From Beyond the Stars: Alien Vs. Prometheus
With the release of the ginormously hyped, Ridley Scott-signed Alien prequel, Prometheus, the film has proved to be at the very least successful at the Box-Office, and lived with mixed to positive reviews from film critics — other than thorough fan debates. Regardless of what the film may be by itself and its external inconsistencies within the series it has been inserted into, it is remarkable how a significant change in mentality occurs when a comparison is drawn between Alien and its cinematic successor — but chronological predecessor — Prometheus.
Alien remains today as one of the most successful attempts at bringing the theme of Cosmic Horror to the screen. When the father of the film, Dan O’Bannon — who unfortunately passed away in 2009 — first conceived it, he decided to infuse it with heavy Lovecraftian themes, incorporating them in the very first drafts. O’Bannon was known as an eminent expert and enthusiast of the tales of cosmic horror of the Writer from Providence; it is not uncommon for a Sci-Fi writer to be a Lovecraft enthusiast, although O’Bannon was undoubtely one of the most prominent in the film industry — he was even given the Howie Award at the 2009 H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival.
Lovecraft’s literary works have had an extremely diffused, if capillar influence on many Creature Features and Novels across the genre’s long-lived history, and made the foundation of a great number of frequently used narrative devices. He is, however, most well known for his iconic themes of Cosmic Horror. The Universe is vast — otherwordly races and monsters not wholly comprehensible to us dwell in the most remote places of the cosmos. Unimaginably ancient and powerful deities, or beings recognized as such — the Great Old Ones — from beyond the stars await in slumber, or roam endlessly through the immensity of space. In an absolutely minuscule planet in the midst of this vastness is humanity. Mankind, no matter how relevant it believes to be, is absolutely insignificant next to what is the real scale of the cosmos. In the words of Guillermo del Toro, another known Lovecraft enthusiast in the film industry, “there are things much older than mankind, things much older than Earth, that gaze upon us with indifference”.
Discovering these unspeakable truths often has horrifying consequences on the human mind: we are not able to withstand these astounding and frightening secrets without losing our sanity. Many of Lovecraft’s characters are insane (e.g. the sparse cults that worship the Great Old Ones) or driven insane during narration — another recurring theme of the writer’s works. The unawareness, or ignorance of humanity, on the other side of the twisted medal, is also the source of fear. Fear of the Unknown. Lovecraft wrote in his essay Supernatural Horror in Literature: “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is Fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of Fear is Fear of the Unknown.” Fear is generated from things we cannot control. What we primordially associate with control is knowledge. What is known can be foreseen and controlled. As such, what we do not know is what scares us. The Alien itself, the “survivor, unclouded by conscience, remorse or delusions of morality” — is the sheer incarnation of this concept. The Nostromo crew is trapped inside their enormous refinery vessel with a monster they can barely understand the nature of. Lovecraft continues: “the unknown, being likewise the unpredictable, became for our primitive forefathers a terrible and omnipotent source of boons and calamities visited upon mankind for cryptic and wholly extra-terrestrial reasons, and thus clearly belonging to spheres of existence whereof we know nothing and wherein we have no part.”
Dan O’Bannon said of Alien: “One especially insightful critic – I wish I remembered who – wrote that Alien evoked the writings of H.P. Lovecraft, but where Lovecraft told of an ancient race of hideous beings menacing the Earth, Alien went to where the Old Ones lived, to their very world of origin. He was right, that was my very thought while writing. That baneful little storm-lashed planetoid halfway across the galaxy was a fragment of the Old Ones’ homeworld, and the Alien a blood relative of Yog-Sothoth.” The title itself in its simplicity expresses that concept. Alien. What is Alien is fundamentally what appears as unfamiliar, or strange. The sequence of the film that revolves around the discovery of the ‘Derelict Spacecraft’, of its long dead pilot and its infamous cargo, is what most vividly conveys the Lovecraftian themes to the screen. Many have drawn comparisons between the film and At the Mountains of Madness. The Nostromo crew discovers what is, essentially, an ancient gargantuan construction built by beings from other worlds. Found inside are its long dead denizens, but something, deep inside, awaits in slumber to strike.
What is first shown is a vague and distant shot of the gargantuan ship designed by H.R. Giger, seen from a distance. The swiss surrealist was chosen by O’Bannon as he thought his peculiar style really could visually translate a Lovecraftian vibe. The first glimpse of the otherwordly craft, occulted by mist and almost framed in rock formations, immediately leaves an impression. This object is not immediately identifiable or associable with anything a human could know, and its long and outlandish shapes do not seem to follow our standard geometric comprehensions. The narration then follows Nostromo crewmembers Kane, Dallas and Lambert as they enter the Derelict from beyond aeons — unaware of what horror awaits deep inside that structure. They explore the interiors of the ship briefly, through its dark and ominous corridors. They then climb up and discover something seemingly fused to what seems to be a telescope chair-like structure, the corpse of a mysterious alien entity — the Pilot. Dallas inspects the creature, that almost stares back at him through its empty and dead eye sockets. A foreshadowing of the imminent danger. The Captain points out how it “looks like it’s been dead a long time. Fossilized.” Such words underline that whatever horrific accident happened to that ‘ship’ and to that thing took place an unimaginable amount of time before the Nostromo crew found its remains.
The Pilot itself is a thing of unearthly and grotesque appearance, with vaguely humanoid shoulders and hands. It cannot be immediately associated with anything we are familiar with. Its most peculiar feature is the bony, or cartilaginous extension of its sternum that attaches directly to its skull (or vice-versa). The creature was included in the very first script drafts for the film, and described as “A GROTESQUE THING, BEARING NO RESEMBLANCE TO THE HUMAN FORM”; it was removed in later rewrites, only to finally get an inclusion in the final version of Alien. The Pilot is what incarnates the sheer and terrifying vastity of the cosmos. A small crew of the most unlikely characters — space truckers, fundamentally — discovers it in a desolated and forgotten planetoid; in the deepest corner of space, what humanity finds are unknown entities from other worlds. The corpse is seemingly fused to the telescope chair-like device, and it is impossible to completely grasp what the nature of this mysterious being is. H.R. Giger commented on the design: “The creature we finally ended up building is biomechanical to the extent that he has physically grown into, or maybe even out of, his seat – he’s integrated totally into the function he performs.” The Pilot and the Alien are just samples of what horrors inhabit the darkness of the universe: other astounding beings and civilizations lurk in the thousands upon thousands of planets scattered across the infinity of space.
Kane discovers a hole leading to another area of the Derelict; as the crew decides to investigate it, Dallas moves down from the corpse, turning away the only light that lit it in aeons, and returning it to the desolate and silent darkness. Kane descends to a lower area of the ship; the audience is given other glimpses of the ship interiors, with an ominous landscape shot of this section of the Derelict, with again a great sense of mystery towards what obscure things might be in that distant corner. There, Kane finds a great number of eggs, covered by a thin layer of blue mist — another device the purpose of which is unknown — and decides to inspect one of those weird objects up close. “Wait a minute, there’s movement. It seems to have life. Organic life”, he says, when his flashlight awakes the creature — the facehugger — that was awaiting in slumber inside the egg. The rest — history.
It was not until some 30 years after the first film that rumors of an Alien prequel surfaced. Various comics of the expanded Alien universe had delved into the mystery of the Space Jockey, including series such as Aliens — Apocalypse: The Destroying Angels; none of the film sequels, however, explored the possibilities offered by the Derelict and its long-dead Pilot. As informations about the new film gradually unfolded, it was revealed that the project was being called Prometheus — after the titan of Greek mythology. It is also around this time (2009-2010) that the idea of a ‘Space Jockey suit’ was first heard of. “I think beneath that carcass… it’s not a carcass,” Scott hinted at, “it’s a suit. Inside the suit is a being.”
The director then revealed how the film would be heavily influenced by swiss author Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods? Unsolved Mysteries of the past, published in 1968, and how its pivotal theme would be the origins of man: “NASA and the Vatican agree that is almost mathematically impossible that we can be where we are today without there being a little help along the way. That’s what we’re looking at, at some of Eric van Daniken’s ideas of how did we humans come about.” Further leaked images and released trailers progressively confirmed the director’s words. A gargantuan human head was shown at the center of a dark room filled with metallic ampules and the very first trailer showed a glimpse of a tall, pale and bald humanoid approaching the iconic ‘telescope’ chair.
That character, object of long speculations, was later revealed (confirmed for some) as one of the ‘Engineers’ — the ‘deities’ that ‘engineered us’, as Elizabeth Shaw believes, and indeed the race that presumably designed and wears the ‘Space Jockey suits’. The whole concept that has been inserted is arguably a forced change of perspective, and undoubtely a polar-opposite change in mentality. From a design standpoint, the Derelict Pilot was not conceived with the idea of a suit as a basis: upon close inspection on the corpse, a fair number of decomposed organic details can be noticed: teeth, a tongue, an eye socket, and two nostril holes on the sides of the snout of the creature. The idea of a biomechanical suit was in fact first seeded decades after the production of Alien: “I thought,” Scott recalled “twenty, thirty, twenty, actually twenty six years on, I thought, ‘what if this is not a skeleton’ — because we only see it as a skeleton, because of our own, the way we see things in our own indoctrination — and now I thought, what happens if it’s another form of protection or a suit?” Scott’s idea was probably influenced by the release of Independence Day, which featured the extraterrestrial antagonists using biomechanical suits for locomotion and protection.
Whereas Ridley presented the suit idea, Jon Spaihts, initially hired to write the script for the Alien prequel, conceived the beings inside the suits as connected with humanity. The idea came in to solve the alleged impossibility to write a story revolving around characters that are unrelatable to. He said: “if you were to try to reach back in time for the history of the universe we glimpse in the original Alien, you are inevitably concerning yourself with the affairs of non-human beings — both the deadly predator that is the through-line of the Alien franchise and the enigmatic dead alien giant that is the great mystery at the beginning of Alien… [they] are interesting entities not fully explained, but to keep an audience interested in those things it couldn’t be abstraction, it couldn’t be a purely ‘alien story’ about things we can’t relate to. It was going to have to be connected to our own story. Somehow the story of those creatures was going to have to be connected to the human story, not just our history but our fate to come.” Following this arguably single-minded reasoning, the very basis of Alien was literally overthrown, or capsized. What was unknown and incomprehensible, for reasons not precisely explained, had to be converted into something familiar. The idea of a human in a suit as an answer to the mystery of the Pilot not only introduces an opposing theme to what the 1979 film tried to present, but also retroactively erases what the latter exposed behind its imagery — and replaces it with completely new themes and possible interpretations. What the Prometheus crewmembers first witness after they have seen the carving on top of the dome, are the Engineers inside the suits: they see the hologram the android David activates, the suited Engineer corpses piled up against an enormous door, and the beheaded corpse, which is the subject of the relatively most thorough analysis on their part. What the humans see is what seems, at first, to be an alien race — but is in reality a group of their own species. It is not to be forgotten, in fact, that the film itself states that the Engineers’ DNA matches with ours — complete with a side-by-side comparison shown by Shaw to Holloway. Consequently, by all accounts, the Engineers are humans; even without the film directly giving that information, it would have been obvious based only on the appearence of the Engineers themselves, ‘designed’ after classic statues and representing as such ideal, ‘perfect’ humans. The difference between Shaw, the protagonist, and the Engineer that chases her at the end of the film, are roughly as many as there are between an Asian and an African.
The ‘reveal’ happens shortly after the ‘first encounters’: the crew brings the head — or better, helmet, as they are about to discover — back to their ship for analysis. A CT scan reveals in fact that what looked by all means like a head is in reality the headpiece of a suit, with a human head inside. David carefully removes the helmet — and the big reveal plays out, oddly, in silence and almost no surprise felt by the characters. The new concept can be interpreted in an array of ways: we have the faces of men, but carry the exterior masks of monsters; the exterior ‘monstrous’ suit could also refer to the fact we are not able to recognize ourselves, or the fact that we are the monsters — the appearence of the suits would then reflect our real nature. Et cetera. The theme and idea rather obviously do not remain contained to Prometheus, but also extend to Alien — and it is here that the radical change in mentality is most evident. The Derelict Pilot, once the symbol of the vastity of the universe, becomes the diametrical opposite. The cosmos is now presented as, and feels much smaller than before: in the deepest corner of space, what humanity finds is itself. No matter how far we go and what unknown worlds we might be able to explore: what we will meet, what we will challenge and face, is ourselves. Dallas labels the suit as an ‘alien lifeform’; it is not to be forgotten that at the time the film was made, the Pilot was nothing more or less than an extraterrestrial carcass. The brief description given by the captain is what the film wanted to say, without suggesting or implying anything else — it was all there was to it: an alien lifeform. With the introduction of Prometheus, instead, what the Nostromo crewmembers witness is a decayed biomechanical suit with a human inside. They are, however, unable to recognize it. What we do not know is what we cannot recognize — and the most direct conclusion is that we are estranged from ourselves. We are the unknown. Ironic it is, then, that humanity travels to the farthest points of space — when it still does not completely comprehend its own nature.
What is left for certain is, however, that the Lovecraftian themes were shelved and replaced with VonDanikean ideas. Many comparisons were drawn between Prometheus and Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness, on a storyline and thematic level. Such a claim is not completely incorrect: both, in fact, feature a scientific expedition in an unknown land, the discovery of an ancient civilization and the exploration of buildings they left behind. As the story progresses, the beings that left the constructions behind are revealed to have been nearly wiped out by something of their own creation. In addition, said beings are creators of life — and in Prometheus‘ case, of mankind. With a knowledge of the progression of Alien in its pre-production, and its mutations during its conception and writing stage, it is not difficult to discover that Prometheus recycles many ‘leftover’ ideas from the 1979 film’s early drafts. As precedently mentioned, the Prometheus crew brings the Engineer head with its helmet on back to the ship; in an Alien draft, the Nostromo (labeled at the time as ‘Snark’) crew did the same with the skull of the Derelict Pilot. Fifield’s mapping devices, the so-called ‘pups’, were originally intended to be in Alien, but ultimately did not make it to the film due to technological constraints. Et cetera. Those light similarities also fall in the same field: they are sparse traits inherited from O’Bannon’s ideas and completely drained of their original vibes in the process.
What primarily separates the two stories is, instead, the fact that the origin of mankind and life question is the central pivot of Prometheus, whereas At the Mountains of Madness barely touches upon the subject, and presents only vague and arguable hints. It is not completely certain the monstrous vegetaloids are the ones who gave the spark of life on Earth, and it is irrelevant to the story the novel tells either way — what the plot revolves around is the expedition itself, and the civilization of the Elder Things. They also are not the reason the expedition happens, as they left no ‘invitation’ or ‘star map’ for the humans — or anything else — to follow. Mankind is completely insignificant to them. If the surviving Elder Things killed Lake and his crew, it was purely for scientific purposes — much like our scientists would dissect and take samples of previously unseen species. The Engineers, instead, fundamentally recreated themselves in mankind — it is unclear whether they voluntarily manipulated its genetic code to achieve a similar appearence, or if humanity underwent a convergent evolution spontaneously — and actively want to exterminate their creation.
In conclusion, Prometheus discarded a whole, ‘vast’ number of imaginative narrative ideas and themes that could have made the universe of the series feel further eerily immeasurable, and would have been ideally in line with the original Alien story. The film, instead, decided to dramatically shrink the feel of the cosmos by diluting a famed mystery of Science Fiction with a perhaps more modern, but arguably tame idea — at least compared to what Alien tried to express with its astounding spacecraft in a desolated planetoid, the incomprehensible and fossilized carcass inside of it and the very embodiment of an Unspeakable Cosmic Horror: the Alien.