The Alien is back
Science fiction is my favorite literary genre. No other has such potential to explore ideas and stimulate new thinking. The first science-fiction novel ever written, Frankenstein, dealt with possible ethical problems arising from the creation of an artificial sentient being -- an issue we may soon actually find ourselves dealing with, two hundred years later. On film, however, science fiction too often means big, flashy pictures full of noise, explosions, overblown special effects, trite messages, and implausibly human-looking (and sexy) aliens -- and devoid of ideas. Science, too, is generally given short shrift, with scripts showing a distracting ignorance of basic concepts.
So the rare exceptions are all the more to be treasured.
Alien (1979) superficially looks like just another movie about a monster running amok and killing off a trapped group of people one by one; hundreds of those have been made, released, and forgotten over the decades. There's obviously more to it, though, otherwise the titular beast would not have achieved its iconic status in popular culture.
Most obviously, there's the monster's method of reproduction -- inspired by certain wasps which actually lay their eggs inside live caterpillars, with the larvae later eating their way out. Who's to say that such a parasite, large enough to use humans in the same manner, might not have evolved elsewhere in the universe? There's the arresting form of the monster itself, designed by the great HR Giger. There's the disturbing sexual undertones saturating the film, many of them too subtle to register on a conscious level. There's the whole distinctive look of the film, never quite matched before or since -- even by its own sequels, impressive though they were in their own right (I'm of course excepting the Alien vs. Predator atrocity, which I couldn't even bring myself to watch).
Which brings me to my point in writing here, the upcoming "prequel" Prometheus, to be released in June. Original director Ridley Scott is back, and -- well, see for yourself:
This looks like it could go either way. The Alien sequels were good precisely in that they took the risk of going beyond the first film into original territory of their own, and this one certainly looks as if it's going to do that. On the other hand, I'm disturbed by the nods to von Däniken (past alien intervention in human evolution is a perfectly valid SF topic, but it simply isn't true that "a little help along the way" is needed to explain that evolution, and von Däniken is a flagrant fraud). There's a hint of visual spectacle capable of overwhelming the story, the curse of so many modern SF films. And I have to wonder, in an age of hundred-million-dollar production budgets and nervous Hollywood executives who necessarily view such a huge investment as much more business than art, whether even Scott would be allowed to develop the kind of quirks and texture and depth that he worked into that much smaller and more under-the-radar film a third of a century ago.
But it looks great. And Scott is the man who, Alien aside, created the greatest science-fiction movie ever made. And in an age of movies adapted from ever-more-obscure comic books and kids' cartoons (I'm waiting for the first $200 million film adaptation of a bumper sticker), I can't help but feel encouraged at the arrival of such a work. I don't know whether Prometheus will be great -- but it could be, and I'll be there to find out.