Unlike my review of Prometheus, this post will have considerable amounts of spoilers.
I think it’s the hallmark of a good film that it will leave you thinking about it well after you’ve left the theater. This isn’t to say that a film that gives you a self-contained experience is necessarily bad, but the ones that inspire thought tend to be the better ones. This is ultimately what led me to give Prometheus three stars rather than two and a half.
Specifically, I’ve been thinking (in the three hours since the film ended) about how the film connects to the Alien franchise, but most specifically the first film in the series, 1979’s Alien. The image above is of a strange alien creature that the crew of the Nostromo found in the film, one which fans of the film have come to call a “space jockey”. When Ridley Scott announced Prometheus initially as an Alien prequel, very few of us believed the film would explore their mythology rather than the mythology of the xenomorphs, the titular alien and the iconic creature that is so ubiquitous today.
However, Prometheus has demonstrated that this is a far more satisfying way to build up the events of Alien. In telling this story, they answer a considerable number of lingering questions without ruining the air of mystery that surrounds the initial film. Nevertheless, there are two points of connection that I have been pondering, and I will discuss them separately below.
1. The Intent of the Engineers
The space jockeys are called Engineers in Prometheus, and it’s a name that fits pretty well given what we’ve seen. The buried derelict ship in Prometheus was filled with a biological weapon, the mutagenic black tar (since it wasn’t given a name, I’m going to call it black tar throughout this post), and poised to strike Earth. The film suggests that this was to wipe out all life on Earth so that the Engineers could recreate life there.
But there are a few questions I have about this.
The first comes from that bizarre opening scene. We see a lone Engineer remaining behind on an unidentified planet as a ship flies off, out of the atmosphere. The Engineer opens a container and drinks the fluid within, which is later understood to be the black tar. He then rapidly disintegrates, the mutagen destroying his DNA, and falling into the water.
It’s an intriguing scene that is never quite explained. What exactly is the result of this? Why did the Engineer drink the black tar? What planet is it on?
I’ve seen a number of theories, and the one that I like the most – not necessarily the most likely – is that the tar mutated his DNA and formed the beginning of the human race (thus placing the scene on Earth). Given the film’s heavy implications that the Engineers gave birth to humans, and a running theme of heroic sacrifice, it makes some bit of sense. The disconnect with this theory is that the black tar behaves very differently during the rest of the film, and is related heavily to the xenomorphs (or at the very least a forerunner to the xenomorphs). So that’s not entirely likely, but it fits thematically and ideally.
Another theory I’ve seen is that the Engineers didn’t know what the black tar would do. This one I like less, because it introduces the plot hole of why in the ever loving hell did he drink the stuff? I didn’t really entertain this thought for very long for that reason. It also brings up a few problems later on, such as why the Engineers would stockpile the stuff with apparent intent to weaponize it.
So let’s stick with the first assumption. The Engineers knowingly create the human race by subjecting one of their own to genetic mutation, and then leave the planet. Flash forward a long period of time to 2090 or so. Engineers have changed their mind. The black tar serves as a pretty useful biological weapon, as it is implied that even a single drop, such as the one David slips into Holloway’s drink, can devastate an entire ecosystem by birthing strange squid creatures (similar to Facehuggers) which then use hosts to birth Deacons (the proto-xenomorph seen at the end of the film). For some reason, they’ve changed their mind and want to level Earth – Captain Ianek suggests it is because they wish to recreate life, to try again, so to speak. Whatever the reason, we’ll find out in the inevitable Prometheus 2. They have ships other than the one destroyed here, as Shaw flies off in one of those others. Eventually, one of those other ships becomes the derelict we find in Alien.
I am reasonably satisfied by this explanation for the origins, purpose, and methods of the Engineers. I’ll be interested to see where Scott takes their story in the sequels, which he has expressed an interest in directing.
2. Black Tar and Xenomorphs
The xenomorphs are such an iconic fixture in science fiction that I cannot imagine how staggering their influence truly is. One of the things I’ve always loved about them is that they appear to have no real purpose other than to destroy. They aren’t particularly methodical or ambitious; they’re simply destructive murder-beasts. And that’s wonderful!
So, my question here lies in their apparent connection to the black tar. It’s not at all subtle that the creatures that appear to arise out of the black tar (whether they are bits of organic matter mutated by the tar, or somehow made OF the tar, is uncertain) are very suggestive of the xenomorph’s life cycle, particularly the facehuggers. Shaw’s baby is further indicative of this, especially given its implantation of the Deacon into the surviving Engineer.
Now, there is a slight issue with this apparent connection. While I think the film would have us believe that the Deacon is the progenitor of the xenomorphs, it has been established in the film canon that the xenomorphs have been around for much longer than 30 years before the crew of the Nostromo discovers the eggs. Specifically, 2004’s Alien vs. Predator has xenomorphs existing as long, if not longer, than humans themselves. While I think Prometheus meshes particularly well with Alien vs. Predator‘s mess of a story – with the Engineers creating the humans and finding the xenomorphs on Earth being a plausible discovery story – there is the implication within Prometheus that AVP is non-canon.
That implication comes from the disparity between the Weyland Corporation and Weyland Industries. In Prometheus, the former was founded by Peter Weyland, who appears in the film. In AVP, the latter was founded by Charles Bishop Weyland, who eventually was the model for the android Bishop in Aliens. The conflicting backgrounds for the Weyland-Yutani corporation in the Alien series seem to indicate that Prometheus is meant to be a prequel SOLELY to Alien, disregarding the canon of the other films.
So what does this mean for the xenomorphs? Well, while we got to see more of the xenomorph life cycle in Aliens with the introduction of the Queen (and then further in Alien 3), the original Alien made no indications how the eggs were created. It’s very possible that the xenomorphs were thus created by this black tar substance as seen in the film. The Deacon seen in the end of the film is very different from the typical xenomorphs we’ve seen, though if we assume that Scott has borrowed some elements from later Alien films, it’s plausible that this difference is due in part to the different host. The xenomorph in Alien was bred in a human host, whereas this Deacon was bred in an Engineer host. Further, this Deacon is the progenitor – there are still 30 years of evolution, which appears to be accelerated by this black tar, at least for the xenomorphs, until the time of Alien.
It’s therefore most plausible that a combination of further exposure to the black tar and rapid evolution (given the rapid growth of the xenomorph, from birth to fully grown in two hours, it makes sense that their evolution will also be much faster and occur over fewer generations) will eventually give rise to the xenomorphs as seen in Alien. There remains one inconsistency though…
How do the Engineers get a ship full of xenomorph eggs?
It’s implied that the Engineers have survived in some form, as Ianek speculates that the Engineers were intelligent enough to build bio-weapons of mass destruction on an installation that wasn’t their home planet. That seems to be where Shaw is going at the end of the film. But the Deacon is on the moon – how do the Engineers, which appear to be dead on the moon, find and cultivate a brand new biological weapon in 30 years? The timeline just seems far to patchy to work very well.
But we’ll see – it’s rare that a film makes me think this much about its implications, and I’m very excited to see where Scott goes with Prometheus 2 and how he connects it to the masterpiece that is Alien.