Relighting the Fire of the Gods

220px-prometheusposterfixed1This June sees the release of Prometheus, Ridley Scott’s return to the realm of science fiction. Only twice before in his career he has turned his camera to the genre that is so rarely well represented in cinema, but both those works are regarded as genuine masterpieces. It is thirty years since Rick Deckard fled his apartment, the replicant Rachael in his care, and Scott has indicated that he may be prepared to return to the world of Blade Runner as early as next year if he is satisfied with the script, but this summer he returns to the earlier work that established his reputation.

There has been rumour and speculation about how closely Prometheus will tie to the established universe and continuity of Alien and the sequels that followed, whether it will ignore the later films of David Fincher and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, whether it will even acknowledge, obliquely or not, James Cameron’s immediate sequel. Conversely, while each of those films has followers who would wish an expanded and consistent universe to be established, most, including these writers, choose to disregard the aberrations masquerading under the banner Alien vs. Predator.

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The Space Jockey

The trailers have confirmed certain facts, the later promotional spots perhaps revealing too much of a plot once closely guarded, specifically the inclusion of an android, played by Michael Fassbender, presumably of the same origin as Ian Holm’s Ash and Lance Henrikson’s Bishop, that Guy Pearce will play Peter Weyland of the Weyland Megacorporation, precursor of Weyland-Yutani, the ubiquitous “company” of the original films, and most importantly that the “Derelict” and the “Space Jockey” would appear, and presumably play key roles within the narrative.

As a prelude to the release of Prometheus, Geek Chocolate have examined the original quartet and only the officially released information of the new film and considered what they reveal of that broader universe, and what we may hope to see when Prometheus lands. We’ve deliberately avoided hunting for spoilers, and everything discussed here is from early publicity, so hopefully our assumptions, assertions and extrapolations are also spoiler-lite. Whether they are in any way accurate, we discover next week…

Playing the company game – Weyland-Yutani

Dominating the future and so ubiquitous in their presence that they are most often referred to simply as “the Company,” Weyland-Yutani have long known of the existence of the xenomorph, and have sought to obtain a specimen. It is virtually certain that Prometheus will illuminate some of the background to the company and that search, possibly even their first awareness of the creature, but what do we know of the company and the world in which they exist?

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Hadley’s Hope

Weyland-Yutani are a powerful and far reaching organisation, but not omnipotent; while under siege on the Hadley’s Hope colony, Ellen Ripley stated that WY operative Carter Burke wouldn’t have been able to ferry infected individuals “through ICC quarantine,” establishing that there is still some form of non-corporate governance on Earth, however vestigial, and references are also made to another agency, Colonial Administration. Furthermore, the nations of the Earth are not unified, as the Colonial Marines display US flags on their uniforms, and a comment about “illegal aliens” indicates that racial tension still exists.

What can be inferred, however, both from their interest in alien specimens for their weapons division and the Colonial Marine unit despatched to LV-426, the planet Acheron, is that WY have close enough ties to the military to influence the composition of that unit, an opinion confirmed by Ripley as she discussed the failure of the mission shortly before her own death on the prison planet Fiorina 161: “The first time they heard about this thing it was crew expendable.  The second time they sent marines in.  They were expendable too.”

It’s easy to see how she could draw this conclusion: led by the inexperienced Lieutenant Gorman, they were not meant to succeed.  Upon arrival in the Acheron system, no proper briefing was given before the platoon descended without reconnaissance or any attempt to remotely access the computer systems at Hadley’s Hope or a satellite relay system to obtain their logs. Even if the main power was interrupted, once on the surface, the marines should have been able to locate a protected backup, yet this was never attempted. No security perimeter was established, allowing a xenomorph to board and destroy the only accessible dropship, and as no support had been left in orbit to monitor the situation, the survivors were stranded.

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Colonial Marines

Gorman was unfamiliar with the unit he was commanding, and persistently refused the advice of the only expert on the situation, despite mounting evidence that her initially unbelievable claims were entirely correct. His unit were no better, unruly and undisciplined, they disobeyed a direct order given them by their commanding officer in a combat situation. While a commanding officer does not need to explain his orders, in the circumstances, with soldiers who clearly had little faith in his command, it might have been wise to elucidate the unusual order not to use their main weapons, but nevertheless, a trained soldier obeys the commands they are given regardless of circumstance.

It is worth noting that there was no report of a distress signal having been received from Hadley’s Hope, but it is inconceivable that none was sent. Certainly there was time, as the colony was not overrun instantaneously: barricades were set up and medical procedures took place during the incident. Rather than a failure of the colony to call for help, the message was either blocked or intercepted. This conclusion is further supported by the statement “The Company knows everything that happened on the ship.  It all goes in the computer and gets sent back to network.”

While the specific ship referred to in that statement is the Colonial Marine transport Sulaco, fifty seven years after the loss of the Nostromo, even without the defence that this refers strictly to that military vessel rather than a freighter which had less advanced technology and was lost further from the central systems where communications were less certain, the information relayed by the Sulaco should have raised sufficient alert to instigate a major incident, but it did not.

Based on this evidence, it is an unavoidable conclusion that the awareness of the xenomorph within Weyland-Yutani is not isolated to a few individuals, but is in fact an endemic and clandestine
conspiracy reaching to board level, and the inclusion of Ripley and Burke in the rescue mission, the only two individuals below WY board level to know of the Derelict and its insidious cargo, indicating the company regarded both as risks to be eliminated, confirms this conclusion.

Synthetic persons – David 8, Ash, Bishop and Call

The crew of Nostromo were betrayed by their science officer Ash, who they had not even been aware was an android; the prejudice displayed by Ripley when faced with the unexpected realisation that Bishop was also an android is understandable. Created by Weyland-Yutani, their loyalty and their goals cannot be guaranteed to correlate to those of the humans they serve alongside, even from one moment to the next – altering the programming of a machine is a much simpler process than persuading a human to change their viewpoint.

There is, at this time, no evidence to suggest the synthetics were developed to handle the alien, but there are indications that they are well suited to the role. It is unclear how the aliens select or track their prey, but there are indications that synthetics are not targeted or attacked unless they directly antagonise them, as they are cannot serve as hosts.

The Sulaco

After the final evacuation of Hadley’s Hope, there were only three survivors: Ellen Ripley, Dwayne Hicks and Rebecca “Newt” Jordan, plus the severely damaged remains of the android Bishop. The alien queen was blown through the open airlock without ever having moved from the cargo bay, yet an alien egg was placed within the Sulaco, an event that led to an evacuation of those survivors as they passed within range of the prison on Fiorina 161. Much of the background of the alien, the Derelict, and Weyland-Yutani’s connection with them is cloaked in mystery and open only to speculation, but here is a specific, immediate question: how did the egg get aboard the Sulaco?

Unfortunately, in the absence of anything to supersede it, the available evidence only allows one possible courier onto the dropship. Hicks was already incapacitated, Ripley was descending into the complex to rescue Newt, held captive for impregnation. As Ripley entered the complex, Bishop must have descended after her to obtain an egg specimen, which he was preparing to return to the Sulaco when Ripley arrived on the landing platform.

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The suspicious egg

How this was then moved from stowage aboard the dropship to what appears to be a locker room is unknown, nor why the egg was fastened half way up a wall, but while this evidence is recognised as purely circumstantial, and certainly insufficient to obtain a conviction (irrelevant, considering the eventual fate of all parties involved) there is at this time no other reasonable explanation. On Fury 161, when Ripley connects the remains of Bishop to the computer, he confirms that there was an alien on board the ship without doubt or hesitation, but how can he know this unless he put it there? It’s not an admission, but it certainly hints at more knowledge of the situation than had he not had some hand in it.

Later generations of synthetics would become more complex, able to override their programming, becoming in effect “more human than human.” Annalee Call was an example of this, rejecting her connection to machines and willing to risk her own existence in order to save a greater good, working against the Company, by that time a subsidiary of Wal-Mart, to protect what was left of Earth.

Settling down – Acheron and the Derelict

Approach to LV-426

Approach to LV-426

Prometheus travels to LV-426 for a specific and directed purpose, following maps known to the ancient civilisations of Earth. The question remains, however: was the beacon that drew the Nostromo to that same planet genuine, or was it specifically diverted? Was Special Order known only to Ash and Mother specifically installed for that voyage, or was it contained in the computer of all Company ships, and it just so happened that it was the Nostromo that picked up a signal that led them to the planetary system that harboured the Derelict?

The databanks of the Nostromo held no information on the planet beyond the most rudimentary, certainly no indication of a previous expedition; it is unlikely that the details of the Prometheus expedition have been misplaced, more probable that it has been buried, that it was believed that the mission was a failure, even that the final destination of the Prometheus was never relayed to Earth. In that event, perhaps it is only random chance that brought the Nostromo to the same destination.

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The hypersleep chamber of the Nostromo

The issue of stardrives is never addressed directly in the quartet, so the distance between Earth and Acheron cannot be extrapolated, though both these questions are more likely to be specifically addressed, or at least broached, in Prometheus. While the Nostromo may have had some form of stardrive, it was reduced to a slow moving vessel while hauling the refinery, confined to sublight velocity. The Sulaco survivors commented that they could expect a rescue mission “seventeen days after they were declared overdue,” an impossibilty without faster than light travel, though that statement avoids the question of when the determination of “overdue” would be made, if at all, as examined above.

While the extended voyage of the Nostromo required hypersleep capacity, why did the Sulaco require it? Though the reduced voyage time will proportionately reduce the need for the key resources of food, water and oxygen and the psychological stresses of space travel, now termed “pandorum,” the hypersleep chambers may serve another function, protecting the crew from the effects of the faster than light transition; certainly that would explain why Bishop, out of the synthetic closet to his crewmates, unlike Ash, would indulge in the otherwise seemingly redundant confinement, when his skills could be better used monitoring the ship systems.

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The Derelict

Another question is how, on a world of presumably the same approximate surface area of the Earth, to judge from the equivalent gravity, the colony of Hadley’s Hope was founded close enough to the Derelict that the Jordan family were able to return to base before the first xenomorph birthed itself, or at least complete the journey in their traumatised state? Indeed, why in the twenty years the planet had been inhabited had the Derelict never been seen until the Jordan family were despatched at the behest of Carter Burke? Despite the colonisation and terraforming processes, apparently thorough charting of the environment is a low priority in Weyland-Yutani’s programme of “building better worlds.”

The proximity of the Derelict to the atmospheric processing station may have served an advantage, as it was likely within the blast range when the “shake and bake” unit suffered catastrophic failure, though it is possible that upon return to the Sulaco, assuming Corporal Hicks had the authorisation codes, it was nuked from orbit, as suggested by Ripley, “the only way to be sure” that the Company didn’t attempt to scavenge any surviving specimens.

Lighting the fire – Prometheus

Alien

Alien

Prometheus has the potential to be the most important science fiction film since Blade Runner. There have been many science fiction films in those three decades, but let us briefly look at the broad trends, and how Prometheus should be different.

Many have been extremely successful, such as the Star Wars prequels, the Men in Black series, even Independence Day, but little argument could be made that these were serious films made for a sophisticated or mature audience from directors who would be regarded as crafters of film as an art rather than as a medium. The success of these films came at a price; they are populist rather than challenging, designed to entertain rather than engage. We are fortunate that there are those who have managed to infiltrate more substance into their works without losing their commercial appeal, such as Paul Verhoeven’s satirical undertones in Robocop and Starship Troopers, both of which had sequels inflicted upon them that totally missed the point of the originals.

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Aliens

The list of important science fiction films of the last three decades is sadly small, and most of these, some of them well regarded by critics and fans and the science fiction community, could not in any way be regarded as major box office successes, often managing only to scrape towards profitability:  Dune, Gattaca, Solaris, Children of Men, Never Let Me Go. Even with a well known cast and a major director attached, Sunshine failed to reach the level of recognition it deserved.

Yet 20th Century Fox, a brand often derided by science fiction fans for the lack of enthusiasm of their television wing, have put considerable weight behind Ridley Scott, both in terms of production budget and a saturation media campaign, more than either they or Warner Brothers provided for either of Scott’s previous science fiction films, or indeed any studio had for any science fiction beyond Star Wars.

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Alien 3

Whether this faith will be justified cannot be judged until the film is released. It is said a vast opening weekend can be bought simply by the marketing spend, but the second weekend drop is what determines the fate of a film, though this rule was recently broken in most spectacular style by The Avengers, which maintained the number one position in the US box office despite a 50% drop between the first and second weekends; contrast this with the top films of 2011 (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows part 2, 72% drop, knocked off number one in second week by Captain America, which itself suffered a 61% drop and was ranked 12th for the year) and 2010 (Toy Story 3, 46%, maintaining number one on second weekend over the Adam Sandler comedy Grown Ups).

Despite all that was achieved in the original quartet, there are technical limitations apparent, and not only the poor digital xenomorphs in Alien Resurrection and the compositing of the puppet into the set on Alien 3, but also in the first two films. James Cameron may treat tech porn as an artform, but played it smart with the exterior visuals on Acheron, with the fog, wind and rain covering up any flaws in the modelwork.  Similarly, the weakest scene of Alien was the landing of the Nostromo, reminiscent of a Gerry Anderson show; Cameron, knowing the limitations of the modelwork, presented much of it on grainy combat monitors, but Scott did not.

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Alien Resurrection

Subsequent advances in effects technology will perhaps for the first time allow a technically flawless conception: in 1997, the digital effects of Alien Ressurection were primitive, though this can be attributed to effects supervisor Pitof and the effects house Blue Sky, as Event Horizon released the same year and produced on a smaller budget, was more convincing, though with the caveat that Resurrection’s greatest failing was the unconvincing creature renderings. The trailers for Prometheus have shown epic landscapes and weather systems, vast labyrinthine interiors and chambers, and the USCSS Prometheus itself, a fully realised artefact whose presence onscreen is as convincing as had it been directly photographed on set.

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Up close with an alien

The pedigree of the script is mixed, cowritten by Damon Lindelof, a veteran of Lost and the 2009 Star Trek film that defied all expectations, alongside Jon Spaihts, whose sole produced work was the Russian set alien invasion action film The Darkest Hour, described upon release by this reviewer as inept, pointless and childish. Fortunately the acting talent is first class, including Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Guy Pearce, Idris Elba, Logan Marshall-Green, Kate Dickie and Charlize Theron, the first time in the Alien franchise that such an ensemble has been cast, where previously experienced but low profile character actors were favoured.

It has been indicated that a plan already exists for a sequel to Prometheus, but any speculation on where that voyage may take us will have to wait until after the film is unveiled, but in the meantime, we have one observation, though with the admission it is not a commercial proposition: as fascinating as it will be to hear the back story of the Space Jockey, how much more interesting would it have been to see a film told from their point of view, in their language, with humanity as the background?

Joining the dots – Blade Runner and Firefly

PrisandRoy

Pris and Roy, the Replicants

It is the nature of science fiction to look forward, yet Prometheus is a prequel to all we have known before, and it is a concern that by choosing not to continue the story, this may reduce the impact of the film. Is there no story to be told after Alien Resurrection, or did Ridley Scott choose to tie Prometheus to the specific part of the universe he originated, ignoring the rest entirely?

In order to work, a prequel has to be able to tell a strong, surprising story. Whatever preconceptions the audience may have, Scott needs to show us something surprising and shocking, yet he’s playing with an android crewmember and a strong female lead again, so unless he has something more up his sleeve, accusations of a retread are a possibility.

Perhaps Scott will take this as a chance to tie Alien and Blade Runner together? Certainly there is little precluding the two of them coexisting, and indeed there are existing ties in the Hyperdyne synthetics, a more acceptable replicant following the failure of the Nexus 6 models. The existence of Rachael, a replicant who did did not know herself to be one, complete with memories of a childhood she never experienced, brings up a question regarding Carter Burke.

Parasites

Parasites

Although pure supposition unsupported by evidence, there has been a suggestion that Burke himself may also have been a synthetic, that he was able to release the parasites in the medbay without danger to himself because they would not target him. While he was programmed to react to them with fear in the presence of others, it was a defence mechanism, and the greatest possible defence would be for him not to know himself what he truly was.

There is however a very specific reason why Alien and Blade Runner cannot be seamlessly linked, and his name is Jones. In a world in which only the most wealthy can afford real animals, a cat would be a very valuable commodity in Blade Runner, far to precious to risk on space travel, though there is the remote possibility that he is a synthetic cat, which would explain why the xenomorph wasn’t interested in him, but certainly other animals exist in this universe, for the oxen (and dogs, depending on the version of the film) on Fury 161 are organic, else they would not be able to act as hosts.

Yet there is another universe that also does not contradict what we know of the Alien universe, though the ties are more tangential. “Building better worlds” is the motto of Weyland-Yutani, but another film has used this phrase. “We’re building better worlds, all of them,” was spoken by the Operative of the Parliament in the opening of the film Serenity, a film that featured a failed terraforming experiment, the supposedly better worlds of Miranda. It’s the same thing the Operative said in Serenity – “We’re building better worlds, all of them.”

No time frame has ever been given for any of the films, though the time between them has been established – fifty seven years between Alien and Aliens, with a remarkable change in the atmosphere in such a short time, not to mention the dissolution of the ring system around the gas giant primary that Acheron orbits, and another two centuries before the Resurrection. How much longer before the Earth that was became unable to support life entirely? Long enough for Walmart to be replaced by the Blue Sun Corporation?

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The Battle of Serenity Valley

Although strictly an unofficial link from the Alien point of view, there is another connection with the world of Serenity, though this time in the parent series of that film, Firefly, where in the opening scene of the pilot episode the WY logo is visible on the targeting scanner of gun used by Malcolm Reynolds to bring down the skiff buzzing his position during the Battle of Serenity Valley.

Whatever may be revealed to us and what answers are given when Prometheus brings us the fire of creation, it is a welcome return to science fiction for Ridley Scott, and it is to be hoped that he does hold true to his word, perhaps with a sequel to this film, possibly with a direct return to Blade Runner, conceivably even the long rumoured adaptation of Joe Haldeman’s award winning classic novel The Forever War. Whatever his choice, all that we ask is that we don’t wait as long next time.

Prometheus is released on 1st June and our review will follow shortly thereafter; the original Alien films are available on Blu-ray

Special thanks to Adam Dworak for suggestions, criticism and his extensive knowledge of the Alien universe

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