Prometheus introduces the concept of the Engineers to the Alien franchise; an alien race of “ancient astronauts” that made mankind over thirty thousand years ago, then abandoned humanity for unexplained reasons. The concept of the Engineers ties into the larger themes and leitmotifs of the Alien movies, while at the same time completely changing the nature of the Alien, the monster itself.
Because the existence of the Engineers makes three things clear: first, there have always been larger forces at work manipulating events, though not always benevolently or even skillfully. Second, that just as Engineers created humans, Humans created the Androids. And third, the Engineers that created humans also created the Alien. That means that the Alien is no longer simply the Other, the Exterior Threat, the Unknown. The Alien is in fact our cousin, our descendent, our family.
These ideas change everything. The Alien series shifts from a story of our deadly encounters with the unknown into a strange, familial struggle writ large. Humans, as a species, are competing with our rival species, alien and android, to replace our forefathers as the creators (and destroyers) of the universe.
(Yes, I’m ignoring the two Alien vs. Predator movies, because I have not seen them, they don’t have Ripley in them, and I’m pretty sure they contradict Prometheus in terms of the origin of Aliens. If someone else wants to write about them, I’d be happy to read it.)
I consider Alien to be the perfect horror movie, and one reason for that is the simplicity of it. The Alien lives up to the movie’s title: it is weird, unlike anything on Earth, and terrifying simply for how alien it is, even before it pops out of chests and tears people in half. The crew of the Nostromo don’t want to understand it (except for Ash, who in a bit of sly corporate satire is such a company man that he is literally a man built by the company). They don’t even want to kill it, really, so much as they just want to survive it.
But that’s the story of Alien as a stand-alone movie, separate from any sequels or prequels. Now that we know who that “Space Jockey” is that we see at the beginning of the picture, we have new ways of appreciating the Alien, the Android, and the Weyland-Yutani Corporation. Alien is no longer a story of first contact gone horribly wrong. It’s now a story of evolution in action, and “intelligent design.” The Alien is not 100% alien. It’s a rival species that comes from the same place we do. Ash is not just a machine, or a particularly cold co-worker. Androids are humanity’s own attempt at creating new life. And the Weyland-Yutani Corporation isn’t just willing to sacrifice its crew members on a whim because they thought there might be something interesting there. They were specifically looking for an Engineer ship, in the hopes that the crew would find one of the Engineers’ creations and bring back something they can use. Thus, the Nostromo crew are caught between two replacements for humanity, the Engineer-created Aliens and the human-created Android, at the behest of men trying to play God.
Further warped is the story of Aliens. Before Prometheus, Aliens was the most upbeat of the films, but it becomes downright sickening now that we know of our connection the Alien. Out of context, the Space Marines are on an extermination mission to rid a colony of vicious predators, space vermin. A bug hunt, as Hudson refers to it. All fine. But if the Aliens are our cousins, then the Marines’ mission becomes closer to genocide and nuking the Aliens from orbit becomes a lot harder to take. Not that Burke’s objection to nuking the Aliens is right, he, proto-Engineer that he is, wants to sacrifice humans to Aliens in an attempt to capture and control them, but there are lots of options between wiping the Aliens out and feeding kids to them.
The tragedy of this war between humans and Aliens is compounded by a scene in Aliens. The Alien Queen explicitly lets Ripley escape with Newt in exchange for Ripley not burning up her eggs. That shows Aliens, or at least Alien Queens, are capable of abstract thinking, reasoning ability, communication skills, and concern for her progeny, all human characteristics. Of course, then the Queen betrays Ripley by surprising her with a facehugger, which shows the Queen’s a giant bitch, but that, unfortunately, is also a human characteristic. So reasoning with that Alien Queen might have been out of the question, but communicating with the Aliens in general is not. After all, Ripley and the Android Bishop come to mutual respect for each other by the end of Aliens. If the Human and the Robot can be friends, why not the Alien too?
If the introduction of the Engineers changes the meaning of Aliens the most, then Alien3 is the film changed the least. Alien3 is already the movie where Ellen Ripley accepts that the Alien will forever be with her, is connected to her, is literally now a part of her, and that there are worse things in the universe than the Alien, like the machinations of mankind. And, since we now know the Engineers are real and the Alien WAS created by God (or, a god) specifically to scourge mankind, we also know that the prisoners of Fury 161 are right. Good job, guys! I don’t think anyone at the end of Alien3 would have been terribly surprised to find out that Aliens and Humans share a common ancestor, and that ancestor is kind of a tool.
And with the addition of Prometheus, Alien Resurrection changes from a departure for the series into the movie that brings the story full circle. After three movies and countless centuries, the humans that have been manipulating the story behind the scenes take center stage. Having finally captured an Alien and mastered DNA sequencing, allowing them to make humans and Aliens willy nilly and play merry havoc with their genes, the human race has unknowingly become the Engineers, and of course recreated their mistakes.
It’s also noticeable how Ripley’s attitudes have changed by her fourth film. First off, since even death can’t free her from her struggles, her horror has moved from survivalist to existential. She now saves her ire for the people trying to control her rather than the monsters trying to kill her. Second, her attitude towards robots has turned completely around. From her distrust and disgust at Ash in the first film to her grudging respect for Bishop in the second, Ripley now says the Call’s kindness is a shibboleth for her robot nature because “no human is that humane.” And most importantly of all, she’s starting to identify with the Aliens. Not only does she have acid blood, but she’s calling herself the monster’s mother long before the horrifying Alien/human hybrid comes calling on her.
Thus, we can see that the Alien movies, taken together with Prometheus, are about Ellen Ripley learning implicitly in four movies what Elizabeth Shaw learns explicitly in one: that there are forces trying to control our destiny that do not have our best interests at heart, that we are connected to all life in the universe, no matter how alien, and that attempts to play god are doomed to disaster, no matter if you are a human, or an android, or an alien, or whatever an Engineer is. All three, I think. Prometheus ends with Shaw flying to the Engineer homeworld to get some answers. I suspect Ripley would be more than interested in hearing them.