With the release of Alien Covenant, it’s time to put to bed everyone’s favourite argument about everyone’s least favourite prequel. I’m sure you’ve heard a variant of this complaint before: “The problem with Prometheus is it’s set before Alien but the technology looks better”; or, maybe “I would have liked Prometheus if it had stuck with the retro 80s idea of the future from the Alien films.” I think Prometheus is a bad film, but this argument misses its real faults. It’s the modern obsession for logically nit-picking at movies masquerading as an aesthetic concern. It sides with nostalgic familiarity over the innovative and creative. Ultimately, it’s not a way of looking at film that will help us spot when something really new and original comes along.
While there are a few satisfying explanations for why the technology in Prometheus would be slicker than the clunky monitors of Alien (a common one seems to be that the Prometheus mission was far better funded), the need for an explanation misses the point. It’s natural for films to adapt their vision of the future with the changing times, just as our idea of the past has updated with historical study. To not change makes it difficult for a film to stand on its own two feet with new audiences; in the case of a sequel or prequel, it makes it dependent on the original audiences. Take Mad Max: Fury Road for instance, a film that radically overhauled the iconic look of the originals to use new special effects. Why was Fury Road praised for its visuals while Prometheus was criticised for them? There’s a few possible answers. For one thing, Fury Road deliberately blurred the line between sequel and remake, partly by way of its audacious visuals. The world of Fury Road is also so high octane that it makes it almost plausible that society would accelerate into a sun-bleached desert in Max’s lifetime. But let’s face it, the real reason is that more imagination and effort went into the visuals of Fury Road and it just looks cooler.
To argue that the visuals of Alien were strong primarily because it was made in the 80s implicitly dismisses the immense artistic talent and creativity that went into the film by suggesting that it was an inevitable product of the era. Ridley Scott has long cited The Texas Chainsaw Massacre as an inspiration for Alien, and it shows. Even harsh critic of TTCM, Roger Ebert praised it as “a masterpiece of set decoration and the creation of mood.” Within the confines of a small house, the mood and setting varied hugely, and Scott applied similar techniques to the Nostromo in Alien. (It’s worth noting that Ridley Scott’s other futuristic film of this time, Blade Runner, is acclaimed almost primarily for its visuals.)
The beautifully frightening look of Alien was achieved primarily through the astounding artwork of H. R. Giger. Giger did design some murals for Prometheus, and a few new designs were influenced by him, but it barely shows, as is evident in the design of the creatures—Giger’s sinister black tones were abandoned for pale embryonic greys—but also more subtly in the look of the technology and ship interiors. Take the decision to array the hyper sleep pods in straight rows in Prometheus, rather than the star shape of Alien. The latter was a simple touch that made the scene where they open in sync a thousand times eerier.
In Alien the design of the Xenomorph and the Nostromo were two pieces of the same puzzle. The sets were specifically designed so that the alien could hide in plain sight, hanging among the chains or unfurling out of nowhere in the seemingly deserted escape pod. Combined with the fact that the alien had already morphed through several forms, this created the paranoid mood of the film, the fear that it could be hiding anywhere.
Compare this with the sets of Prometheus. The grey of the Engineers and other creatures is echoed in the blank grey corridors (and inevitably they are corridors; Prometheus doesn’t use the variety of claustrophobic ducts and hangars that Alien did). While even the Xenomorph’s insectoid body, bare and skeletal, mirrored the exposed machinery of the Nostromo, the Engineers’ clinical CGI smoothness is reflected by the sleek digital screens and finished walls.
Another concrete strength of Alien, which initially seems to contradict the imagination of the film, is its realism. With its confusion of phallic and vaginal symbols and strong female lead, Alien has often been interpreted as expressing the gender anxieties of an era when women were increasingly entering the workforce. In fitting with this, the Nostromo was imagined as a functioning workplace where practicalities were taken into account. Rooms were crowded with machinery, space wasn’t wasted on basketball courts as in Prometheus, human touches such as the bird ornament and wind chimes were squeezed in among the machinery. Yet despite this, varied sets were still used—from dark rooms full of machinery to well-lit communal areas and cramped ventilation ducts. It felt lived in and functional as well as serving to build atmosphere. Aliens took this focus on work even further to have the loading machinery provide one of the film’s most memorable scenes. Prometheus doesn’t deal with ordinary working people, but with a Hollywood idea of scientists, along with more pretentious themes, perhaps explaining its abandonment of the workaday. The result is to sanitise and idealise its image of the future, creating something that isn’t wildly out of modern trends in science fiction but that loses Alien‘s connection to the real world.
Mat Farrell is a Hull history graduate. He researches and writes for a project on Doncaster, his hometown, in the First World War. He’s a huge nerd for horror films and musicals, and is a reluctant member of his local running club. You can find him on Twitter at @MatFrl