Modern prequels to films that have created a universe of their own have had a rough go of it, specifically one that has as unique a universe as Ridley Scott’s Alien series. I’m not even sure that I could name a horror prequel (or reboot for that matter) that’s been met with open arms, especially one around which an established mythology has been formed.
It is to Ridley Scott’s credit that no effort has been made to remake Alien in any form – preferring instead to pile on sequels with ever more expendable side stories, edible military personnel, and more creative ways for the Xenomorphs to acquire and dispatch those aforementioned snackables.
As a prequel, Prometheus has the devastatingly difficult job of introducing the origin of its species, and by design, the origin of its mythos. Prometheus is an evolution story – In Greek mythology, Prometheus (‘forethought’) was a Titan who is credited with the creation of mankind, and for defying the rule of the Gods and giving Man the gift of fire – the act that allowed for the birth of civilization. Sacrifice for progress, and quite literally sacrifice for the survival of a new species, is how we begin.
I’ve heard several theories about what influences Scott brought to his imagining of the origin story of Alien, from 2001: A Space Odyssey (which some also argue gave birth to science-fiction itself) to the Cthulhu Mythos. As I’ve been in a bit of a Lovecraftian mode lately, it’s the Cthulhu Mythos that I’m going to address first.
Usually, whenever people see tentacles, one of two things occur: those among the faithful are the first to screech jubilantly “Ia! Ia! Cthulhu Fthagn!” while most everyone else looks on in horror because they’ve seen too much hentai and know where this might be going. Prometheus definitely has its share of tentacles, and it’s not surprising that this is how we are first introduced to the creatures thriving in the alien spacecraft.
Lovecraft’s work in general feeds off of a feeling of unease, of looming dread – it’s not so much about the actual terror, but the growing of it, the weight of it. Prometheus is full of the feeling of crushing doom, and it’s not until the end (just like in The Call of Cthulhu) that we are actually introduced to the physical manifestation of this horror.
Lovecraft’s work also centered around the concept that the thirst for knowledge is the search for the ultimate horror – or more bluntly – “curiosity killed the cat.” The same is true for the Prometheus and her crew: they are in search of the ultimate knowledge of mankind’s creation, to answer the unanswerable with all the hubris and vanity of a failed creation grown too big for its space boots. I would argue that while it is obvious that Ridley Scott is inspired by Lovecraft (as is H.R Giger), I see about as much of Cthulhu in Prometheus as I see fake moon landings in The Shining.
However, leaving Lovecraft behind for a moment, what intrigued me the most about Prometheus was the focus on the generative powers – gestation, germination, and growth. The planet that the Prometheus lands on is barren – a toxic wasteland. Within the walls of the spacecraft, there’s something waiting – perhaps in stasis, waiting to be nudged into action. Shaw and her team are the perfect catalyst for that action – to be completely creepy about it, they are the perfect petrie dishes. Contaminating the setting with their deliberate clumsiness: perhaps it’s the addition of their breath, body heat, skin oils, pressure from their feet – any number of stressors on the dormant environment that bring it suddenly and terrifyingly to life.
The canisters in Prometheus aren’t the catalyst for life anymore – they are a catalyst for death created by the Engineers to destroy their human science experiments – and like anything past its expiration date, I wouldn’t recommend making anything you plan on serving to guests with these ingredients. It is this drooling black muck that has me fascinated – primordial ooze filled with the building blocks for a myriad of life forms, depending on what they happen to come into contact with. Infiltrating the soil, the water, there’s no limit to what can be produced and sometimes it all depends on the host.
Humans are extremely unique organisms with a steady core body temperature, moist orifices for entry, mucous membranes, and cavities that can incubate any manner of alien life with amazing alacrity. The proto-alien lifecycle is a rudimentary one. Ingestion of the black ooze, even a drop, is enough to start the dominos falling. Ingestion leads to procreation, procreation to gestation, gestation to extraction, rapid growth after extraction gives us our proto-facehugger. Alarmingly large, I read a lot of criticism of the creatures introduced in Prometheus. And yes… I giggled a bit. However, when you stop to once again think about the fact that these creatures have been gestating inside HUGE beings, a tiny little face-hugger from Alien wouldn’t even have made it to the Engineer’s giant face, let alone been able to insert anything in its chest. So, once again, we have to consider the source. Used to incubating inside larger specimens, our squiddy proto-facehugger friend would have ripped Shaw to pieces had she not extracted it. Being able to overpower a being as massive as the Engineer requires strength, and tentacles (obviously).
At this point, we’re all viscerally reminded of Kane’s brutal face rape at the claws of the face-hugger in Alien – what did it take to get from the massive creature to the slim, spidery terror that we all know and love. Evolution is the answer. In Prometheus, it’s “survival of the biggest,” but by the time our mythos has aged to the point of Alien, it’s now “survival of the adaptable.” Now for my favorite part. In the theater, when the proto-chest burster appears, the theater erupted with two reactions – audible groans/facepalms from one section of the crowd and a chorus of “YESSSSS‘” from the rest – I was in the YESSSSSS section. Maybe it’s all the years I’ve spent doing anthropological study, but evolution fascinates the f*ck out of me. This little proto-alien, fully formed and trying out it’s baby xenomorph gazelle legs and double mouth is the beginning of a very beautiful thing. No seriously, that’s actually how I feel about it. Once again, the look of the creature is tied to its host – the massive form of the Engineer can incubate an almost fully grown creature, where the human form cannot.
Necessity is the mother of invention, and the same is true for evolution.
The canisters full of the black mucus of death become the field of Alien eggs, the need to gestate spore inside a host becomes a fully formed creature with its own propulsion system, and fully formed infant aliens become chest-bursters that grow quickly once freed from their fleshy prison. Infants grow into Xenomorph Queens and the cycle continues.
Breed. Feed. Expand. Evolve… Delicious.