For Whom An Alien Heat Makes Festival, Part 5: PREDATORS and PROMETHEUS


Predators (2010):

What Predators and Prometheus have in common is that they’re the first of all these films since Alien to feature humans exploring a previously unknown planet. (And in both movies the explorers literally declare the planet “Hell.”)


What Predators and Prometheus also have in common is that they both represent attempts to reignite their respective franchises while ignoring the AVP films – yet neither quite succeeds in putting AVP behind it. I’ll discuss Prometheus’ debt to AVP below; in the meantime, here’s IMDB’s list of some of the ways in which Predators continues in the Alien/AVP tradition:

Even though this installment in the “Predator” franchise explicitly wanted to part with the crossover AvP story arc, it does contain at least three nods to the “Alien” franchise: – 1) at one point, while (obviously, given the movie’s universe) facing near-certain death, one character tells another “If the time comes, I’ll do us both”, a reference to Hicks’ almost identical line in Aliens, 2) when the group finds the body of an earlier victim of the antagonists, he has a large hole in his chest with the ribs bent outwards, referencing the way xenomorph young emerge from their host and the wound found on the “space jockey” in Alien, 3) as soon as Royce recovers from his parachute landing; as he looks around a music motif from Aliens can be heard and when the group enters the Predators camp there’s a brief view of an Alien skull on the ground. …

According to director Nimród Antal, the lower jaw attached to the mask of the Berzerker Predator is that of an alien from the Alien movie series. …

Alice Braga (who plays an Israeli soldier) is the third brunette actress who appears in the “Predator” series, following Elpidia Carrillo in Predator and Maria Conchita Alonso in Predator 2, while Sanaa Lathan played the female leader in AVP: Alien vs. Predator following Sigourney Weaver who played the female leader role in “Alien”

I would add: a) Predators has the Predators customarily hunting in groups of three, something that was established only in AVP (since previous movies featured solo Predators); b) the scene at the end where Royce and Isabel finally tell each other their names is a nod to a similar scene between Hicks and Ripley at the end of Aliens; and c) Robert Rodriguez, the film’s producer and screenwriter, has acknowledged that the title Predators is consciously modeled on Aliens. Moreover, there’s nothing in Predators that’s clearly inconsistent with the Alien and AVP films, nothing that rules out their all sharing the same universe. (If it matters.)

Alas, poor Yorick!

Alas, poor Yorick!

Predators is the best of the Predator movies. One of the main reasons for this is that it has the best characters and the best casting choices, with Adrien Brody, Laurence Fishburne, and Louis Ozawa Changchien (now there’s a multicultural name for you) being especially felicitous. (I’ve seen an inadvertently hilarious online interview clip about Predators where Rodriguez is saying “this group of killers” and the subtitles mistakenly render this as “the Scuba-Killers,” so that’s what I’ll call them.)

The film is not without its plot holes, however. For example, in order to identify a prisoner on death row and know what crime he’s committed, the Predators must be able to understand some human language (presumably English, since it’s an American prisoner). And we know from the previous films that the Predators can produce English words. (In Predator 2 a Predator does this with his mask off, seemingly establishing that they can produce human speech with their own voices, not just some sort of synthesier.) Yet both in this movie and in AVP, communication from Predator to human is done solely with hand signals. One might also cavil at the astronomically implausible sky, and the unexplained spinning leaf.

A few random notes:

Unlike the other films, there’s no real governmental or corporate perfidy in Predators (apart from the general critique of professional killers working for same), but they do go the Ash/Burke route of having one of their own (actually two, in a way) turn out to be a betrayer.

Fishburne’s character, Noland, wears Vietnam-era army duds and hums Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyrie,” thus permitting speculation that he might be the same person as Fishburne’s character Tyrone Miller in Apocalypse Now.

At one point Noland tells the Scuba-Killers: “They drop in fresh meat, hunt it, and kill it. In that order.” Well, of course in that order; what order was he expecting? (First kill, then hunt: Predators vs. Zombies?)

Royce’s “say goodbye to your little friend” is a nod to Scarface. (I can’t shake the worry that Noland’s split personality might have been introduced into the story solely in order to enable this punchline. I mean, this is a Rodriguez script, after all.)

You must have big rats ....

You must have big rats ….

By contrast with the other defeated Scuba-Killers, we never actually see Hanzo definitely dead, thus permitting speculation that he might return in a sequel.

Hanzo’s name is Rodriguez’s nod, in part to actual Japanese history, but primarily to his friend’s movie.

Hanzo’s remark about the age of the samurai sword makes me wonder why there haven’t been any Predator films set in premodern times. It wouldn’t be hard to turn Beowulf into a Predator story: Predator vs. Vikings!

There are deleted scenes available on the blu-ray but not the dvd, so I haven’t seen most of them, though I did find a few online. One was reminiscent of Clemens’ story in A3, though presumably differing in truth-value; another included a sexual proposition similar to one in Prometheus, but with a different result. The dvd includes three animated prequels, but they don’t add much; apparently there are more on the blu-ray.

Prometheus (2012):

So a team of archeologists financed by Weyland Industries is lured to an alien structure with ties to several ancient earth cultures – ties that enable the team to decipher the inscriptions. Old man Weyland, the CEO, is himself along for the trip, seriously ill, grappling with own mortality and seeking answers. The structure is apparently, but not actually, deserted, and is also highly automated. The team’s progress through the structure is displayed on a hologram. Within the structure, the team soon finds itself in the middle of a conflict between tall high-tech humanoid aliens and creepy-crawly xenomorphs that gestate inside other life forms; some characters are killed by the humanoids and others by the xenomorphs. Two minor characters, one friendly and one hostile, who initially haven’t gotten along, join forces inside the structure only to be killed early on. At the end the chief viewpoint character, a woman, is the sole surviving human, the last surviving humanoid alien having been killed a few minutes earlier. The second to last shot is an alien spaceship leaving the planet; the last shot is a new type of xenomorph bursting from the chest of the dead humanoid alien.


Is that the plot of AVP or ofPrometheus? Well, both – which, as I mentioned last time, makes Scott’s contemptuous dismissal of AVP rather churlish and ungrateful. Hell, Prometheus even follows AVP continuity by portraying AVP’s Weyland company as not yet merged with AVP:R’s Yutani company to form Alien’s Weyland-Yutani. (Scott’s official online timeline for Weyland Industries is certainly inconsistent with AVP, but then such online material is not actually part of the movie, so its canonicity is as up for grabs as everything else’s.)

Admittedly, Prometheus does it all better than AVP, with far more nuance and beauty. (Well, except for Weyland himself; AVP’s Charles Bishop Weyland is actually a more interesting and fully realised character than Prometheus’s Peter Weyland. But Prometheus beats AVP in every other respect, and of course is absolutely spectacular visually.)

Prometheus’s debts don’t end with AVP. The plot of Prometheus is so similar to that of Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness (which was, as you’ll recall, a major inspiration for AVP) that Guillermo del Toro has, alas, put on hold his plans for a movie version of the Lovecraft novel for fear of duplication. There are also similarities to Star Trek V (of course a much worse movie than Prometheus): a starship travels to a supposedly paradisiacal planet to meet God, and then there’s screaming and dying. And there’s at least one striking parallel with Scott’s earlier (and still superior) Blade Runner: in both movies, a human and an android pay a visit to the creator of one of them, who asks for more life from his creator – and doesn’t receive the answer he’s hoping for.

But the movie that’s the clearest model for Prometheus, apart from AVP, is (the likewise superior) 2001: A Space Odyssey. The opening shots of Earth from space behind the disk of the moon are extremely similar; then we see a scene from Earth’s prehistory, featuring alien intervention in human origins; then we jump to the near future, with scientists digging up an ancient alien artefact; next we jump several months later to a spaceship that is heading from Earth to another planet to investigate the artifact’s origin, with a human crew (some still in cryosleep and some not) and a soft-spoken, unreliable A.I. From there the plots diverge – one’s a monster movie, one isn’t, and the difference isn’t to Prometheus’s advantage – though they do both end with the birth of a new and unsettling lifeform.

Weyland logos

There are even some similarities in dialogue: Holloway asks Vickers, as HAL asked Bowman, whether there’s a secret agenda behind the mission, while David’s quasi-apology to Shaw is reminiscent of HAL’s telling Bowman – after killing most of the crew – “I know I’ve made some poor decisions recently, but I give you my assurance that my work will soon be back to normal.”

Much ink has been spilled (well, pixels, really) over the question whether Prometheus is a prequel to Alien. It may not be a prequel in the standard sense, but its connection to Alien is certainly stronger than just happening to take place in the same universe, with the same company and the same alien ships. Admittedly we never see the xenomorph until the end (and even then it’s not qute our xenomorph), but Scott teases us with the prospect of the xenomorph throughout the film, from the bas-relief sculpture of a xeno-queen, to the Engineers that seem to have died of xenomorph, to the critters that, if they aren’t classic “facehuggers,” are certainly in the same line of work. We even get the suggestion that humanity owes its life to the xenomorphs, since a xenomorph outbreak on their ship seems to be all that prevented the Engineers from completing their plan to deliver xenomorphs to Earth. And of course, even though they’re not the same Engineer, we now understand why, back in Alien, the pilot’s skeleton appeared to have grown into its chair. (Perhaps in the sequel it will turn out to be Shaw inside?)

I said above that nothing in Predators was inconsistent with the AVP films, leaving viewers free to regard them as canonical if they so choose. It’s less clear whether that’s true of Prometheus. There would be some awkwardness, though nothing insuperable, in its turning out that two unrelated alien races have been interfering with ancient human cultures (sometimes exactly the same cultures). The real question is whether xenomorphs have been around long enough for Predators to have been ferrying them to Earth since before the rise of Egypt. Some viewers think the critter at the end is supposed to be the first xenomorph, or an ancestor of the xenomorphs, but from the murals in the main chamber it’s clear that something xeno-queen-like has been around for a long time. Perhaps this will be settled in a sequel.

Counting xenomorphs on the wall, that don’t bother me at all

Counting xenomorphs on the wall, that don’t bother me at all

The chief question to be addressed in the sequel is why the Engineers first created us and then decided to destroy us (though David warns the crew that the answers might be disappointing). Some have suggested that the Engineers have turned against us because we’ve grown too technologically advanced and now pose a threat to them – but remember that their decision to wipe out humanity (if David has interpreted them correctly, and is telling the truth) was made two millennia ago. Scott had apparently flirted with the idea of Jesus’ being an emissary of the Engineers, and their change of mind being revenge for his crucifixion. That certainly would have given a different twist to Dillon’s apocalyptic faith in A3; but it doesn’t make much sense for the Engineers to say, “you refused to listen when we advised you to love and forgive your enemies, so now we’re going to go xenomorph on your ass.” Although Scott dropped the idea, we still have the ship arriving at Christmastime, and the business with Shaw’s cross, and the Biblical trope of a barren woman named Elizabeth being made miraculously pregnant, so a Christian theme of some sort is definitely in play.

How does the film’s story connect with the myth of Prometheus? It’s not clear. The Engineer who sacrifices himself at the beginning of the film seems to be introducing Engineer DNA into human DNA, and thus in effect bringing us fire; but there’s no sense that he acts with the other Engineers’ disapproval. The ship’s daring to come to LV-223 might represent human overreaching – except they were invited. The Engineer’s violent reaction to David might suggest that humans’ daring to become creators of life ourselves might be the offense (recall, too, that the subtitle of Frankenstein is The Modern Prometheus) – but again, that could hardly be what set the Engineers off 2000 years ago. There’s also an ongoing theme, voiced explicitly by both David and Vickers, of the desire to displace one’s parent/creator, but in their case the focus is Weyland; the humans didn’t come to LV-223 to displace the Engineers (though one can see the xenomorphs as taking on that role).

Don’t count on me, I Engineer

Don’t count on me, I Engineer

Prometheus has been hailed as a film that tackles philosophical and religious themes. Now science fiction is in fact an ideal medium for the exploration of such themes, since, like philosophy, sf takes as its field the boundaries of the possible, and not merely of the actual. Indeed, many of the traditional sf plots are likewise traditional philosophical thought-experiments: what if we could make ourselves invisible? what if our daily experience were merely a simulation? what if someone disassembled you and then reassembled the parts exactly as they’d been before? what if robots demanded rights? what if we could see our own future? what if there were no government? what if by torturing one innocent person you could make everyone else vastly better off?

It has to be said, however, that Prometheus’ engagement with philosophical issues is shallow and muddled. To begin with, the question of whether we were genetically engineered by aliens is a scientific question, not a philosophical one. (It also has nothing to do with the question of what happens when we die, a question with which it is inexplicably linked throughout the film.) The question of how our self-conception as humans should be affected if we were to discover that we were so engineered is a philosophical question; but the answer, surely, is “not much.” What we are and can be should matter more to our self-conception than what caused us to be as we are. The question “what is my purpose in life?” is not answered by inquiry into the purposes of one’s creators; if you find out that your parents deliberately conceived you in order to sell you into slavery, it doesn’t mean you ought to be a slave.

Now in fairness, it could be argued with some plausibility that this is precisely the point that the film is trying to make; hence David’s point about the Engineers’ answers to humanity being potentially as disappointing as humanity’s answers to him. But the question is never engaged; when, at the end, David asks Shaw why she’s so intent on finding the Engineers’ homeworld, she simply tells him he doesn’t understand because he’s a robot, and then zips him up in a bag. Admittedly she has good reasons for bearing David some hostility; but it’s hard to explore philosophical questions when, of your three main characters (Shaw, Vickers, David), the first two persistently refuse engagement with philosophical inquiry, while the third shows some interest but seldom speaks about it, and when he does he’s quickly dismissed (e.g. by Holloway and Shaw).

We also have the philosophic idiocy of Shaw’s worrying that she’s not fully human because she can’t bear children (though at least it’s subverted when she finds out being pregnant is not what it’s cracked up to be).

The film’s handling of religion is, if anything, even worse. Shaw is supposed to be a “woman of faith,” but her faith is never shown as having much content; and the film’s conception of faith is “choosing to believe,” which is not generally what faith means to actual believers. Moreover, in the real world you’re unlikely to win the support of top scientists and billionaire investors by telling them that you “choose to believe” that your project will succeed.

Another problem with the film is the incredible incompetence and disorganisation of the spaceship crew. First, they can’t seem to agree as to who’s in charge: Weyland says Shaw & Holloway are in charge, Vickers says she’s in charge, and many of the characters act as though they think Janek is in charge. Shouldn’t they sort this out before heading off to explore the Alien Labyrinth of Death? There were similar disagreements in Alien and Aliens, but they were much narrower in scope, and there were actual attempts to settle them.

Moreover, they can’t seem to keep track of where their fellow crew members are. When they get back to the ship on the first day, it takes an unconscionably long time for them to realise they’ve left two people behind. Also, apparently there’s no procedure for recording incoming transmissions from missing crewmembers when no one’s on duty to hear them live. (Not to mention the inexplicability of no one’s being on duty to hear them. Okay, so I totally understand abandoning one’s post to have sex with Charlize Theron, but why is there only one person on duty at night, when the ship is sitting on an unknown and potentially hostile planet? and why is it the captain, who also seems to be on duty during the day? and given that he’s the captain, why can’t he order someone to take over for him?) And how, on any well-run ship, can one hide an entire extra room, complete with an extra passenger, without the captain or most of the crew being aware of it?

A three-hour tour ...

A three-hour tour …

The most hopeless of all the crew, of course, are the two doofuses that, to nobody’s surprise, are the film’s first victims. It strains belief that on encountering their first extraterrestrial life, their reaction is to argue with each other as to whether it looks more male or female (the point seems moot, since what it looks like is a vagina at the end of a penis; of course the xenomorph itself, or at least its head, has sometimes been described that way, but this is … more so) while trying to pet it. Yes, people can be that stupid (every year, tourists at Yellowstone get gored as a result of trying to climb on top of bison – evidently on the theory that the bison look so calm and placid when you’re not trying to climb on them that they’re bound to be equally laidback when you are) but one doesn’t expect such idiocy from a hand-picked scientific expedition. (Didn’t Alien also feature a comic-relief duo? Yes, but not to the same extent; and Parker and Brett certainly never tried to pet the xenomorph.)

Of course the two doofuses aren’t the only idiots on the crew. What about Holloway, who removes his helmet merely because the alien chamber contains breathable air, with no concern about possible infections? And if you looked in the mirror and noticed you had tiny worms coming out of your eyes, would you mention it to anyone, or would you just head back happily to the alien site you were investigating yesterday?

There are other problems: Why would the Engineers speak the same language they spoke thousands of years ago (Proto-Indo-European, apparently)? That wouldn’t be a safe assumption in our own case. Revisiting the Hulk problem, but much more massively (literally), how did Shaw’s cthulhoid baby grow so huge while locked in the medlab? What is there for it to feed on in there? And why doesn’t David know the difference between “thesis” and “hypothesis”?

All previous Alien movies have, inter alia, two constants: Ripley, and a surprising android. (Ash was surprising because he turned out to be an android, and evil. Bishop was surprising because he turned out not to be evil. Then in A3, Bishop was surprising because he turned out to have an evil human creator or evil android brother, depending on whether you accept AVP as canonical. After that, Call was surprising because she turned out to be an android and a free-will agent. Notice, incidentally, that Scott has continued the extradiegetically alphabetical android naming convention from the previous films; notice, too, that they’re all names with religious connotations, for what it’s worth.) Prometheus has the most complex and enigmatic android yet, but no Ripley. In a sense, though, we might see Prometheus as splitting Ripley into two characters, Shaw and Vickers, in much the same way that a transporter accident once split Captain Kirk into two versions, one nice but weak and ineffective, the other forceful but sinister.

Admittedly that’s an overstatement. Shaw may not be forceful, but she’s determined, and far from weak; and while Vickers is no Ms. Congeniality, she’s not portrayed as evil (particularly by this series’ standards for corporate representatives) – indeed she made me wish Theron had gotten her wish to play Dagny Taggart. Her (eminently sensible) refusal to let contaminated crew members back onto the ship may make her seem unsympathetic, but remember that this is exactly what Ripley did in the first movie. Vickers might be said to represent Ripley’s hardass, skeptical, super-competent side, while Shaw represents Ripley’s gentler, less corporate, more honest, and frankly more courageous side.

Unfortunately, splitting these aspects of Ripley’s persona apart weakens both characters, particularly from a feminist standpoint: in Ripley’s stead we now have the unsympathetic “masculine” “bitch” and the naively trusting “feminine” “ditz.”

Moreover, I thought Noomi Rapace’s performance was substantially outshone by Fassbender’s and Theron’s. Now I haven’t yet seen the Swedish version of Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, but I’ve seen clips from it, and while I can’t imagine that her version of Lisbeth Salander could be better than Rooney Mara’s, it still looks pretty good, and has been well reviewed, so I know she’s capable of playing tough and edgy. Thus the flaw may well be in the character rather than the actress – but Shaw just struck me as a bit bland and boring. (Incidentally, Theron was initially cast as Shaw, which would have made a very different movie.)

The Vicker of Dibley

The Vicker of Dibley

The name “Elizabeth Shaw” is also associated (whether coincidentally or not, I’m not sure – though Scott is certainly familiar with the show, having originally been scheduled to design the Daleks, and what an alternative universe that would have been!) with a Doctor Who character – the first companion of the third Doctor, back in 1970. That Shaw (played by the late Caroline John) was a more skeptically-minded scientist than the one in Prometheus, but there are nevertheless some parallels: in the four stories she was in (note: more screentime than it may sound like, since those four stories were spread over 25 episodes), she was menaced by homicidal synthetic humans, deadly alien ambassadors, and two ill-fated drilling projects, one that awakens humanity’s intelligent prehuman precursors, and one that releases a force that transforms humans into belligerent monsters.

As with Hanzo in Predators, there’s been speculation that Vickers may be alive. Yes, we saw an alien starship fall on top of her, but we saw the same ship fall on Shaw, so who knows? Besides, if she’s not dead, who is the xenomorph from the last scene going to menace in the sequel? Unless we’re being shown events out of sequence (always a possibility: I’m sure some viewers of ESB thought two probes had landed on Hoth), Shaw and David have already taken off in the Engineers’ ship when the xenomorph hatches back on the planet.

There’s also been speculation that Vickers is an android, but I think that would be a bad idea: David would lose his distinctness, and his oddness of affect would be unexplained, given that Vickers doesn’t share it; Vickers’ resentment against her father’s preferring an android son to a human daughter would also lose much of its point. (Admittedly, though, if she’s an android it would be easier to sell her survival. And she does have a religiously-oriented name, if you spell it differently. And although her name begins with V rather than E, E is at least the Vth letter of the alphabet ….)

Shaw and David visit a head shop

Shaw and David visit a head shop

The character of David raises the most questions. To what extent is he following Weyland’s orders and to what extent is he acting on his own initiative? In particular, is his slipping Holloway the DNA cocktail driven by a) Weyland’s instructions to “try harder,” b) David’s resentment at Holloway’s calling him “not a real boy,” or c) David’s own quest for answers? If David takes Holloway’s answer to the question “how far would you be willing to go?” as validation for his own actions, does that mean he would have acted differently if Holloway had given a different answer?

Prometheus has its feminist themes, both in Weyland’s preferring his synthetic son to his real daughter, and in Shaw’s reprisal of A3’s refusal-of-motherhood theme, along with the medical device’s being programmed only for male patients. (This is also a class theme, since it’s really intended for just one male patient. But it does raise a loose end: what does Vickers think the machine is for? does she know it’s programmed only for men?)

The scene where the medical machine is used is incidentally one of the most memorable in the film. (And despite the superficial similarity, I don’t mean that in the same way that the maternity-ward scene is one of the most memorable in AVP:R; the AVP:R scene is just a cesspit of ugliness I can’t get out of my head, while the Prometheus scene, despite its likewise disturbing imagery, isn’t objectionable in the same way. Of course it helps that it’s a scene where the character is succeeding in taking control of her situation as best she can, rather than simply being gratuitously brutalised.) It certainly blows the scene with the New You machine from Logan’s Run out of the water.

The scene where Shaw attacks the medics is a nod to similar scenes with Ripley in the earlier films: a less violent one in A3, and an even more violent one in (the special edition of) Resurrection. David’s basketball shot is a nod to Ripley’s in Resurrection (which Weaver did perfectly on the first take). And in its ending narration, Prometheus echoes the ending narration of Alien, just as Aliens and A3 had.

Back in Part 1, I described Prometheus as one of the three most beautiful entries in the series. I’ll go farther: it is the most beautiful. Whatever its faults, the film is visually magnificent, with the opening footage of Iceland, the landing of the ship on LV-223, and the starmap inside the Engineer’s ship being standout examples. Its visual look and Fassbender’s performance are probably the two aspects of the film that will stay with viewers longest.

Wii the Living

Wii the Living

The blu-ray will reportedly feature 20-30 minutes of extra footage, including a scene where David goes into Weyland’s dreams to receive his orders. Weyland is a young man in his dreams, which explains why they cast a young guy in old makeup rather than an actual old guy.

Before the film opened, three shorts were released. The first one features actually-young Weyland telling the legend of Prometheus, as well as the match story from Lawrence of Arabia again. (I wonder whether rentals of Lawrence have spiked as a result of this film?) This clip may or may not be a clue to the meaning of the film, though Weyland’s description of the eagle’s tearing through Prometheus’s belly is naturally going to remind viewers of the xenomorph birth process:

In this short, featuring Shaw, notice the reference to Yutani:

Finally, the best of the lot is this ad for the David-type of android. Note that David is the 8th model, just as Ripley was in Resurrection:

2 Responses to For Whom An Alien Heat Makes Festival, Part 5: PREDATORS and PROMETHEUS

  1. Phil June 26, 2012 at 6:04 pm #

    There is another element from the previous Alien movies that I haven’t heard anyone else discuss: the stowaway.

    We see the fate of the Engineer, he’s brutally subdued by the hellspawn-facehugger and the Engineer-xeno emerges from his corpse. The poor engineer has a compatriot whose fate is not shown during the movie, the biologist who was assaulted by the worm-facehugger. Presumably a Human-xeno has emerged from his corpse and knowing how spaceship evacuations in this series go (Ripley’s escape pod, the backup drop ship, the Sulaco going into A3, the escape from the Auriga) I would put the odds of that xeno stowing away with Holloway and its appearance in Prometheus 2 at about 100%.


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