Jun 26 2012 11:30am

Brother from Another Planet: Reassessing the Alien Franchise After Prometheus

Brother from Another Planet: Reassessing the Alien Franchise After PrometheusPrometheus 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.

Steven Padnick is a freelance writer and editor. By day. You can find more of his writing and funny pictures at padnick.tumblr.com.

Fredrik Coulter
1. fcoulter
"If the Human and the Robot can be friends, why not the Alien too?"

I quickly flashed on "Beowulf's Children" with that statement.
Noneo Yourbusiness
3. Longtimefan
So Prometheus is a very expensive handwave to make Alien Ressurection not look so bad? :)

Generally I get that the underlying theme of the movie was moderately interesting I just found the execution of the story to be very poorly done. Somewhat obnoxious characters who do not work well together may create dramatic situations but it also becomes very jarring when this "team" is supposed to consist of professionals who I assume were picked to work on this trillion dollar spaceship in a way that does not fuck everything up and leave everyone dead.

Case in point. Most skilled biologists understand that you do not just touch any living creature you do not know. Even Steve Irwin understood that you have to grab it by the tail because the mouth is where the pointy teeth live.

Maybe it is just me but I expect more out of my fictional characters.
4. Mark A. Rivera
I liked your article, but there is one assumption you make that may or may not be correct because we don't have a definitive answer. You assume the Engineers created the Xenomorph or somehow humanity had a role in their creation. This is not entirely correct. 

1) The derelict on LV426 was there for a very long time and I would wager longer than two thousand years. The cargo left alive beneath the stasis field were fully formed Xenomorph eggs placed there particularly for reasons unknown. This implies that the alien was around a lot longer than what we see in Prometheus.

2) My first point is supported by the fact that the mural within the chamber where the unstable ampules are discovered clearly shows the relationship between the Engineers and Xenomorphs. This includes an almost metaphysical image of an Engineer with a Xenomorph like creature on it's right side with the Engineer's arm over it in an almost parental fashion while on the left side, Xenomorph hands like the creature dubbed a Deacon by Scott are holding an open Xenomorph egg.

Behind the altar where there is an empty bowl that looks similar to the one we see the Engineer drink from in the film's opening sequence is an image where we see a Xenomorph very similar to if not exactly like the one shown at the end. The implication here is that the Xenomorph played a larger and more ritualistic role in the Engineer's philosophical belief and perhaps spiritual practice than just being a biological weapon.

Thus I think though I cannot prove anymore than you can prove your hypothesis that the alien was not created by the engineers, but rather they are something encountered by the Engineers and perhaps admired by them for their perfectly evolved traits that center upon propagation of their species and survival. Qualities that are admired by the Androids Ash and Bishop in the Alien films, but not Call because she is a robot created by robots and in spite of humanities actions with the xenomorphs, has a mission to prevent humanity from destroying themselves. 

Like the robot encountered at the end of Foundation And Earth, Call and whatever fellow "Autons" still exist at the time of Alien Resurrection have taken to secretly protecting humanity even from itself. Remember Bishop's programming is based on Asimov's Laws of Robotics.

If the androids like David, Ash, and Bishop are the children of humanity then Call is a child of the child so what does that make Ripley 8? Perhaps something closer to a more perfected model of what the Engineers might have envisioned with the fusing of Xenomorph and Human DNA?

I can only speculate just as only you can based on the evidence available. I suspect if there are answers they will show that we are both partially correct, however I actually hope there is no sequel to Prometheus. I prefer things to be left alone than diluted the way the Star Wars prequels diluted the classic Star Wars trilogy. 

In closing I must point out that the Engineers arrived on Earth during the Cambrian period that is a lot older than 35.000 years ago. They gave the Earth the push to begin a life cycle long before humans even come into the picture. This alone opens up interesting possibilities into the Engineer's ritual terraforming and assisted evolution programs that open up profound possibilities that could be explored.

Personally, I think the black goo found on LV223 is not the same exact mixture the Engineer consumes at the beginning of the film. I think it is form derived from the distilled mixture of the already existent xenomorph DNA and whatever was used by them previously that created an effective biological weapon for rapid reboots of a terraforming cycle the Engineers grew unsatisfied with that for reasons unknown turned upon the Engineers the way a controlled virus strain can wipe out millions in an unplanned epidemic or a nuclear reactor could prove more dangerous than a nuclear bomb in the long haul as can be seen now in Japan at Fukishima.

Thank you for your article and for reading my lengthy reply.

Mark Rivera
The Final Arbiter
#6 in The Novel Category of 
Tor.com's 2011 Readers' Choice Awards.    
Pirmin Schanne
5. Torvald_Nom
But if the Aliens are our cousins, then the Marines’ mission becomes closer to genocide...
I don't really see your point there. What has them being more closely related to humanity anything to do with commiting genocide? Are you saying that it's fine (or, at least, less reprehensible) to eradicate non-human species?
6. Jonathan Sheen
My problem with Prometheus is related to this, but it's really much more basic. Alien gave us the magnificently alien Giger-designed "Space Jockey:" grown into his control seat, elephant-snouted, unlike anything we've ever imagined. Now we learn it's just an ugly suit of armor worn by a big, muscly bald guy?

I feel like Prometheus did this, in a way, to the whole Alien concept. It over-wrote wonderfully original, never-before-seen concepts with bland, ordinary junk that could've been done in a Roger Corman movie.

I don't include it in the Alien canon. It's Ridley Scott's AU FanFic.
7. Raider One
Brilliant analysis. I've been an Alien fan since the early-80s and seen it countless times, as with Aliens, and you have come up with a great general overview of the entire franchise. Sir Ridley might agree, but we'll have to see what he cooks up next because he has now worked things out completely, with his proposed sequel working title "Paradise".
8. Digital Sextant
I like your ideas about the nuance of being related, but I find the ethical quandaries less compelling. If the xenomorphs are a biological weapon made by the engineers, I see no ethical harm in killing them any more than I would a genetically engineered virus.

I like Mark Rivera's idea about the xenomorphs being something the engineers found/used from somewhere else. I find that much more compelling.

But ultimately, the movie breaks at a fundamental level for me when we look at the evolution bit. If the engineers intervened when Earth was populated by hardly anything in order to seed DNA on the planet, then (if you set aside the notion that they *steered* evolution, something that goes against what we know about the process) how did people know to make the cave paintings? I'm usually willing to allow a lot of hand-waving about technology, but the basics of evolution seem like a giant thing to ignore.
9. ouspensky
But if the Aliens are our cousins, then the Marines’ mission becomes closer to genocide...
I don't really see your point there. What has them being more closely related to humanity anything to do with commiting genocide? Are you saying that it's fine (or, at least, less reprehensible) to eradicate non-human species?"

orson scott card details the ethics of this in the "enders game" series. lifeforms are give four levels of ethical consideration, I can't remember the first two, but at the bottom were "ramen" which unintentionally harmed humans and "varlese" which knowing harmed humans. so it was okay to kill varlse but not ramen
10. dackmont
You wrote:
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.
I don't believe Scott or any writer or director is portraying Aliens as a race of intelligent beings. We learn from Prometheus that they're more like "weapons of mass destruction", to quote Janek (Idris Elba). The only connection between Aliens and genocide is that The Engineers apparently use the former to accomplish the latter, for inscrutable reasons. Aliens are weapons with AI. Killing an one isn't murder; it's disarming a bomb. (Side nite: killing the Newborn in Alien Resurrection was like simultaneously disarming a bomb and killing a toddler -- pretty disturbing.)

Shaw's decision to visit the Engineers' homeworld is insane, given how things turned out when the Prometheus's crew tried to talk to the lone Engineer on LV -223. The Engineer showed nothing but contempt for humans, and nearly succeeded in his mission to destoy Earth (via Alien infestation). What is Shaw going to do, show up on Engineer homeworld and try to convert them all to Christianity? Inexplicable...

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