I resent the desire of modern directors to retread old ideas and give them two dimensional back stories (Batman, the Marvel comics, Star Trek etc). In some cases, the result is prosaic but in others is does real damage to the power of the original. One of the great things about the Alien is, well, its alieness. It’s terrifying because we can’t understand it and it inverts our understanding of nature (which usually places us at the top of the food chain). Explain too much and the threat becomes easier to understand and, potentially, to control.
It’s surely no coincidence that the Alien cycle dominated the screen in the late 70s to early 90s, the golden age for schlock. The Aliens shared something in common with that other great monster of the era, the zombie. Like the Alien, the zombie had no personality; there was no twirling moustache or vampiric charm. It was an unstoppable force that couldn’t be negotiated with - an apt evil for a period defined by urban terrorism, AIDS or the Viet Cong.
Back in the time of I Walked With a Zombie (1943), the zombies weren’t the real villain. They were usually controlled by a mastermind who wanted to exploit them for cheap labour. But when George A Romero released Night of the Living Dead (1968), they became independent entities and the focus of the story. The zombie as imagined by Romero is a revolutionary being. It is neither good nor evil but instead following an agenda that smacks of historical determinism: the zombie will bite you, you will die, you will become a zombie (“When the revolution comes, we will all eat caviar!”).
There’s no escaping the revolution, you can only hide or succumb. A good parallel is found in Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), in which anyone who falls asleep wakes up reborn as an alien entity. The zombie and the body snatcher movies are nihilistic from the heroes’ point of view because they can’t win. But the movies aren’t necessarily pessimistic from the audience’s point of view because neither director casts their agents of doom as explicitly evil. The body snatchers want everyone to be equal and peace among all nations; the zombie want everybody to be eaten. They are an amoral part of nature - just like the Alien that suckers onto John Hurt’s face and lays its egg in his belly ("At least buy me dinner first...")
The greatest statement on this topic was Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978). His heroes escape the zombies by locking themselves up in a mall and, at first, our sympathy is squarely with the humans. But as we see them bicker and slip into a parody of consumer culture (they go “shopping” and fill their hiding space with the latest fashions and electronics) we begin to lose sympathy. By the time a few months have past and the zombies are still relentlessly throwing themselves against the glass windows of the mall, we start to ask why the humans don’t just unlock the doors and surrender to the inevitable. One of them awakes from a nightmare to find herself “escaping” in a helicopter. But there is no escape, for the world is gone. In the 2004 remake, the humans reach an island that looks like a paradise - until they see hundreds of zombies running down the beach towards them. The scene is reminiscent of a Saturday night in Majorca.
Romero went too political with his 1985 Day of the Dead. That movie features a military squad hiding underground while the zombies rule the world above. As they debate what to do with the undead, the director heavily signposts his sympathy for the zombies. Romero’s liberalism got the better of him. By the time of Land of the Dead (2005), the zombies now have personalities and the movie concludes that dead and living can live side by side. This ending betrays Romero’s original vision; the zombies evolve from a metaphor for ceaseless evolutionary change into a rational political force like the IRA. I don’t buy it.
Does the same happen to the Alien in Prometheus? I don’t know yet and I’d appreciate it if readers don’t email or Tweet the answer, but I’ll be disappointed if there’s something human about their origin. Personally, I’ve always shared the view of the monster articulated by crewmember Ash from the first movie: “I admire its purity: A survivor, unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.” Ash could be describing himself, for he is shown to have a duty to the corporation that goes beyond any loyalty he should have to the people who have presented themselves to him as friends. But then Ash, too, is another revolutionary stage in evolution. If the Alien bursting from John Hurt’s chest is the movie’s first surprise, the second (and maybe bigger one) is the fact that Ash is revealed to be a “Goddam robot.” Here is another organism that will surpass us - inevitably.