Ridley Scott's much anticipated return to the Alien franchise is disappointing fans the worldwide. And that's a good thing.
Since the release of the original Alien in 1979, various directors have had their way with the franchise, spawning some rather mixed results. Nevertheless, the Alien films enjoy a wide fan base and are the subject of considerable academic interest. It was hoped that in addition to recreating some of the cheap thrills of the original that Scott's return with Prometheus would proffer an overall direction for the series. While the thrills remain, the evolutionary hopes have now largely been quashed.
The film has already been widely criticised for both its poor character development and for plot holes large enough to fly a starship through. However, both of these flaws can become virtues in the context of the films central theme of evolution.
The desire for elaborately crafted, internally consistent worlds is endemic to fandom. Perhaps no franchise has been so great a let down to fans with regards to consistency and over-arching narratives as the television series Lost. In this regards, the decision to hire Damon Lindelof, Lost's executive producer, to write Prometheus is inspired.
It is likely that the the enduring popularity of such nerd classics as The Lord of the Rings can be partly explained by a desire for a world that is wholly intelligible when juxtaposed with the vagaries of quotidian reality. However, expecting a similar level of precision from an Alien movie is grossly unfair. After all, Dan O'Bannon wrote the original because he was sleeping on his friend's couch, and needed money quickly after Alejandro Jodorowsky's Dune adaptation fell through.
Unlike The Lord of the Rings, there isn't a master plan, or a complete backstory spanning thousands of years. Instead the series experiments and tries different approaches. Occasionally the results are amazing (see for example, Aliens on Ice), usually they are more mundane (Alien Resurrection). This is exactly how evolution - biological evolution - actually works: it isn't driven by purpose or reason, it isn't teleological. So relax, nerds.
Beyond the creative evolution of the Alien series, the theme of human evolution is at the centre of Prometheus. We begin with the revelation that mankind has been "engineered" by what turns out to be a different bunch of humans, and end with the remarkably dense Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) shooting off into the galaxy in the hopes of discovering what created them.
In between we witness the effects of a mysterious black goo, which introduces mutations into the reproductive process. This in turn creates a variety of horrors, eventually culminating with something similar to the xenomorph from the first film. Early on, the galaxy's worst biologist - who has somehow been selected for this mission - asks Dr. Shaw whether the evidence that mankind has been engineered refutes Darwinism. In this case it does not: the results of the Engineer's tampering is far from predictable - witness the look of surprise on the Engineer's face in the opening sequence. While this may appear to be a thinly veiled warning against genetic modification, the effect of the black goo is instead to act as a catalyst, increasing fecundity and opening new evolutionary pathways. It is not engineering in a meaningful sense. Contingency, randomness and mutation are a crucial elements of evolutionary processes. The squid monster Dr. Shaw gives birth to in the film's most nauseous scene is therefore a legitimate offspring, evidenced by her demand for a caesarian birth instead of an abortion.
Previous Alien films have played with similar elements successfully, for example in the maternal bonds between Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and the alien queen, however they have never been as explicit or effective. This provides an explanation as to why the characters in Prometheus are so awful: they don't matter. Whereas Ripley was a unique, superhuman individual, Dr. Shaw might as well be anyone. The only thing that matters is that at some point someone finds her attractive enough to mate with. In an evolutionary framework, individuals don't really matter either; our ability to project our DNA into the future is far divorced from our worth as individuals.
It is worth thinking about whether this is profoundly nihilistic or not. Consider that in a Lovecraftian retelling of Prometheus, it would be revealed that mankind has infect been engineered by a giant face-hugger… for food. In comparison, Scott's xenomorphs are strangely comforting: they are human, after all.
_Prometheus is at cinemas everywhere, including the BFI IMAX until the 21st of June._