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Dancing on the Edge of a Blade (Runner): Prometheus & Hyper-Intertextuality

Prometheus arrived on blu ray last week. I’m a big fan of the movie, despite the palpable sense of disappointment generated on its arrival – I suspect that I was wise not to expect answers, and instead to enough the movie for what it was. I’m not alone in considering the film’s ties to Alien to be among its weakest elements, forcing the movie to tie into something that had been a massive movie mystery for decades, rather than allowing it to be its own thing. However, it has emerged that Ridley Scott apparently hoped the movie could go further than that. Reportedly, the director had hoped that it could serve as something akin to “connective tissue” to tie together two of his most definitive science-fiction universes. Apparently, the director wanted to set the film in the same world as Blade Runner.

To be fair, there’s already quite a strong connection to Blade Runner in Prometheus as it stands. The movie’s most compelling character, the android David, is at least as much Roy Batty as he is Ash or Bishop. His existential preoccupations and his struggles with his creators reflect the crisis facing the replicants from Scott’s cult masterpiece, forcing us to ask whether or not David is actually alive.

In Alien, the human characters were cold and so clearly cogs in a gigantic machine. The fact that the literally mechanical Ash could walk amongst them without raising any eyebrows probably said more about their standard of living than the quality of his programming. He wasn’t especially human, but none of his crew mates were, either. In contrast, David is has several moments where he seems almost human.

When David needs a subject for experimentation, he picks the member of the crew who has been bullying him. He considers his creator’s daughter something of a rival. He seems almost relieved when his “father” is murdered, after suggesting with Shaw that the death of one’s parents is necessary part of personal growth. In this respect, he seems more like the androids of Blade Runner, who often seemed far more human than any of the humans living in the Los Angeles of 2019.

However, this connection was implicit. It was hard not to think of Blade Runner while watching the film, to the point where Ridley Scott’s other science-fiction epic couldn’t help but inform the viewing of Prometheus. As such, it feels a little bit like over-kill to make the connection explicit, as if to grant that comparision legitimacy by suggesting the Weyland Corporation had merged with the Tyrell Corporation, or to allow Peter Weyland to comment on the shoddy manufacturing standards adopted by his cybernetic rivals. It has been rather astutely suggested that casting Guy Pierce as a young Peter Weyland in 2023 might allow him to appear in Ridley Scott’s upcoming Blade Runner sequels.

I can’t help but wonder if this recent preoccupation with intertextuality has spawned from the success of Marvel’s “shared universe” comic book movies, inviting viewers to imagine a sprawling alternate world where Iron Man, Thor and Captain America coexist and overlap. It seems like the idea is spreading. Kevin Costner has been hired to create a sense of continuity between Without Remorse and Jack Ryan, two spy stories with different leads – which seems odd given the “Jack Ryan” films have had difficulty maintaining even the same lead. Connecting Alien and Blade Runner probably makes sense to the powers that be, given the financial success of The Avengers.

That’s not to suggest that this sort of connection is a new thing. Indeed, the deservedly forgotten Soldier served as a “side-quel” to Blade Runner. Alien vs. Predator tied together two classic movie monsters. The classic Universal horror films all shared a loose continuity. Even in a more high-brow way, directors like Quentin Tarantino and Kevin Smith maintain a loose shared continuity between they films.

For example, Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds connects to True Romance and Reservoir Dogs is linked to Pulp Fiction. Smith had six-film long “View Askew” series featuring overlapping characters and themes. Tarantino even connected his Jackie Brown to Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight by casting Michael Keaton in the same role. So the notion of various seemingly independent movies existing in the same fictional space is not uncommon.

The problem here is that the connection feels forced – it feels like something that’s “cool” rather than soemthing that adds to the story. Anybody watching the film could see the obvious thematic links that Prometheus fostered between Alien and Blade Runner, but the nitty-gritty details of the connection seem a little too contrived and forced. Despite the fact that they take place int he future, they share the same outlook and there’s some manner of thematic overlap, Alien and Blade Runner are distinct science fiction films.

You would imagine that Weyland’s development of “David” would have been a bit of a sticking point if there had been a robotic rebellion in recent memory. After all, the regulations about robots seem pretty strict in 2019. You could argue that we never see David on Earth, or that the law could have been changed in the seventy years since. Still, you’d imagien there’d be a stronger stigma against robots.

The crew of the Prometheus don’t treat David as a potential weapon – they’re not scared of him in the way you’d imagine they would be had they grown up after a robotic uprising. They just see him as different, rather than potentially dangerous. Indeed, David is able to get away with so much because nobody seems to think he’s physically capable of causing serious harm. Even if his programming had been guarunteed, you’d assume there’d be some hesitancy to serve with a member of a sub-species that had been proven violent and autonomous.

The stories don’t fit into one another. The finer details don’t synch up. How can Weyland-Yutani, for example, be “the Company” in 2122 when Tyrell is around seems to be doing booming business in 2019. Again, it’s the kind of thing that’s easy to explain away. After all, the East Indian Trading Company has faded from memory a bit. (Although a modern company exists tracing it’s roots back to the old organisation, it’s hardly a global player.) It just seems like it takes a lot of contrivance to make the movies literally fit together.

And that, I think, was one of the problems with Prometheus. It suffered a bit from trying desperately to connect to Alien. The climax ended up with a proto-facehugger on top of everything else, as if to affirm to fans that yes, it definitely was a movie set in the same fictional universe. The plot had to take some strange detours to get there, and I suspect a lot of fans felt disappointed at how much the movie promised to connect to the original, only to wind up getting tangled in strange drawings and more graphically sexual monsters.

I can’t help but wonder if the movie might have been better received had it more firmly established its own identity, rather than simply trying to live in the shadow of its iconic older sibling. Adding another older sibling, one that casts just as large a shadow, hardly helps. Don’t get me wrong. I’m sure there’s a way to connect it and make it all make sense, but it just feels like it’s a lot of effort for minimal pay-off, a lot like some of the more awkward connections in Prometheus.

I’ve seen the film. I know it serves as an effective thematic union of Blade Runner and Alien. If nothing else, Prometheus borrows a lot of its existential questions about creation from Blade Runner, while combining them with Alien‘s bleak nihilism. That is a strong enough connection. We don’t need names dropped. We don’t need cameos. We don’t need in-jokes or sly references to reinforce an obvious thematic connection.

I don’t need the link between Prometheus, Alien and Blade Runner to be literal. Not every valuable conenction between films needs to be spelt out and woven into the tapestry of narrative. I’d argue that Kenneth Branagh’s Thor is more closely connected to Richard Donner’s Superman than it is to any of the other films it actually shares a continuity with. The mention of “Tyrell” does not grant Prometheus any more legitimacy as a companion piece to Blade Runner than it already had, and I think you could argue the need to make the connection explicit and literal betrays some measure of insecurity.

More than that, I think it distracts away from the strengths of Prometheus as its own distinct entity. I enjoyed the film because I approached it on its own terms. Treating it as a piece of jigsaw puzzle we didn’t know existed undermines that.

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4 Responses

  1. Just a brilliiant analysis. Thank you!

    • Thanks. I had a listen to Lindelof’s commentary last night, and he concedes that the connection in the finished product is thematic rather than literal – and I really like that. I think we tend to focus too much on nuts-and-bolts stuff, to the point that it distrtacts from the more inderesting stuff going on beneath.

  2. Nice article, think you’ve hit some very good points here. Im a literature student and in literature themes are often more important than the literal written word, I love films that try to do the same and its often sci-fi that does it best, although sometimes it can get lost on the mass markets. Thanks for the analysis, was thinking about doing something similar when I finally get my copy of Prometheus. In the mean time check out my article about some of Sir Ridleys more recent quotes.

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