Ridley Scott’s 1979 Alien was the most ingenious fright show of its era and the source of spinoffs upon spinoffs. Although his new film, Prometheus, is something of a prequel to Alien, the elements of body-invading and body-devouring horror that Alien orchestrated with such precision are here made to figure in a narrative of more grandiose ambitions, extending as far as the source and ultimate purpose of human life. That is not meant as a criticism. Grandiosity is as essential to this genre as to a verse drama by Victor Hugo or an opera by Giacomo Meyerbeer. Just as essential is the herding together of stock elements from previous ventures, as if one could not go beyond one’s predecessors without literally incorporating their materials.
But what is this genre? Call it the speculative science-fiction epic willing to flirt with cosmic pessimism; the eternally recurring saga of the space voyage toward our point of origin or ultimate destiny (they generally turn out to be pretty much identical); the drama of metamorphosis in which animals become human and humans become machines; the proleptic chronicle of a future depicted as so endangered it may not even come to pass, and so unappealing we might well wish it wouldn’t.
This in its various cinematic permutations constitutes our theater of dread, cunningly disguised as a game; our stab at a commercially viable form of Wagnerian sublimity: The Twilight of the Humans, an existential cosmic opera-in-progress sketched out in the 1950s in Forbidden Planet and the BBC television serial Quatermass and the Pit, ennobled by Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Tarkovsky’s Solaris, and continually reconfigured ever since. Every attempt to exhaust the form simply engenders more offshoots, much like the alien life-forms that proliferate in the black corridors of Prometheus.
There is of course a written literature that predates and underlies all these movies, which could hardly have found their form without the help of H.P. Lovecraft and Arthur C. Clarke and Philip K. Dick (not to mention the foundational assistance of H.G. Wells and Olaf Stapledon). There is even an epic poem, Harry Martinson’s Aniara, an absurdist vision of life aboard a rocket ship permanently lost in space, that in 1958 was turned into a twelve-tone opera by Karl-Birger Blomdahl. But it is in the form of movies that this mythology becomes part of the furniture of our world, to which we turn as one might to a prayer rug or a Ouija board, in an effort to make contact with the unknowable.
It’s where the Romantic sublime went to die, as Scott establishes with the series of exquisitely abstracted fragments of Icelandic landscape that start the proceedings. Into those cascading northern waters—what better archetype, or stereotype, of purity could be found than that?—a bleached and gigantic outer-space visitor …