So what do you need to know about the Alien films before lining up for 8 June's Prometheus? Well, not much, actually.
Prior to its release, extraterrestrials were viewed in a calm if complicated light. Unless they were part of some schlocky '50s/'60s sci-fi romp, they were revered as ancient astronauts, early explorers of Earth, and anything else Erich von Däniken and his ilk could come up with. Even Me Decade "It" boy Steven Spielberg added his own talented two cents into the mix with his epic "what if" Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Yet bubbling under the surface of our look to the skies obsession was the desire to go back to the dark. Invaders might be just that, went the concept, laying the groundwork for high tech retellings of those man in suit drive-in monster movies.
When it was announced, it seemed that the simply named Alien had little going for it. The director, a guy called Ridley Scott, was a cinematic novice. He and his brother Tony had started a production company back a decade before, but had mostly dabbled in commercials and a little seen first feature -- The Duellist. The script was by Dan O'Bannon (with some un-credited help by David Giler and Walter Hill) and revolved around a basic haunted house in space dynamic. H.R. Giger, an artist best known for his controversial bio-sexual horror designs (and the cover of an Emerson, Lake, and Palmer album) was brought on to visual the title creature. Early teasers suggested something mysterious, if not exactly menacing.
Then Alien was finally released, and 1979 audiences couldn't get enough of it. They took the tale of the interstellar cargo ship Nostomo, it's ragtag group of mostly recognizable faces, and their date with an acid blooded xenomorph with a double mouth of razor sharp teeth and turned it into a winner. Scott was suddenly seen as a savant, unknown actress Sigourney Weaver became an overnight grrrl power sensation, and Giger's Grand Guignol fright phallus was honored as a terror icon. Thanks to its unusual look and potent scares, the film became a hit, and has today spawned three direct sequels, two sorry spin-offs (the awful Alien vs. Predator films) and a promising prequel with Scott back at the helm after three decades removed from the franchise.
So what do you need to know about the Alien films before lining up for 8 June's Prometheus? Well, not much, actually. In fact, Scott has done a very smart thing here. By channeling Frankenstein and Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, he's made serious, not space battle, sci-fi. In other words, this latest film is more closely related to the science fiction of the pre-Star Wars era, versus the laser blast and starship battle mentality made famous by George Lucas and his saga of a system from long ago in a galaxy far, far away. Naturally, this will turn off some geeks who gave their fear fetishism over to the incredibly evocative creatures. They don't want a meditation on man and his place in the universe. They want chest-busters and bug bloodshed bedlam.
Indeed, if you are looking for something along the lines of James Cameron's excellent follow-up (Aliens), you'll be sadly disappointed. Prometheus is not even centered around Giger's beings. Instead, it focuses on the "Space Jockey," the odd looking 'thing' discovered in a wrecked star cruiser on the surface of the planet known as LV-426. That skeletal homunculus, as well as his cargo hold filled with face-hugger eggs, gets a detailed and enigmatic explanation. We also learn that there is more to the prologue than a semi-suspenseful shocker. Indeed, as with all the Alien efforts, we have mankind's desire to play God (in this case, via the formation of synthetic robot life) fused with the cosmos' desire to maintain a kind of balance.
In fact, it was Aliens that really pushed this idea, as it argued against humanity's determination toward expansion and the colonization of other worlds. It was the Weyland-Yutani Corporation (a major, MAJOR player in the prequel) that funded the trip to LV-426 in order to set up new communities...and claim the ultimate bio-ped weapon. In fact, all the films in this series, even Prometheus, sees human beings threatening their own wellbeing for the secrets that lay dormant on other worlds. Even the prison population of Aliens3 become fodder for a desire to capture -- and capitalize upon -- these monsters.
By the time David Fincher stepped in to handle the directing duties on the trequel, few knew exactly where to take the concept. Going to a penitentiary in space ideal, even one trying to say something about gender, genetic make-up, and aggression, just didn't have the right spark. Similarly, Alien: Resurrection saw French filmmaker Jean-Pierre Jeunet (The City of Lost Children, Amelie) bring Ripley back as a cruel clone, only to have the entire narrative revolve around a rogue rebel (Winona Ryder) who, 200 years in the future, is looking to put an end to the experiments with these beings once and for all. So while the first film established the Weyland-Yutani Corporation, the space jockey, planet LV-426, and the intriguing incubation cycle of the alien, only the follow-up stayed within this dynamic. The rest of the franchise faded away from this foundation to use the fiends as fuel for pointless profiteering.
Prometheus wants to return to the initial awe, to bring back a sense of wonder -- albeit in a less horrific way -- to the entire Alien mythos. It manages to tie itself to the first film with efficiency and room for a few sequels while establishing Noomi Rapace's Elizabeth Shaw as a heroine on par with Weaver's stoic Ripley. While many will wonder in waiting for those infamous xenomorphs to show up and start slaughtering, this new film is more mental dread than gore and gruesomeness. In fact, what's clear about Prometheus is that Ridley Scott has taken the basic Greek myth (the title entity made man, more or less) and truly fused it with a known literary reference, Frankenstein. This latest film is not centered on slimy things going bump in the night. Instead, it's about the power of creation, and the chaos that can come from it.
A few years from now, when the storm has settled and the sequels have shown their potential/problems, Prometheus will be judged on a whole new set of standards. For now, it's an Alien reboot without aliens, a return to a favored franchise without bringing back the core creation that got people hooked in the first place. It's not a spook show, it's not a war movie disguised as sci-fi. It's not a weird male morality tale or a warning over science gone sour. Instead, it returns us to the very origin of the species -- both human and non -- and articulates these ideas in sly, subtle, and substantial ways. It may not satisfy the purist. Frankly, nothing probably could. But as the next chapter in this 'evolving' movie legend, it's a great way to (re)start.