'Prometheus' Shows Why Prequels Don't Work
By giving into in fans' desire to flesh out a fictional world, films like these sacrifice the sense of wonder that made the original work so enjoyable.
In Prometheus, Ridley Scott's return to the Alien franchise he began in 1979, a crew of scientists and corporate drones head off to the far reaches of the universe in search of an extraterrestrial race they believe is responsible for the creation of humanity. It's a movie about hubris and the realization that seeking out answers to existential questions can lead to horrible discoveries. Funnily enough, this theme doubles as a sort of meta argument against prequels like Prometheus, which eagerly offers up a backstory for elements of the previous Alien films that never needed to be explained.
Prequels take one of the most engaging and imaginative aspects of fandom—obsessing over the inconsequential details that give a fictional world its character and texture—and move it off of message boards and onto Hollywood back lots, turning it into something poisonous to the art of storytelling. Plot points become pedantic info dumps, drama is diminished by the audience's awareness of stories taking place in the future, and writers and filmmakers end up rehashing the flashiest superficial elements of their source material while draining of it of mystery and metaphor. Whether it's Prometheus, the Star Wars prequel trilogy, or DC Comics' thoroughly unnecessary line of miniseries filling in the back story of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons's pointedly self-contained Watchmen graphic novel, the projects have the visual hallmarks but cast aside the tensions, themes, and tone that made the classic works resonate.
Prometheus wouldn't be quite as disappointing if it were not made by Ridley Scott, the director of the original Alien film. Scott does his best to establish a new set of ideas for this movie, and the picture is most successful in the moments that riff on humanity's arrogance. Every element that calls back to Alien, though, is shockingly clumsy, and undermines everything that made that movie so incredibly evocative.
The plot of Prometheus hinges on explaining away the mysterious dead "space jockey" that appeared to be the pilot of the ship where the crew of the Nostromo encounter the titular alien, which is known to fans of the film series as the xenomorph. It's hard to imagine that all but the most obsessive fans were wondering about the origin of the space jockey; the creature mainly serves to suggest context—were the xenomorph eggs being transported somewhere?—and foreshadow the movie's most memorable scene, in which a baby xenomorph bursts from the chest of a Nostromo crew member. Knowing anything about the space jockey, even retroactively, diminishes the effectiveness of the scene. The viewer should know about as much about this creepy, mysterious ship as the characters in the scene—i.e., nothing at all. The humans are stumbling upon something; the unanswered questions amp up the dread. It is, after all, a horror movie.
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Prequels like Prometheus make the mistake of assuming that knowing could ever be as exciting and psychologically powerful as not knowing. The xenomorph in particular is resonant because it is so very alien—we don't know exactly what it is or where it comes from, and its life cycle and physical form upends our expectation of safe, easily understood gender binaries. Its very existence calls into question the significance of mankind, which is at least part of the point of the first Alien film, which presented a lonely, melancholy vision of vulnerable humans traveling through a cold, indifferent universe. Even if the apparent engineers of humanity in Prometheus turn out to despise their creation, the film insists that humans are special after all.
Given that 33 years have passed since the release of Alien, it is understandable that Ridley Scott may want to say something very different in Prometheus. It's possible that his view of man's place in the universe has become slightly more optimistic. This is giving him the benefit of the doubt, though. In recent interviews, Scott speaks of his fascination with the space jockey, and his urge to unpack that idea seems more rooted in fannish enthusiasm than in the urge to express an idea. This is pretty much always the case in stories focused on expanding on throwaway bits of plot—whether it's a writer, a filmmaker, or a fanboy, the compulsion to explicate is entirely disconnected from an understanding of the poetic aspects of storytelling. It's all science, and no fiction. It's not hard to grasp why fans and creators alike would want to return to familiar fictional worlds—it's just fun, really—but this practice suggests that many geeks have absolutely no insight into the power of the fiction they love and would rather watch the film equivalent of an elaborate Wikipedia entry.