Prequels, Sequels and Building Better Worlds…..

I still find it hard to believe that Ridley Scott’s original ‘Alien’ movie is 33 years old.  Even now, it remains the benchmark for claustrophobic sci-fi/horror and although there have been some serious contenders since then, none have ever really matched it for style or substance.  Now, Scott has revisited the same general neck of the woods with his new movie ‘Prometheus‘, which is a prequel of sorts to the whole Ellen Ripley saga.

One of those ‘serious contenders’ I was referring to  was John Carpenter’s 1982 movie ‘The Thing’.  This was a remake of  the 1951 Christian Nyby/Howard Hawks feature  ‘The Thing from Another World’, often seen as a parable about the ‘Red Menace’ so beloved of Joseph McCarthy and his acolytes.   However,  John Carpenter dumped any political allegories in favour of a full-on visceral sci-fi/horror flick with great monster effects, courtesy of Rob Bottin and his team.

Like ‘Alien‘,  Carpenter’s version of  ‘The Thing’ takes place in a ‘sealed’ environment – a remote Antarctic outpost rather than a spaceship – and partakes of some of the same claustrophobia.  Also like ‘Alien’, it taps into the well-trodden ’10 Little Indians’ trope, where cast members are bumped off one by one.  The major difference is that whereas in ‘Alien‘, we know who (or what) is responsible for the carnage, in ‘The Thing’ we don’t.  Not sure which strategy produces the greater degree of  tension.

Last year, ‘The Thing’ (1982), too, got the prequel treatment thanks to a new movie – also (confusingly) entitled ‘The Thing’  (2011), which depicts events at the Norwegian Antarctic base discovered (in an advanced state of destruction) by Kurt Russell & Richard Dysart early on in the Carpenter version.  In the Carpenter film, the American scientists view videotapes shot by the Norwegians and retrieved from the wreckage which show that they had discovered a giant flying saucer  and some kind of alien corpse buried in the ice-sheet near to their base. 

Kurt Russell investigates mayhem in 1982′s ‘The Thing’

It is the story of that discovery and its implications that the 2011 version tells and the whole thing is painstakingly consistent with the details revealed in the 1982 version – too much so, in fact, because one of the many problems with this worthy but rather anaemic movie is that it tries too hard to respect Carpenter’s work.  According to director  Matthijs van Heijningen Jr., he had a laptop on set with (to quote him) ‘a million’ screen captures from the 1982 film in order to ensure continuity of plot, set design, costume etc.   The trouble is, ‘The Thing’  (2011) covers much of the same ground as its predecessor and although it’s all done diligently enough, it has only a fraction of  the impact of Carpenter’s film.  It’s also a movie which is only likely to appeal or make sense to those of us familiar with the 1982 film – anyone viewing it having not seen Carpenter’s film would probably wonder why they bothered making it at all.  Interestingly, I see that the 2011 and 1982 movies are now being sold together in a DVD package.

At the time, I can recall having discussions with friends about the relative merits of Ridley Scott’s  ‘Alien’ and ‘The Thing’ (1982).  The general consensus  was that Scott’s movie was superior in most respects;  something that can be summarised as follows: firstly Scott’s  H.R. Giger-designed alien is altogether sleeker, more intelligent, more sinister and more frightening than Carpenter’s shape-shifting monstrosity, secondly, the simple trick of making ‘Alien’s‘ chief protagonist a woman was inspired and thirdly,  our knowledge of  the crew of the ‘Nostromo‘ was carefully cultivated during the early scenes,  so that by the time they fell victim to the monster in their midst,  we actually felt as though we knew them to some extent.  McReady’s colleagues in ‘The Thing’ (1982) were just standard horror movie cannon-fodder /redshirts by comparison. 

Another problem with the Carpenter movie was the ending.  To say the least of things, this was enigmatic; with ‘The Thing’ and the base apparently blown to smithereens, McReady and Childs, the 2 survivors, sit down with a bottle of booze in the sub-arctic temperatures  ‘to wait and see what happens’ and we are left wondering if one of them or both of them are ‘Things’.  It’s a clever ending but an unsatisfying one on most levels. 

By contrast, at the end of the first ‘Alien’ movie, Ripley has blown her adversary out of the airlock of her lifeboat and settled down with Jones the Ginger Tom for a well-earned siesta in the suspended animation ‘pod’.  She reckons to be picked up by someone or other ‘within a few weeks’ as she drifts through ‘the shipping lanes’, whereas as viewers of James Cameron’s 1985 sequel (‘Aliens’) will know only too well, she’s drifting out there for a lot longer than that.  However, back in 1979, we knew nothing about the duplicity of Weyland-Yutani , about the Colonial Marines or about Newt, so it seemed a definite and satisfying conclusion to a great thriller.

Sigourney Weaver as Ripley in 1979′s ‘Alien’

And so to ‘Prometheus‘, which I saw in full-on 3D IMAX at Birmingham’s Millennium Point last week.  3D has already ceased to be the novelty it was when ‘Avatar’ was released and I’m not sure that Ridley Scott makes many concessions to it at all in ‘Prometheus’.  Most of the recent marketing hype about the film has not been about 3D at all, but has seen the studio trying to distance ‘Prometheus‘ from the ‘Alien‘ franchise.  This movie has its own agenda, so we have been told, and the connections to Ripley and all that squirming alien horror are peripheral to the central themes of ‘Prometheus’.  We are into the realms of High Concept Science Fiction here – none of your men in rubber suits nonsense here; this story  is about nothing less than the origins of humanity.

What follows will inevitably contain some spoilers, so if you intend to see ‘Prometheus’ in the near future, you should probably give this post a bodyswerve for now and come back for another visit once you have seen the movie…..

 ‘Prometheus’ is almost certain to be just the first half of Ridley Scott’s take on the biggest of all questions: ‘Where do we come from?’  This puts him into some fairly august company in a pretty rarefied landscape where not too many have taken that small step for a movie-maker.  Of course, if ‘Alien‘ remains the benchmark for claustrophobic sci-fi horror, the grand-daddy of ‘Where do we come from?’ movies is Stanley Kubrick’s ’2001  – A Space Odyssey’ and whilst we must reserve judgement until part 2 of ‘Prometheus’ comes out, the early signs are that Scott’s vision of humanity’s origins is somewhat less cerebral than Kubrick’s.  Both films share the concept of humanity’s destiny being influenced or manipulated by extra-terrestrials, but whilst Kubrick’s mysterious visitors simply set up a breadcrumb trail of black monoliths for us to follow, Scott’s humanoid interlopers leave us their DNA in the ecosystem and  a star-map in cave paintings from all over the world, which is how the good ship ‘Prometheus’ arrives at the unexplored moon LV223 (not the same planet that features in the first two ‘Alien’ movies ) in search of answers.  Scott’s humanoids are referred to as ‘Engineers’ because of their assumed role in the engineering of human life on Earth.

The driving force behind the expedition is archaeologist Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and her lover/sidekick Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) who discover the original cave-paintings and persuade the ageing capitalist plutocrat Peter Weyland  (Guy Pearce)to finance the Prometheus  expedition.  Various experts – a biologist, a geologist – are along for the ride and the whole enterprise is overseen by ice queen Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), a Weyland employee, who is ultimately revealed as his daughter and has her own private, deluxe escape pod, complete with chandeliers and grand piano. 

Michael Fassbender continues the well-established ‘Alien‘  tradition of morally compromised androids, but whereas Ian Holm’s Ash was thoroughly nasty in ‘Alien‘ and Lance Henriksen’s Bishop was one of the good guys in ‘Aliens‘ (less so in ‘Alien 3′), Fassbender’s David is more subtle, his motivation and loyalties less immediately obvious.  In a way, he is the most de-humanised of all the androids in these movies, silently patrolling the ship like a pernickety Jeeves whilst the crew are in stasis, watching footage from David Lean’s ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ and mimicking Peter O’Toole’s slightly distracted Englishness (and his hairstyle) in his dealings with the humans.

Michael Fassbender as David in ‘Prometheus’

Once the expedition ( a bit too rapidly and fortuitously) locates a hollow mountainous structure which seems to be the Engineers’ HQ, it soon becomes apparent that David has an agenda of his own, programmed into him by the sinister suits of the Weyland organisation.  Where Shaw is all faith, emotion and fervour, David is cool and calculating.  What’s more, he is clearly smarter and better-informed than any of his human counterparts.  Whilst Shaw’s souvenir from the base is the head of a decapitated Engineer (which explodes as she tries to examine it), David returns with one of numerous metallic flasks with which the Engineers’ base is stocked.   This contains the same dark fluid that we have already seen  leaking from many of the same type of  flasks in the base and David has little hesitation in deliberately spiking Holloway’s drink with a sample of it.  Holloway rapidly becomes ill and there is a great scene where whilst he is examining his bloodshot eyes in the mirror, we catch a fleeting glimpse of a worm or perhaps a miniature ‘Alien’-type organism in the white of Holloway’s eye.  Talking of worms,  inside the base, the leaking dark fluid seems to have had an unpleasant effect on the DNA of some simple indigenous worms, turning them into aggressive snake-type creatures with corrosive blood who soon kill off the biologist and geologist.  Sound familiar? 

Charlize Theron & Idris Elba don’t seem to like what they’re seeing

Holloway’s goose, is of course well & truly barbecued from the moment that David feeds him the proverbial poisoned chalice, but inbetween that and his final agonies, he and Shaw contrive enough time alone to have sex, leading to Shaw (by her own admission, sterile) becoming pregnant with the most unwelcome of foetuses, which grows at an extraordinary rate.  Fortunately for her, Vickers’ escape module is equipped with a device that can carry out automatic surgical procedures and once she realises what has happened to her, she has no hesitation in programming the machine to remove the foetus from her abdomen.  This is a set-piece that is, in its own way, nearly as shocking as the ‘chestburster’ sequence from ‘Alien’ and is equally visceral.  The difference is that Shaw somehow survives the procedure and is up and about within 30 seconds as though she’d suffered nothing worse than having an ingrowing toenail removed.  It stretches credulity that she is able to escape the still-thrashing ‘foetus’ inside the surgical ‘pod’, but her ability to then wander off into the module, discovering, en route,  Prometheus’ surprise package - a dying but still functional Peter Weyland, who has made the journey to meet his makers (and maybe score some immortality pills) – is probably pushing things a bit too far.  Post-surgical trauma, anyone?

Torches, dark tunnels; it never ends well, really…..

In addition,  the seemingly indestructible Shaw then recovers sufficiently to accompany Weyland, David and others on their expedition to an area of the base where David has located an Engineer who is still in suspended animation – and looking pretty much identical to the ‘Space Jockey’ from the alien ship of the first ‘Alien’ movie..    Once awoken, this giant humanoid shows himself to be a grumpy morning person by killing Weyland and his party.  Only Shaw and David (who, like Lance Henriksen’s Bishop in ‘Aliens‘ is  is ripped in half,  but still functional.) survive.   Shaw escapes to the outside whilst the awakened Engineer begins to fire up the engines of a familiar U-shaped spaceship and the base begins to fold back on itself to allow the ship to escape.  David informs Shaw that the Engineer means to continue with his mission to convey the cargo of noxious dark fluid to its intended destination; Earth.  Shaw then persuades the Prometheus‘ captain, Janek, (Idris Elba, previously from ‘The Wire’) to use the Prometheus as a guided missile to bring the Engineers’ ship down, which he duly does.  As the wreckage rains down, Shaw escapes but Vickers is crushed by the plummeting Engineers’ ship.

Prometheus rams the Engineers’ spacecraft

With her oxygen running out, Shaw makes for the Vickers/Weyland deluxe escape module which has survived the crash. Here,  she finds that her ‘foetus’ is trapped in the ‘Med Lab’ and is not only still alive but has grown at a massive rate.  At this point, the extremely irate Engineer, having survived the mid-air collision with  Prometheus,  bursts into the escape pod and is clearly intent on obliterating the pesky Shaw, but she manages to release her ‘foetus’, which battles with the Engineer before inserting a tentacle down his throat and subduing him.  Shaw makes her escape to find David who has also survived the crash and informs her that there are other Engineer spacecraft available nearby and that he can operate them.  Shaw informs him that she doesn’t want to return to Earth but wants to find the Engineers’ homeworld and find out why, having played a decisive and positive role in our evolution, they now seem to want to annihilate us.  

As they take off, back in the escape pod, something unpleasant and vaguely familiar bursts from the Engineer’s  chest.  

Thus, Part Two of the ‘Prometheus’ saga is neatly set up and given the apparent success of Part One at the Box Office, will surely get made.  I will freely admit that I found the movie hugely enjoyable as a spectacle, but then again, the first two ‘Alien’ movies are among my all-time favourites, so this was always likely to be a case of preaching to the converted.  The connection between ‘Prometheus’ and the ‘Alien’ movies is clear and incontrovertible, but the issue here for Scott and his ‘High Concept’ is not the monsters and the toxic black fluid but the Engineers and their motivations.   Like Ripley in ‘Aliens’,   Shaw must find common cause with a potentially treacherous android to attain her goal.  Shaw is a bit too driven and fey to be Ripley Mk. 2, but she certainly doesn’t lack for courage and you get the feeling that her belief, perhaps in God, but certainly in a higher purpose for humanity will drive her on.

Part One of another two-part prequel blockbuster is currently bearing down on us, as the world braces itself for ‘An Unexpected Journey’, the first part of Peter Jackson’s two-part adaptation of ‘The Hobbit’, which is due in December, with Part Two to follow in December 2013.  

Familiar faces such as Ian McKellen, Christopher Lee, Elijah Wood, Andy Serkis,  Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving and Orlando Bloom return from the ‘Lord of the Rings’ movies, whilst Martin Freeman, Stephen Fry, Benedict Cumberbatch and Sylvester McCoy join the cast for a project which was originally to be directed by Guillermo del Toro, but a raft of delays – often brought on by a variety of law suits – meant that del Toro was forced to jump ship, leaving Peter Jackson holding the baby, which is what the studios wanted all along anyway in all probability. 

Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins in ‘The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey’

Having seen the trailer for ‘An Unexpected Journey’, it does seem as though  Jackson has managed to transfer much of the ‘feel’ of the ‘Lord of the Rings’ movies to this one.  The problem with the book of ‘The Hobbit’ was not so much what was told as the way in which it was told – unlike its more ambitious successor, it was always a story for small children and whimsy usually won out over drama.  Peter Jackson has gone on record as saying that all the episodes in the book where Gandalf disappears – perhaps for a meeting of  The White Council – are things that he wants to cover, thereby, hopefully, ensuring that the tone and feel of the movies are more in tune with ‘The Lord of the Rings’.  With this kind of approach and with spiders, wargs and orcs, major battle scenes and a dragon to look forward to, there is the hope that the two films that make up ‘The Hobbit’ will be as compelling as their predecessors.

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