In 2000, games manufacturer WizKids came up with a very clever concept: a miniatures wargame in which each figure’s attack and defense values were displayed on a unique, two-piece base. As the unit took “damage,” the player would rotate the base, revealing new values and activating special powers. Mage Knight was a hit, and spawned a bunch of similar “clicky,” collectible miniatures games, including the superhero-themed HeroClix and its spooky counterpart, HorrorClix.
The latter game began with generic monsters, but soon began to license other frightful film properties: Freddy vs. Jason, Hellboy and Alien vs. Predator. From the latter comes today’s entry: the Alien Queen. This oversized figure slots into an even larger base depicting the Queen’s egg sac. Honestly, I have no idea how the egg sac is used in gameplay, but it looks cool and isn’t that what matters most?
My anticipation of the Alien prequel/not-a-prequel Prometheus was tempered by a nagging doubt. Did I really want to know more about the gigantic “space jockey” briefly glimpsed at the controls of the horseshoe-shaped vessel with its cargo of alien eggs? Much of what makes the first half of Alien so effective is its unfathomable otherworldliness. And yet, after five sequels of (mostly) diminishing returns, the only aspect of the Alien universe still worth exploring is surely this mysterious third race.
As information about the secretive Prometheus project trickled out, it was clear that–despite director Ridley Scott’s protests to the contrary–it really was an Alien prequel. The space jockeys and their horseshoe ship featured prominently in the commercials. And the spectacular crash scene seemed to promise that by the end of Prometheus the tableau would be in place for the later visit of the ill-fated crew of the Nostromo.
MASSIVE SPOILERS AHEAD. DO YOU WISH TO SELF-DESTRUCT? (Y/N)
Except…as the Onion’s A.V. Club points out, it drives right up to the edge and then veers off. This isn’t the same planet from Alien, even though it too orbits a giant, ringed world. And this isn’t the same ship, even if it looks identical and winds up in a similar state as the original derelict. It’s frustrating. If Prometheus truly wasn’t intended to set the table for Alien, then why does so much of it play out in exactly the manner one would expect from a direct prequel?*
These defeated expectations are only part of the reason I feel a bit let down by Prometheus. Some of this film’s mysteries seem less deliberately unexplained than not thought through. If the “Engineers” (the new name of the space jockeys) really were pointing us toward a specific star cluster, why was it one of their military bases and not their home? The Earth pictographs suggested a then-harmonious relationship between humans and their creators. If it was a trap from the get-go, why bother? Why not just drop a cargo of biogenetic death on us thousands of years before we achieved interstellar travel?
The actions of the scientific expedition were equally baffling. It’s one thing for the crew of a space tug to go around foolishly poking things with a stick, another thing entirely for a group of scientific experts. It’s not just that these people had never seen an Alien film, it’s that they lacked even a sensible hesitation about touching things that are literally oozing with dark portents. Look, I am not a biologist, but I’m pretty sure that if I encountered a snake with a vagina for a head that was rearing up and hissing, my first inclination would not be to try to pet it. And folks, just because the air is breathable does NOT mean that you remove your helmet and take in a big lungful of extraterrestrial pathogens. Really, these people simply could not leave shit alone.
I’m not going to be totally down on Prometheus. It was gorgeous to look at and full of foreboding.** The callbacks to the original Alien were appreciated.*** And Michael Fassbender was fascinating to watch as David the android. I’d likely see Prometheus 2 just for more of his character. But if you’re an Alien fan, temper your expectations and be prepared for a lot of idiotic behavior.
*I believe that the ties may have been much more explicit in early drafts. An alleged synopsis, leaked to the web and quickly denied by the studio, reads suspiciously like a rejected draft, going so far as to play up the “Paradise” angle that Ridley Scott has mentioned in recent interviews.
**So full of foreboding that it plays like the first half of Alien stretched out to feature length.
***The kidney bean-shaped corridors of the so-called “pyramid” recalled set designs from the original derelict ship. The pyramid itself appeared to be based on an H.R. Giger painting of an alien “egg silo” cut from Alien before filming took place. Oddly, it also resembled one of Giger’s designs for the aborted Dune movie of the 1970s.
Ridley Scott’s Alien is often dismissed as merely “a haunted house movie in space” rather than a legitimate science-fiction film. And yes, there are a few cheap boos, including a groan-worthy Cat Scare.
Yet I can’t recall another film that has devoted so much screen time to fleshing out the biology of its xenomorph. On the surface, Alien may seem like little more than an exercise in bone-crunching bloodletting, or an excuse to get Sigourney Weaver into the tiniest panties in film history, but I think it’s really about the act of procreation and the evolutionary imperative to survive at any cost.
It’s not without reason that Scott hired Swiss surrealist H.R. Giger to design his creature. If you are looking to combine skulls and penises, Giger is your go-to guy. And indeed, the head of the Alien is quite clearly intended to be a death’s head phallus.
The sexual content of Alien isn’t at all subtextual. One of the hapless astronauts of the deep-space vessel Nostromo is literally penetrated by a thing that wraps itself around his head and shoves an egg tube down his throat. The critter gestates inside his gut in a mock pregnancy that ends when it tears its way through his belly in a self-Caesarean.
The life cycle of the Alien–egg, face-hugger, chest-burster, adult–is so well conceived that it becomes almost a ritualistic component of later sequels and spin-offs. By the time of Alien vs. Predator, the whole process is allowed to elapse in about five minutes of screen time.
In a deleted scene (later reinserted for DVD release), Scott brings the cycle full-circle by depicting the adult Alien cocooning its victims and transforming them into a new generation of eggs. That part of the lore was superseded by the introduction of the Queen in James Cameron’s Aliens, and is generally ignored.
The Alien is desired by ruthless businessmen for its potential as a bioweapon. After all, it’s not only a perfect killing machine, but a supreme survival organism. For goodness’ sake, the thing evolved acid for blood just so no one would fuck with it.
For me, the terror of Alien isn’t just the beast itself, but the endless void of space and the sand-blasted hellscape of the world on which the thing is discovered. While Alien is not overtly an H.P. Lovecraft inspired film, I certainly feel that inimical environment is exactly the sort of place in which his extraplanetary gods would’ve spawned.