I watched the movie Prometheus before I saw this, which was a huge mistake; since Prometheus spoils the best things in the movie Alien. The mystery of the ‘space jockey’ was ruined; the surprise twist where one of the characters turns out to be an evil android was semi-spoiled,  and the method by which the aliens attack their victims was spoiled.  (I already knew about what happens to John Hurt’s character even before seeing Prometheus.)

Even so, Alien was still a far better movie.  At least there were plot points to be spoiled, as opposed to an incoherent mess of nonsense that was the plot of Prometheus.  Alien is a good, solid, workman-like horror picture.  The one thing that surprised me was how badly the special effects had aged. Compared with Star Wars of two years earlier, some of the spaceship exteriors and the “space” backgrounds looked quite fake, and the alien itself was, in some scenes, pretty clearly a guy in a costume.  (The lack of light in a lot of these scenes worked very much in the movie’s favor; not only being scarier, but also masking the fake costume.)

There was an extended scene with flashing blue and yellow lights at the end that nearly made me sick–I had to look away from the screen for a few moments.  As a rule, you don’t want your movie to be too hard for your audience to watch.  Moreover, I don’t really know what purpose these flashing lights served in the movie. It seemed like a steady, red light would have done as well.

Also, there was one scene that made no sense to me. At one point, while crew is hunting for the alien, Tom Skerritt’s character goes into some sort of maze of tunnels looking for it, armed with a flamethrower.  The rest of the crew is monitoring him on a display that shows his position and the aliens as dots on the screen.  When they see the dot representing the alien moving towards him, they tell him to get out of there.  Spoiler: he doesn’t. It ends badly for him. My question was, why didn’t the crew instead just tell him “the alien is coming from your left–turn that way and fire”?  Since the whole point of him being there was to kill the alien, why did they give up at what was really their best opportunity?

While some things haven’t aged well–the hilarious green-on-black text interface of the ship’s onboard computer being a good example–it’s still a very effective horror movie. And it must have been quite novel at the time to have a strong female lead, instead of her just being a helpless victim. Sigourney Weaver’s performance is terrific, although for as tough as Ellen Ripley is, I wondered why she let Ash keep giving everyone bad advice for so long before forcing a showdown with him.

So, given what a solid picture Alien was, how could Director Ridley Scott have subsequently thought “Ah, this Prometheus is a worthy prequel”? I know he didn’t write the script, but he must have had some creative control over it.  Enough to say “rewrite this so it makes some sort of sense”.

Ah, well.  Back to Alien. It wasn’t a great horror movie; if only because its remote setting makes the feeling of danger hard to personalize.  As long as I don’t go on any deep space mining expeditions, I’m safe from the aliens. But it was a good movie nonetheless, with its foreboding atmosphere and slowly building tension.  Although there are definitely some “gross-out” scenes, what I liked was the extent to which it relied on atmosphere; and quiet, dark scenes to convey the mood.

Spoilers ahead!

As you probably know, the film is a prequel of sorts to Scott’s Alien, which I have never seen.  Nor have I seen any of the sequels.  So, I can’t comment on what the events depicted in this film mean for the rest of the series.

The film begins with some archaeologists finding cave paintings of giants pointing at a constellation of stars.  These paintings match up with similar ancient artworks from other, distant civilizations. Based on this, a wealthy old man finances an expedition on the spaceship Prometheus to this constellation to meet the alien creatures presumed to be there. The man explains in a video to the crew—after they have woken up from years in suspended animation—that he will be dead by now, but his dream is that they meet the aliens. This is also where the film’s best line occurs–“By the time you see this, I will be dead.  May I rest in peace.”

The main characters are the two archaeologists, Drs. Elizabeth Shaw and Charles Holloway, a robot named David, and the cold, corporate-type heading the mission.  The supporting crew of the good ship Prometheus are all a bunch of outrageously clichéd and stereotyped characters, most of whom are so undisciplined and incompetent that it’s easy to see why they need David to run the entire ship.

Naturally, they go exploring caverns within the alien planet and soon enough some of the obnoxious secondary characters get attacked by aliens. Gradually, as crew members become infected, they ultimately conclude that the humanoid aliens–the giants in the paintings–were wiped out by a sort of bio-weapon they were creating—to wit, snake-like aliens found roaming around the tunnels. Despite this, the wealthy old man, who is not dead after all but had been secretly in suspended animation, has gone to talk to the last surviving alien.

Unfortunately, said alien reacts about like you would expect, killing the old man and ripping apart the android.  Then he blasts off in his spaceship and Dr. Shaw somehow intuits that he’s going to destroy the Earth.  Luckily, the crew of the Prometheus makes a suicide attack on his vessel, and bring it to the ground.  He survives, and pursues Dr. Shaw into a wrecked escape pod, but she is saved at the last minute when one of the snake-like aliens attacks the humanoid alien.  The film ends with Dr. Shaw stealing an alien ship and flying off to find the real alien home world.

If that summary seemed rushed, I apologize—but so did the movie.  It always seemed to be building to some big payoff, only to have the big payoff happen in a rush and then hurry on to the next thing.  There was a rather  disturbing scene which I shall not describe, but which is moved on from so quickly it feels unbelievable, given the circumstances.

The acting in the film is very good. It’s too good actually, because the acting outpaces the quality of the characters.  The biggest exception to this is Charlize Theron, who plays the corporate commander of the mission—her acting is mediocre, but then so is her character, so it’s hard to blame her.

Michael Fassbender plays David, whose most notable character trait is that he is obsessed with the movie Lawrence of Arabia.  Fassbender does a good job channeling Peter O’Toole-as-Lawrence, but it’s not clear why David does this, except maybe that they thought by inserting references to a better movie, they could raise the quality of their own. The robot’s motivations are generally very hard to follow, and it was never completely clear to me who he was working for.  He seems to make decisions based solely on what needs to be done to advance the plot.

Noomi Rapace does a very good job imbuing Dr. Shaw with some charisma and likeability, which is vital because otherwise the movie would be unwatchable.  You can’t help but root for her character, despite the fact that a lot of what she and everyone else on the mission does is stupid.  Or if not stupid, utterly inexplicable.  (Actually, the assignments break down like this: utterly inexplicable plot-driving actions: David.  Obviously stupid actions: everyone else.)

It’s never clear why or how things occur: how does Shaw know the humanoid alien is going to destroy the Earth?  How does the pilot suddenly figure out that it’s an alien weapon-making plant?  How did they even manage to make the giant leap that there must be intelligent life on this one planet in this constellation based on some cave paintings?  It’s a weak basis for launching a trillion-dollar space mission.

I read on IMDb that Guillermo del Toro delayed his film adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s novella At The Mountains of Madness because Prometheus was so similar to his plans for the film.  I’m surprised I didn’t realize it until I read Del Toro’s quote, but yes, this is not surprising, since the plot of Prometheus is similar to Lovecraft’s book.  Both stories include explorers finding remnants of an alien civilization driven to the point of extinction by monsters of their own creation.  In both stories the aliens are suggested to have created humanity.  Prometheus even includes the same kind of chases through dark mountain tunnels described in Mountains of Madness.

The difference, as I might have predicted, is in certain subtle touches that make Mountains more interesting.  In Lovecraft’s novel, the “creator” aliens are treated as tragic figures, destroyed by their own scientific ingenuity.  (Like Frankenstein or, “the Modern Prometheus”) In Prometheus, it’s just one set of bad aliens vs. another set of bad aliens.  Even more significantly, at the end of Mountains, there is ambiguity as to what the final horror was. The reader never learns what Danforth saw behind the mountains.  There is some ambiguity in Prometheus‘s ending as to what the creator aliens were doing, but it feels more like ambiguity resulting from sloppy writing than a deliberate effect.

I realize after reading this, you must think I hated this movie.  I certainly  didn’t think it was great, but I didn’t hate it either.  Apart from the one disturbing scene, I found it a decent suspense flick while watching it, and most of the problems didn’t become apparent until I started to think about it afterwards.  It’s just that the film ultimately lacks anything really frightening or intellectually stimulating. It would have been better if it had ended with the alien setting off for Earth, his motivations open to interpretation, and Shaw and the rest were left to fend for themselves on the alien world.