In preparation for this summer's Alien Covenant, I went back and did something I should have done a while ago, watched Ridley Scott's Prometheus. The film marked Scott's return to the franchise after being there at its creation in 1979 when he directed Alien.
The Alien franchise is a bit of a mish-mash, which each film in the series having its own unique director who exercised considerable freedom. Scott's Alien is a simple yet elegant "monster in the house" horror film. James Cameron's Aliens blends "monster in the house" with Ellen Ripley as the "dude with a problem" who must willingly confront and destroy the monstrosity from which she originally fled. As opposed to the original movies limited cast and claustrophobic feel, Cameron gives us an action flick with plenty of "red shirts", a "boss bad guy" complete with an evil lair, varied locations, and cool sci-fi gadgets galore. David Fincher's Alien 3 promptly eradicated all of Cameron's work by killing the supporting cast off and brought us back to the original "monster the house" but made crucial changes to the tone with a dystopian setting, apocalyptic cult, and a much grittier heroine who ends the movie by killing herself off. Of course a franchise worth that much money can't be killed off so we had Alien Resurection which even Joss Wedon's writing apparently couldn't save. That was the state of the series when Ridley Scott returned to direct a prequel, Prometheus.
I liked Prometheus. It sets the entire series in a wider context by showing us Dr. Elizabeth Shaw and synthetic David 8's "quest for the golden fleece"gone horribly wrong. Elizabeth Shaw is a very different focal character from Ellen Ripley ensuring that while the movie contains many homages to its predecessors it never becomes a simple re-imagining. Noomi Rapace nails the complexities of portraying an educated, post-evangelical, missionary kid, struggling with infertility and a passionate, but emotionally stunted boyfriend (sound unbelievable? Welcome to my entire age group!). Michael Fassbender's David 8 gives us a new take on the poor, persecuted, but ultimately devious androids from the prior movies. His fastidious reverence for Peter O'Toole's Lawerence of Arabia reminds me of more than a few tormented young aesthetes I've known. I enjoyed watching these two play off each other and the rest of the cast. I would have enjoyed continuing to see their growth and adventures as "Dr. Shaw and the Amazing Severed Head -in Space!". Sadly, that's not to be. At any rate, as you'd expect from the two focal characters (and the movie's title), Prometheus is about creation -that's "the Golden Fleece" or "Elixir" the principle cast is trying to find. It's a fitting topic for a director at the height of his career and for an epic film in the Sci-Fi/Fantasy genre. Scott handles it well as we see various characters respond to the challenges posed by the question of our own origins and our own role as "sub-creators".
That said, I understand why the film split both fans and critics. With each of the original Alien films having a distinct vision and a distinct genre (not to mention all the video games and comic books from 1979-2012!), there is no core "Alien Experience" for Scott to offer. Attempting to cover all the bases would have produced the schlock-fest of the Alien Versus Predator franchise. What Scott and company seem to have attempted was to tell a new, contextualizing, story in the Alien universe in the epic style of Scott's mature career (Black Hawk Down, Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven) with plenty of homages to the original material. It's a very different tone and project from prior Alien installments, but is also fair-play given the smorgasbord of the franchise. Where the movie did strain is where it was caught on the horns of telling a new kind of story while still honoring the old material. More fundamentally, it was the friction between trying to merge a "golden fleece" story with the old "monster in the house". The more philosophical scope of Prometheus also risked breaking audience suspension of disbelief the more large-or-squishy-aliens-killing-people-or-each-other it involved. This would be a violation of what Blake Snyder calls "double-mumbo-jumbo" in his book "Save the Cat".
Those are my thoughts thus far. I'm disappointed that Scott and Co. had to kill so much of the story they were setting up to tell with Prometheus due to fan blow-back, particularly the loss of Dr. Shaw, but I understand that's the game if you're a film-maker and Alien Covenant looks to be a worthy, if more predictable, entry in the franchise.