Three decades after confronting our anxieties about reproduction in Alien, Sir Ridley Scott returns to the universe of his classic sci-fi horror film. Davina Quinlivan considers the franchise and shows that in nightmares, no one can hear you scream

May 31, 2012


Credit: Twentieth Century FoxIn the belly of the beast: Scenes from Prometheus (above, with Michael Fassbender and Noomi Rapace) flesh out the Alien mythology


Directed by Sir Ridley Scott

Starring Noomi Rapace, Logan Marshall-Green, Michael Fassbender and Idris Elba

Released in the UK on 1 June

The opening images of Sir Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) feature a milky-skinned, rosy-cheeked Sigourney Weaver emerging from a deep slumber along with her fellow crew members on the Nostromo, a commercial towing spaceship. The crew members awaken from glass-domed pods, arranged around the empty, white space of the ship like petals of a flower. Perversely, for Ellen Ripley (Weaver), her arousal from sleep also signals her entry into a nightmare universe in which the boundaries between fantasy and reality become unsettlingly blurred.

It is apt, then, that Alien opens, graphically, with images of its unconscious protagonists because it is their inner worlds, thoughts and desires that will be explicitly ripped apart by the new life form soon to invade their waking hours. Above all, the key image here - and one that is most potent and revealing - is of a young woman asleep, the heroine of the film, and her unconscious state: Scott’s Alien and, indeed, the rest of the franchise (four films to date and other spin-offs such as Alien vs Predator) serve to unlock our fears about gender, the female body and motherhood. In the words of feminist film theorist Barbara Creed, “the female monster, or monstrous feminine, wears many faces”.

It is impossible to ignore the viral popularity of the trailers and other promotional materials that are circulating around the world prior to this week’s release of Scott’s Prometheus, evidently laced with the DNA of his earlier film. While the trailers promise blockbuster special effects, much of the anticipation surrounding Prometheus results from the knowledge that Scott has returned to his original material after 33 years. Certainly, after so long, one wonders how much of the mythology he will keep intact, or creatively dismantle. The trailers give away little of the events except a skeletal plotline concerning a quest to find the origins of humanity and, of course, a fatal miscalculation ending in screams of terror.

Many directors have since experimented with Scott’s narrative, amplifying facets of its mythology and, importantly, its expression of unconscious fears about sexuality and reproduction. James Cameron accelerated these concerns with Aliens (1986), the sequel most obviously attached to the theme of motherhood (the alien’s gruesome reproductive methods are explored in detail and Ripley, too, adopts a surrogate daughter and a lover). While David Fincher in Alien 3 (1992) opted for a closer analysis of sexual difference, forcing Ripley (and the mother-alien) to inhabit Fiorina “Fury” 161, an exclusively male prison planet, Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Alien Resurrection (1997) hauntingly explored the idea of clones as artificial examples of reproduction gone wrong. In one scene, a gallery of Ripley clones are displayed in glass tanks, still lives resurrected with alien DNA, grotesque mutations inevitably aborted. The way that technology is intertwined with our desire to sustain humanity, at whatever cost, has been a theme closely connected to the horror of the alien matriarch Ripley recurrently battles against, whose acid blood makes her useful as well as lethally dangerous. Now, it seems, Scott is staging a return to such territory, this time more acutely, more consciously than ever.

The Alien films provide rich subject matter for those interested in feminist film theory and for this reason they are prominent features of most undergraduate film studies courses. While Creed’s book, The Monstrous Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis (1993), contains one of the most influential psychoanalytic analyses of the series, especially its metaphorical images of castration and phallic symbolism, other prominent critics such as the film theorist Annette Kuhn and the philosopher Stephen Mulhall have also contributed striking pieces on the universal horror at the heart of the films.

Yet, despite the individual merits of its sequels, it is Scott’s principal journey into Ripley’s nightmarish world that is regarded as a classic of the genre. His magnificently evocative imagery sets up questions about sexuality and otherness in a way that has not since been so successfully achieved: the horror of birth memorably evoked by the scene in which an infant alien springs forth from Kane’s (John Hurt) chest; the fleshy, sinewy interiors of the alien ship contrasting with the clinical whiteness of the Nostromo; the phallic “face-huggers” parasitically incubating their young; the dripping jaws of the alien; and the crew’s vulnerable, sleeping bodies in the womb-like hub of the ship.

Most importantly, Scott owes a great debt to the artwork of Swiss surrealist H.R. Giger and his Oscar-winning designs for the alien species, based on the lithograph Necronom IV. These illustrations are directly informed by psychoanalysis and feature phallic organs and swirling, leathery shapes suggestive of embryos, ovaries, mouths and other orifices conjoining flesh. His work on Alien’s conceptualisation combines the ancient with the futuristic, an aesthetic inflected with macabre sexual symbolism and animality. Giger’s palette also characteristically distorts the skin-like textures of his pieces, shading them in glistening tones of pale green, grey, black and ochre: the precise combination of colour synonymous with organic matter and human decay. Early footage from Prometheus seems to indicate that Scott has revisited Giger’s totemic iconography and, as a consequence of this renewed relationship, fresh perspectives on the “monstrous feminine” are sure to surface. While other directors’ sequels to Alien also paid attention to Giger’s influence, Prometheus promises to expand upon this facet of the franchise and dramatically enhance it.

If the Alien films can be seen to prey upon our anxieties about sexuality and motherhood, Prometheus will need to say something new about this dark aspect of our cultural psyche in order to parallel the success of Scott’s initial instalment. In addition to his renewed interest in Giger as a key influence, one of the most popular clips accompanying the film’s promotional material features an advertisement for the new “David 8” android (Michael Fassbender), marketed as if it were comparable with an iPad - a friendly yet meaningful gadget, a lifestyle accessory. While this dimension of Scott’s new film seems little related to any critique of gender and sexuality, it is significant that androids have played pivotal roles in all of the Alien films and embody a hidden threat to everything that is natural and suggestive of human life. The sterile androids are ultimately inhuman, but they also disrupt the logic of what it means to be sentient, to be real, filling the void between human heroine and matriarchal monster. The Ripley character is wholly absent from Prometheus (it is set 37 years before the events of Alien), but the introduction of female archaeologist Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) at the core of the film suggests she has been “reborn”. For many, Ripley remains the action heroine par excellence and her multi-layered evolution throughout the franchise has allowed a fertile space to be opened to rethink the representation of gender in popular culture. Rapace’s archaeologist unfolds history and, by extension, functions as Ripley’s predecessor and mirror-image, the woman whose action sets everything else in motion.

With the addition of the David 8 android and what promises to be an earlier species of the alien race, Prometheus has all the alchemy in place for a new beginning to unfold against the background of old nightmares.


Davina Quinlivan is a part-time lecturer in film studies at Kingston University and King’s College London.

Prometheus: Duncan Wu’s review

When the best actor in a film is the one playing a robot, you know things aren’t going according to plan.

Prometheus must have seemed like a good idea in prospect, but things have gone awry in the execution.

The conceit is to provide a plausible backstory for Alien (1979), which remains one of the best science-fiction blockbusters in the canon.

That is to say, director Ridley Scott and his colleagues have to contrive a situation in which an alien spacecraft will be found, years hence, stranded on a desolate planet, infested with the eggs of flesh-eating aliens.

Given the success of the earlier film, this may be a feat impossible to achieve without pomposity (or indeed disappointment), a quality evident in the opening sequence, set in the pre-historic past, in which we see an alien sacrificing himself in order to create human life.

Such is the magic of modern film that the spirals of DNA are actually seen forming in water. No clue is given as to why an alien would want to do this.

The bulk of the film is set in the year 2092, however, when a human expedition lands on a planet where it is believed the creators of humanity are to be found – it is, in short, structured in a way that mirrors the original Alien.

And, like the earlier film, Prometheus has a lengthy wind-up in which over an hour of exposition is doled out to us prior to the crew’s exploration of (you guessed it) an alien spacecraft infested with…well, let’s just say that, like an irrepressible puppy, they soon make their presence felt.

There are a handful of genuinely scary moments, especially if you’re watching the 3D version, as I would recommend.

At one point I almost removed my 3D spectacles thinking its lenses had caught some alien blood-spatter; though it has to be said that the full potential of 3D is realized only in the scenes that, presumably, involved special effects.

The test for the screenwriters was presumably how to exceed the tastelessness of preceding Aliens.

Their success rate is not good, but there are a couple of scenes no one’s likely to forget. Without giving too much away, there is a DIY abortion three-quarters of the way through, which must have provided the special effects staff with hours of fun.

Overall, however, Prometheus is weighed down by its cargo of exposition, which operates in a rather peculiar way: the storyline is driven by the requirement that it bring us to the point at which the original Alien can begin.

That, and the fact that the narrative structure of Prometheus echoes that of the earlier film, removes much of the shock value.

David the robot, for instance, is here played by Michael Fassbender.

Anyone who saw Ian Holm as Science Officer Ash in the original film won’t be greatly surprised either by David’s bland, forensic manner or by his moral choices.

Prometheus is weighed down also by too much perfunctory acting.

The most egregious example of this is Noomi Rapace, familiar from as Lisbeth Salander from the Swedish version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009) and its various sequels.

She lacks the confidence or charisma of Sigourney Weaver, and when placed in threatening situations seems to do no more than go through her paces.

Weaver was particularly good at sweating like a navvy, something that jacked up the stress-rating of the various Aliens no end; Rapace is too ladylike for her own good.

Charlize Theron is miscast as ‘mission director’ Meredith Vickers; she doesn’t seem to have any idea what to do with her character.

Only Michael Fassbender and Idris Elba (as Captain Janek) seem confident in their roles.

No one in this film possesses the compulsive watchability of John Hurt, Yaphet Kotto, or Harry Dean Stanton (all of whom were part of the ensemble in Alien).

It may be unfair to judge Prometheus in isolation; there is, apparently, a second part on the way.

However, the writers are going to have to show more originality, and the cast will need reinforcing, if it’s going to justify this disappointing two hours in the dark.


Duncan Wu is professor of English, Georgetown University.

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