I hope H.R. Giger’s home is papered in royalty checks. In 1978, Ridley Scott took a chance on the weirdo Swiss artist who’d designed ELP’s Brain Salad Surgery cover and put him to work creating a disturbing, obsidian spaceship that housed an eyeless alien and a mysterious, mummified “space jockey.” Scott’s producers didn’t quite get it. Why put a dead, somewhat penis-shaped giant creature early in the movie if he’s not going to jump out and scare somebody? Why not just put the titular Alien eggs in a hole or something?
But Scott and Giger won out.
For three and a half decades, directors and artists copped Giger’s designs. Three different directors filmed Alien sequels — all of them featured new, weirder remixes of the Giger design. (The one you remember is the fecund Queen from Aliens; the high-octane nightmare fuel was the human-alien hybrid in Alien Resurrection.) But no one had really remixed the “space jockey” design.
Re-enter Ridley Scott. That mummified giant had a story to tell. Scott had the connections to tell it. The result, Prometheus is one of the most nostalgic sci-fi movies you’ve ever seen. It’s a well-acted series of tributes to better designs, movies, and fables — and sure, yes, it works very well on its own.
Here there be spoilers.
Since we’re discussing a long series of easter eggs, why not just rack them up?
- Highly advanced aliens arrive in earth’s pre-history and give us our brains and DNA. (Battlestar Galactica.)
- Explorers discover breathable air in an alien structure where there should be no air. (The Abyss.)
- A woman has sex with her newly infected partner — she immediately becomes pregnant with a monstrous baby. (The Fly.)
- A monster takes the form of a human, fucks shit up, and can only be killed by flamethrowers. (The Thing.)
- A ship, piloted by a character we quite like, blows up in an act of suicide to destroy the aliens’ ship. (Independence Day.)
- After the threat is neutralized, survivors go on a mission to find the aliens’ homeworld. (Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters and Starship Troopers.)
- An ice-cold white woman gives in to the advances of a sexy black dude. (Actually, this is just a cliche.)
You blend this many eggs together and somebody’s going to like it. Hell, I liked it, even though it’s about as subtle as a chest-burster. David, the android played beautifully by Michael Fassbender (as in Alien Resurrection, we get a physically beautiful robot instead of the creepy-looking ones played by Ian Holm and Lance Henriksen), styles himself after Peter O’Toole’s T.H. Lawrence. There’s a very funny scene in which he dyes his hair and recites dialogue to perfect his accent. Later, more resonantly, we see David taking the exact wrong lesson from the movie as he decides to infect a crewmate with alien gunk. “Big things have small beginnings,” he says — which is what Lawrence told a superior who doubted that it was worth investing in a chaos-stirring Arab revolt.
Continuing on our Journey Beyond Subtlety — Noomi Rapace’s Ellie is a cross-wearing Christian in a future when the religion is sort of seen as a goof. “Impressive survival instincts,” David tells her, after she’s performed a nick-of-time laser c-section on herself. (This is the single most disturbing scene in the movie, the one likely to last.) Of course she’s a survivor — she’s looking for gnosis, guided by faith! It helps that the oddly beautiful Rapace has pale skin and a flat nose that make her look like the closest descendent of the Space Jockey.
Oh, right — we solve the mystery of the original Alien. The spaceship that the Nostromo found was supposed to pilot some grumpy Jockeys to Earth with a cargo of gene-bending WMD gunk. John Hurt didn’t stumble across a poor, bedraggled alien explorer. He found a space Mengele who was trying to correct the mistake of another alien by exterminating life on our planet — until his own WMD turned against him. This isn’t a particularly original story, but I’ll take that kind of irony with my summer blockbuster.