to take over your brain, push your adrenal and pituitary glands into the red, and turn you into a suicide bomber for the purpose of finding other members of your species and spattering black goo on them.

(As to why, in the first scene, the Engineer who ingests the cup of goo is destroyed whereas the crew member who falls headfirst into the pool is only made into a zombie - there are a two different possible answers. One, we could be dealing with different concentrations or different strains. The black goo that jump-started ecosystems could be a different type of goo from the weaponized variant that creates aliens. Two, the infection might be able to animate the dying for short periods of times, but unable to fully consume the organism after necrosis has already begun - remember, he took a face-full of acid, so he probably was dead or dying before the infection started to spread. These two answers aren't necessarily mutually exclusive.)

If you're only exposed to a tiny drop - say, a drop no bigger than the head of a pin, put in your drink by an unfriendly android - it's going to take a lot longer for the infection to reach a terminal point. Like, say, maybe a whole day. In that time, however, the infection will hijack your reproductive system and attempt to replicate itself, at which point it might very well interact with the natural bodily processes of the host organism to produce a larger version of the parasitoid, capable of interacting more efficiently with the biology of available fauna and infecting them with mutated eggs. Say you just happen to have some worms or maggots lying around - perhaps even placed near the goo for the purpose of jump-starting the process if the ship as ever compromised, or other unguessable reasons - the goo would probably have no problem whatsoever in mutating and adapting the reproductive organs of simple insects to create vessels for the infection to successfully jump species. And, crucially, this isn't some rare coincidence - this type of species-hijacking appears to be precisely what the infection was designed to do. If you were to expose it to any number of animals it would probably find different ways to reach the same results, recreating the infection-parasite-facehugger-chestburster-queen-egg life cycle in a myriad of different ways but substantively the same each time.

What the "black goo" does is reproduce. It is essentially life boiled down to its most efficient processes: infect, reproduce, kill. When it infects organisms it adapts those organisms to be the most efficient carriers possible: what it's going to do is to leap as far up the evolutionary ladder as possible until it infects the largest predator, infect and hijack the reproductive system of said predator, and then produce some kind of hybrid that will reproduce uncontrollably and assure the swiftest possible spread of the infection. The aliens themselves, therefore, are not "true" aliens: they're hybrids, products of host species's DNA unzipped and shaken with the incredibly potent genetic material of the bacteria. Whether or not this cocktail is a distillation of naturally occurring fauna from elsewhere in the universe, or it was created by the Engineers in a lab, the result is the same: the most potent bioweapon imaginable, but also under certain circumstances (different strains or preparations) an effective engine for biosphere terraforming, something much like the Genesis device in Star Trek 2 and 3, albeit a much more slow process.

It's not difficult to imagine that such a potent technology could have become the center of a race's spiritual or religious life, a solid manifestation of the duality of life and death, the potential to create heavenly oasis or demoniacal hells with a single cup of goo. I think, based on the evidence of the murals and the architecture of the main chamber, there there must have been some kind of religious observance built around the substance, or perhaps the thought process behind the Engineers's relation to the goo is something even more alien and inconceivable than that.  

Questions from Eric R.:

1)What did you think of the Space Jesus aspects of the film? I found it kind of off-putting until it was revealed that Space Jesus wanted to kill us.

2)Given that the Engineers created or seeded life on Earth but ultimately wanted to wipe out Earth do you think that a)they changed their mind about it, b)there are multiple groups of Engineers with different objectives*, c)they seed life only to experiment with the black goo or d)there's not enough info in the film to take a guess one way or the other.

*I didn't notice it at the time but someone pointed out to me that the ship in the opening is different from the in the rest of the film.

3)Do you think that Alien will hold up for people who saw Prometheus first, in particularly regarding the special effects(there are several points in the film where the alien is clearly just a dude in a suit) and how retro in the technology in the Nostromo is?
1) While I think on the balance I'm glad that the filmmakers chose to take the Space Jesus bit out of the film (although you can still see the outlines of where the idea would have fit) - and while my initial reaction was that it was a terrible idea - the more I've thought about it the less problematic I think the idea actually is. One of the biggest reasons I've come down on the side of thinking it wasn't that bad an idea is that in the week or so since the film has been out in the States I've read a handful of opinion pieces on the film, a couple of which seem to have been written under the impression that Prometheus was some sort of crypto-evangelical or veiled-Christian film. Because, you know, there's a character in the movie who is a Christian who is overtly (albeit non-threateningly) religious. And again, this is one of those instances where I just have to chalk the problem up to people who straight-up cannot understand the most basic aspects of subtext. 

I can understand why under certain circumstances that's the kind of thing that sends up the proverbial red flag for nerds. And I can sympathize - it's not like I've become religious or anything, but over the last few years I've also come to see that there are far more important contemporary political issues than the social status of atheism. (Like, you know, the looming heat-death of capitalism, ecological devastation, the fact that we're living in an honest-to-God police state, et. al.) That said, I still do believe that science-fiction at its core has to be an atheistic genre. Because of its speculative nature that also makes it a great platform to tell stories about faith and religion - sci-fi is full of small-"g" gods and cargo cults and "intelligent designers" and false prophecies and all that fun stuff - without actually, you know, being about Christian (or Muslim or Buddhist or whatever) apologetics. The moment you actually break that wall and provide confirmation of the existence of the Judeo-Christian mythology as the answer to the absolute questions of human existence, then you've stepped away from sci-fi regardless of whatever kind of spaceships you have in your story, because you've taken away the whole premise of the genre - i.e., that mankind is free to make his own way in an essentially materialistic universe and make his own mistakes for better for worse. So sorry, C. S. Lewis, but your sci-fi books are terrible. 

Anyway, there's nothing in Prometheus that violates that rule. In fact, anyone who wants to find "Christian themes" in the movie should probably remember the fact that the movie confirms that the human race was created by sinister aliens who want to kill us all. I don't see how that's any different from, say, a Flying Spaghetti Monster on the list of "things that seem to have been created for the sole purpose of pissing off religious fundamentalists." While this is still only the second best use of Erich von Däniken's goofy Chariots of the Gods in pop culture (the first obviously being Kirby's Eternals, which for all of its status as "third-rate" Kirby was nevertheless pretty fucking fantastic) , the basic idea behind the "ancient astronauts" theory is still a terrifically creepy piece of pop-culture ephemera. That's the problem with "intelligent design," right? The problem any sassy ten-year-old can see? The "intelligent design" proponents obviously have no desire to consider the possibility that the "intelligent designer" wasn't the big-G Judeo-Christian God, even though if you accept the premise that certain aspects of earth biology are "irreducibly complex," well, shit, there's no reason to believe we weren't planted by 500-foot-tall space gods in shining red armor, besides arbitrary prejudice, now is there?

 So, no, I don't see any problem with the religious themes of Prometheus. The whole damn point of the film is that a great many things we thought we knew about the world are complete lies. We aren't a special creation, we're an experiment created - why? Who knows. We certainly weren't ever important enough that they ever thought twice about sending a ship to annihilate us, or even important enough that they ever thought to send a follow-up when that mission failed. We have no reason to believe that LV-223 was anything more than a outpost - a military base, a scientific outpost, a frontier barracks - hell, even just a storage depot is conceivable. Whatever else the Engineers were doing, they don't appear to have been concerned with us at all, for better or worse, in anything but maybe the most abstract "let's make sure these animals don't figure out how to kill us" way. There's nothing at all wrong with the idea that somewhere vaguely around 2,000 years ago the Engineers looked down and saw a massive military build-up and a leap in technology and logistical capabilities across the planet (not just the Roman civil war and its after-effects, either - don't be so Eurocentric, that was also the height of the Han dynasty, if I recall correctly), and decided to give us a chance to clean up our act before they surreptitiously dropped some canisters of black goo into the Roman aqueducts. Or it's conceivable that one of their dudes got lost in Galilee for no reason whatsoever and ended up getting killed for no reason at all (although we have no record of Jesus being seven feet tall and translucent blue) - whatever. Off the top of your head I am certain you can think of half-a-dozen sci-fi stories that use that as the explicit or implicit premise. If we're dealing with ancient astronauts and the creation of life on earth as a glorified botanical experiment, I think we've already drifted pretty far south of any kind of "respectful" treatment of religious themes. And in any event, the movie never pulled the trigger on the idea to begin with, so unless they decide to devote time in the prospective sequel to exploring an  hypothetical plot thread that the filmmakers themselves already mooted, I wouldn't worry about it.

As for Elizabeth Shaw? She's an archaeologist who wears a cross because she has some kind of vague religious beliefs. The fact that we're supposed to be sympathetic to her character doesn't give the film any kind of hidden theological agenda. I don't think the franchise is building towards any sort of great religious revelation like Battlestar: Galactica. (That's assuming we even get another film, considering the fact that this one has done respectable - not fantastic - business, and the fan reaction has been decidedly - if inexplicably - muted.) As an atheist I find myself more and more sympathetic with Nietzsche's position as the years go by. He didn't just say, "God is dead," after all: he said, "God is dead, and we killed him." Certainly, he was our idea, our's to kill, but we weren't prepared to ask the question of what comes after. Based on the extremely poor state of our world, I'd say Nietzsche was more right than wrong: we should probably have spent more time worrying about what it meant that God was dead, than celebrating that fact - and this is a scary idea that I think Prometheus actually does a fairly good job of articulating. What do we do in a "post-God" world? Well, there's the rub, isn't it?

So when Shaw grabs her cross at the end of the film and puts it back around her neck, what does it mean? It doesn't mean that there is a God in heaven and all is well in the world, and if you think it does you need to go back to remedial English. It means, rather, that things are kind of fucked and that Elizabeth Shaw is the last (human) survivor of a poorly-planned ego-trip of a "first contact" mission that was basically a boondoggle from day one, so of course she's going to make sure she's got her cross - it's an object that reminds her of her father, for God's sake. It's not so much about capital-R Religion as keeping hold of one familiar talisman in an increasingly, terrifyingly unfamiliar universe. She doesn't have a lot else to keep her going at that particular moment.
2) My best answer is I don't know, but it will be fun to speculate as to the whys and wherefores for however long until (or ever) they get around to making Prometheus 2: Electric Bugaloo (and that is officially the 10,000,000th Electric Bugaloo joke ever recorded on the internet, folks). My personal feeling is that the Engineers must be dying off or depopulated, or something to that effect, for them to have abandoned an outpost like that for 2,000 years. Maybe Shaw will get back to their home planet and find nothing but ruins and the remains of terrible planet-smashing war machines - or a hive of millions of aliens. Or maybe they'll be an incredibly advanced pacifistic species who turned their back on weapons thousands of years ago and will see the return of a long-banished warship armed to the gills with the most dangerous biohazard in the universe as an unbearable provocation. Who knows!

3) This last question is one to which I honestly haven't given much thought. The original Alien and it's sequel are both such classics at this point that I don't think anything will ever be able to shake that, for better or for worse - people will still continue to watch these movies regardless of whether or not the technology "holds up."

Already, we've seen from the fairly mixed reaction that Prometheus has elicited - which, can I just say again, doesn't make a damn bit of sense to me? this was a fucking awesome movie, I swear it's like nerds these days just go in wanting to hate things - that most people agree it's not a patch on the original. And, you know, I love Prometheus - I'm planning on seeing it again tomorrow, actually, that's how much I love it - but it's not Alien, not even close. Nothing will ever knock Alien from its perch of being one of the best movies of its kind ever made. People who appreciate film will always be able to get what's special about Alien regardless of whether or not they've seen Prometheus, and if they have two brain cells in their head I don't imagine they'll spend too much time worrying about the technology level on the Nostromo.

I made the analogy earlier, but the Star Wars films still make for a good comparison: I'm That Guy who loved the prequels, but if we're being completely honest we all know that they could have been 10,000x better than they were and they still wouldn't have been a patch on the original trilogy. When you watch A New Hope, does it distract you that Jan Dodonna's video display looks like something they whipped up on an Atari 2600? If it does, you're probably not buying the movie anyway. I mean, nothing becomes more dated more quickly than future technology in sci-fi. Go back and read any book from the "Golden Age" of science-fiction - no one, or precious few people, appreciated just how big a deal miniaturized computers would be. Space opera writers for generations fetishized the slide rule as the means for spaceship pilots to do the calculations necessary to steer faster-than-light vehicles. Heinlein, Asimov - all the great grandmasters of the "Golden Age," none of them saw the impact that miniaturization would have on computer technology. So many classic sci-fi stories focused around the special status of "calculators" - guys who could do math in their heads so well that they were borderline supermen. (Special dispensation for Herbert, he actually invented some good in-story reasons for banishing computer technology from the Dune universe.)

Now we're all of us as we speak carrying around in our pockets tiny computers with more processing power than the machines that sent the Apollo 11 to the moon. How fucking weird is that, and just how much does that date any sci-fi made before, I don't know, at least the mid-70s? That was when pocket calculators first started popping up in the real world, right? Remember when the touch displays on Star Trek: The Next Generation were just inconceivably futuristic? Chances are that sometime in the previous 24 hours you played a game of solitaire or Angry Birds on a machine that would have made Commander Data green with envy, and maybe even while you were taking a dump.

So are people going to care that the sci-fi looks dated? Probably, it always does. At this point, though, that's just something you deal with. It's not going to take anything away from Alien. Ultimately, it's all just suspension of disbelief.  

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