Ridley Scott’s return to Alien obsesses over dichotomies. Creation and destruction. The divine and the profane. Fascination and revulsion, especially. Prometheus offers a scenario where a bunch of scientists are bankrolled by a wizened, terminally-ill billionaire to blast off into the stars for answers to humanity’s most existential questions, only to find a tomb of horrors. The Engineers–the eight foot tall, paste-white men sought out by the explorers–are found to be endless, tinkering monsters; their entire culture built out of mechanizing and weaponizing organic matter. Their crowning achievement: a black goo which breaks down and reconstructs tissue for maximum predation. A grand, temple-like room with a sculpted head (presumably, their leader) is devoted to housing the stuff. The human children who have come seeking them, however, are superfluous, placeholders for raw genetic material to be harvested and disposed.
Though the script stubbornly insists on Noomi Rapace’s Shaw as the lead, she is stock and uninteresting compared to duplicitous robotic servant David (Michael Fassbender). Shaw never rises above assigned traits: her Christianity, rather than complementing the quest, exists only in her cross necklace and the throwaway line “It’s what I choose to believe” (referencing the Engineers); a revelation about her infertility is handled with clumsy melodrama. At least the latter pays off in a sequence where Shaw discovers she was impregnated with an alien squid and has to abort the fetus, but it’s a moment squeezed between a separate mutant attack and a nonsensical plot twist.
David, meanwhile, exhibits the polarizing duality Prometheus aims for. His attempts to be more like (and closer to, as shown in his obsession with Shaw) his human creators are countered with the passive-aggressive contempt he displays for how they belittle him (most pointedly when Shaw’s husband Holloway says he’s “not a real boy”). These fixations drive David and, in turn, the plot while the humans dither: the robot introduces the black goo into the crew and, later, seeks out a lifeform reading everyone else casually dismisses. There, he finds a massive navigation room, activating a holographic star map in a sequence as big and bold as anything in Close Encounters of the Third Kind or 2001: A Space Odyssey. Scott seems to cherish these little asides, hinting at a generational conflict having exploded into cosmic scale. The overall shape of the film crumbles, moving too fast with too many moving parts, but there’s an admirable earnestness in trying to drag audiences back to the moment in Alien when the camera zoomed on the fossilized skull of a long-dead alien giant.
The most alarming thing for most of Alien‘s runtime is its stillness. Whether in the claustrophobic, geometrically-shaped industrial corridors of the supermassive space trawler Nostromo, or the fossilized, vaginal caverns of the derelict, Ridley Scott opts for glacial tracks and pans. He wants you to pay attention to every detail, every line in the intricately constructed sets. The environments–the two gargantuan vessels, the planetoid, space itself–aren’t dressing, they loom over everything. Even when events spiral into a delirious mad dash to escape, bathed in primary color lights and steam, Scott keeps us steadily gazing. These are inherently frightening places, unfit for human beings. The crew, particularly Sigourney Weaver’s no-nonsense survivor Ripley, gradually come to understand this. Not only is one of their crew infected, birthing a monster that stalks them, but they’ve been railroaded into their predicament by duplicitous A.I. and a robotic snitch, acting at the behest of amorphous corporate masters.
In that regard, the alien is the perfect metaphor for the exploitation at play here: a drooling, insectoid rapist with a metallic body, perfectly camouflaged to the mechanized hellhole its prey is trapped in. It’s also patient, observing the panicked humans before striking from the darkness to either brutalize, violate, and/or abscond with them. The way the Nostromo becomes slick with humidity, and the crew in a near-constant state of perspiration–harking back to the moment John Hurt’s ill-fated Kane comments on the derelict being tropical–there’s also an implication (outside of the famously deleted “cocoon” scene) the creature is fashioning a new home for itself. Like the company, it views the humans already occupying these spaces as property to lay claim to. Grist for its own expansion, or brood mothers fit only to birth future offspring. The methodology might be uncanny and gruesome, but the more we gaze, the more eerily familiar the alien’s behavior becomes.
Being presumed dead and stranded on Mars sounds pretty dire. Thankfully, Matt Damon shrugs it off and gets to work. In The Martian, Damon plays Mark Watney, a botanist with the personality of a middle manager attempting to be one of the boys. He responds to crises with annoyance (and some PG-13 friendly cursing) or stiff attempts at glib one-liners which belie a sense of humor which could only be funny to the guy who wrote Cloverfield. For the most part, he doesn’t seem to mind being the only person on a planet, figuring out how to grow potatoes, occasionally sitting and enjoying a Martian sunset. Ridley Scott directs the film with the relentless momentum of a procedural, attempting an instructional quality on how to survive spacesuit decompression or rescue someone from a planet. The film quickly spreads out to a network of physicists, astronauts, engineers, contractors, and bureaucrats working towards a goal, as much motivated by what will make them look good as saving a comrade. Upsets in carefully arranged plans are rarely dwelt on, solutions fast to arrive. Triumph is almost a given, rather than hard-won through ordeal. At the very least, Scott has made the best possible Ron Howard movie.