One character in Prometheus sums up why Ridley Scott's return to his 1979 science fiction milestone is as refreshing as it is, in just two words. The protagonist in question is an android, arguably the first in the series since Aliens who’s more than an extension of the people who programmed him. Typically, androids are understood to be mental blank slates in the Alien films, so it makes sense that in Prometheus, David (Michael Fassbender) is treated as a tabula rasa. In fact, one character points this out late in Prometheus's plot, reminding him that he can't feel the emotions he professes to. So it's fitting that, when asked what his boss has communicated to him, David says: "Try harder."
Prometheus, more ambitious than any other Alien sequel, has an impressively massive scope, both literally and figuratively. The film's mammoth CG and concept art-heavy sets are matched only by its over-arching theological speculation. Of course, because Alien 3 and Alien: Resurrection both went through production hell, their stories are understandably incoherent. But even Aliens, James Cameron's perfectly adequate follow-up to Alien, has relatively staid aspirations.
The Alien franchise, up until Prometheus, delivered less and less of a payoff. This is most evident in the degrading of the relationship between three key figures in each film: the lead human protagonist (usually Ripley); the robot; and the Xenomorph. In Alien, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) was the last survivor of the Xenomorph's attack on the Nostromo. She manages to escape the hazards of A mission whose main directives are unclear to all but one of its crew members. Ash (Ian Holm) is the voice of "the company," a phrase over-used in the Alien movies to describe the Weyland-Yutani Corporation. The company's motives are hidden and in this case, immediately dangerous. The Xenomorph thus represents an idiosyncratically weird fusion of technology and primal sexual tension (holy freeholey, H.R. Giger, to what libidinal depths did you plunge to come up with that concept art)—as well as all the trauma and emotions the otherwise bloodless company has suppressed. So it stands to reason that Ash admires the perverse "perfect[ion]" of the Xenomorph's feral but chilly behavior. The Xenomorph is the monster that Ash wants to become but cannot, since he was made in his creators' image.
Ripley's relationship with the Xenomorph is similarly not personal. In Alien's futuristic office space, Ripley is just one grunt among many. For the longest time, she's not the lead protagonist, just a survivor, more a concept than a character. This is striking given who Ripley is presented as in the forthcoming sequels. Each time, she's treated as the reluctant host to the Xenomorph's parasite. In Aliens, the aging Ripley's ticking biological clock gives her nightmares about motherhood, including one in which an alien shoots out of her guts. Her relationship with Newt (Carrie Henn) is simple: she is the child that Ripley wants, but the Queen Xenomorph is blocking her. The aliens are thus once again extensions of Weyland-Yutani, but this time they ultimately represent the monster the company might gradually turn Ripley into.
The most complex character in Aliens is thus Bishop (Lance Henriksen), the one representative of Weyland-Yutani consistently portrayed as both an emissary of "the company" and an individual. In Alien, Weyland-Yutani employees only start to exist as individuals once they reject the mandates of their bosses. This is also true of David in Prometheus, who says that when his master dies, he "will be free." So it's refreshing to see that Bishop, at the end of Aliens, stands by Ripley and Newt in their final fight against the Queen. In that one moment, Bishop sets up the archetype that screenwriters Damon Lindelof and Jon Spaights will follow for David in Prometheus. Bishop's nature as a more human-like model is apparent in his lack of interest in the Xenomorphs. He, like Ripley, is there to save lives. The mission that he's on is thus not one that sympathetically associates him with the Xenomorphs. Instead, it's assumed that Bishop is trying to be, as the saying goes, "just one of the guys," a point succinctly illustrated during the famous knife trick scene.
Unfortunately, the next two sequels only perpetuate the more psychologically lacking aspects of the franchise. In Alien 3, Ripley grapples with her nascent feelings of survivor's guilt on a prison planet full of convicted murderers and rapists, some of whom have reformed. Ripley relates with the prisoners, all of whom are at least nominally atoning for their crimes. But that identification inexplicably makes the alien the cause of Ripley's feelings of impotence: in her head, the Xenomorph’s survival is her responsibility and her fault. That theme is never fully explored but it's assumed that Ripley, who tries to get a prisoner to help her kill herself before she (and the alien she will soon give birth to) cause further damage, feels responsible for the Xenomorphs. Her death at the end of Alien 3 is not cathartic, however, because it's a drastic reduction of Alien's themes to a surreal fight between a specific character and a world-ending monster.
Furthermore, the man who created Bishop returns in the last scene of Alien 3, predictably representing Weyland-Yutani's psychopathic interest in studying and profiting from the Xenomorphs. Ripley briefly revives the robo-carcass of Bishop earlier on—meaning the Bishop android that was pretty much destroyed by the Queen at the end of Aliens. But Bishop's human creator's random appearance at the film’s conclusion is as good a sign as any of how un-nuanced that film's portrayal of "the company" and its androids have become.
That being said, Alien: Resurrection, a consistently entertaining but often ridiculous and mostly brain-dead sequel, is even more unambitious. The film starts with a heady theme: what does a post-Ripley Alien movie look like? Ripley's clone is the film's main heroine, once again restructuring the “Alien film” as a personal fight between her and the Xenomorph: ironic, given that the film's main theme is supposed to be evolution and the way that time has changed things. The Xenomorph may have transformed into a weird human-alien hybrid called a "Newborn" by film's end, and the robot Ripley deals with may be a lady (Winona Ryder), in fact. But there's nothing to suggest that anything that Ripley's relationship with these emblematic characters has grown or drastically changed from what we've seen in the last three films. Call (Ryder) is a sympathetic companion and is defined as an individual throughout Alien: Resurrection. There are thus no substantial stakes in her relationship with Ripley. And the Newborn is still just a dangling thread that Ripley has to get rid of so she can die easily. Call also has no real fascination with, or even strong hate for, the Xenomorphs or the Newborn. She just wants to kill the monster and not "die."
This thankfully brings us back to Prometheus, a film that finally builds on the foundation that Scott built with screenwriters Dan O'Bannon and Ronald Shusett. Scientist Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) is circumstantially different than Ripley: she gets in over her head in her quest for answers. Shaw's actively searching for the unknown, unlike Ripley, who just happened to stumble upon it. Shaw is thus guided by the same impulses as David, a character who embodies a potentially pure drive towards scientific exploration. David is only corrupt because his master is corrupt. The deaths of a couple of other characters in the film suggest that Prometheus has a naive but intriguingly moralistic through-line: discovery for flawed reasons is dismissed.
Unlike some other characters, Shaw has no ulterior motives. She genuinely wants to see, do and learn more than anyone else on the Prometheus, the ship that has replaced the Nostromo. The aliens in Prometheus, called Engineers, are the tantalizingly close realization of Shaw's search but ultimately, her encounter with them is not what it could be. She does not learn anything from that originally wanted to. The aliens that Shaw encounters have no answers for her, leaving her right where she started at the film’s beginning.
That having been said, there is a serious danger inherent in these creatures, made clear when David suggests that the Engineers may have just made humans for the same reason man made androids: "because [they] could." But at the same time, there's a romance to David's actions. He idolizes the Engineers, and calls them "a superior race." But he also admires Peter O'Toole's Lawrence of Lawrence of Arabia, even going so far as to dye his hair an Aryan blond to match his messianic hero. David stands in awe of the Engineers and gets to "live" ultimately because he has that drive to learn and do more to learn about Prometheus' aliens.
By film's end, David and Shaw choose to continue their search for answers to big questions. And while that resolution's thematic bottom line is fairly simplistic, it's also what makes Prometheus's conclusion the second most satisfying in the series. To dream, to continue to strive for something greater than yourself and, yes, to try harder, in the face of the horrifying and the cruel is a very noble thing.
Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in The Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, The New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, Extended Cut.