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Outlier Love: Enjoying Prometheus/Covenant in the Shadow of Aliens

This longread explores one fan's undying warmth for Prometheus and Alien: Covenant despite being trapped in Aliens' shadow. Those who champion Aliens wear it on their collective sleeves. The point of this article isn't to disallow that; it's to give voice to the abuse and ridicule I've suffered over the years.  I like Prometheus* and Covenant. That statement probably just alienated me from a large group of fans—essentially those in the Aliens camp. And honestly as much as I enjoy Aliens, the movie is far from perfect. 

*Here's me from eight years ago, wearing an Eric Draven costume and interviewing a member of Steam Powered Giraffe about Prometheus.

I also created my own fan edit for
Prometheus called "Maculate Conception." It was a complete overhaul of the film, editing out material, rerouting scenes, and swapping the the original OST for music from 1970s and '80s horror movies. This was a lot of work, and you can read about the entire project in this post. Also, clips of the fan edit (and links to the full version) are available on my website. You can access the original changelog in its entirety on FanEdit.org

Fan abuse isn't always direct or overt, but it is ubiquitous. During a livestream, the Game Grumps are giving their opinions about Prometheus and Covenant. Both of them say the films "aren't good." One comments on Dark Horse and its literal interpretation of "space elephants" for the Space Jockeys; then, how Scott's human appearance for the famous monsters didn't interest them. From there, they state their dislike for Covenant, and proceed to make a joke out of the central character, David "double robo-milk" Fassbender. 

Sure, it's all rather silly. And it's hardly a direct attack against me. All the same, the perennial, unquestioned hate gets rather old. It's so commonplace that two (admittedly rather famous) chaps on the internet are roasting Scott's movies while playing Hollow Knight. As one does. They're not burning Scott at the stake; they're "just saying." As if everyone's going to agree with them. And a large number undoubtedly will. Not I. Sure, I like Dark Horse, but Scott's humanist ideas belong to my profession. I care about this stuff, and on multiple levels. 

Even so, am I just pulling ideas out of thin air when I observe the larger conversation the Grump's dialog belongs to? Let's find out.

As an academic, consumer and independent researcher, I've invested considerable time and thought into such material, having written about Aliens in the past, but also its colonial effect on the media that followed. So when I respond to negative feedback regarding Prometheus and Covenant, I'm also recognizing that the person in question probably prefers Aliens, but also media inspired by Aliens

Though second in the franchise, Aliens is undoubtedly the flagship. The movie has inspired many spiritual successors. These tend to be hawkish, and loved for their gun-propelled violence (with varying degrees of seriousness and camp). Few developers use the FPS (first-person shooter) as a straight recruiting tool (re: American's Army), but many champion the one-man army laying waste to droves of enemy combatants. Just like Ripley. 

Before Aliens there was Star Wars. Lucas' original trilogy championed armed resistance against imperial colonizers by modeling the rebels after the Vietcong. Unfortunately Aliens' own Vietnam war allegory is far more ambiguous. Ellen Ripley becomes Rambo, slaying droves of alien creatures single-handedly (Cameron wrote the  original screenplay for Rambo: First Blood Part II  before handing it off to Sylvester Stallone). The aliens aren't even remotely humanized. Instead, the movie's dramatic elements focus on Ripley's surrogate motherhood. She eradicates the aliens to save Newt, all thanks to Cameron's "neutral" critical lens.

And when I say eradicate, I mean it. "I say we take off and nuke the site from orbit" isn't just a memorable quote; it's also Ripley channeling the spirit of the American occupiers. Leave; bomb the Commies on your way out. JFK wasn't keen on dropping bombs, but authorized the use of agent orange. Johnson loved his bombs; so did Nixon, but he banned agent orange. These ambivalent, indiscriminate attacks harmed the indigenous population. Aliens could have channeled civilian warfare like the Tet Offensive by having the xenomorphs resemble the former colonists. Instead, a bug is just a bug. With nothing human to stall her advance, Ripley unironically massacres the colonized; like Vietnam, Hadley's Hope becomes a shooting galley. In this respect, Aliens is quite literally xenophobic propaganda.

Not convinced? Consider Aliens' literary influences: Sigourney Weaver cites Henry V as the inspiration for Ripley—a play about the reification of an English monarch through war ("Once more unto to breach, dear friends"). During Aliens' production, the entire cast also had to read Starship Troopers, a novel criticized for its propaganda-level glorification of the military. In other words, the critical slant, if there is one, is too neutral to effectively criticize the industrial-war machine. Do you speak out and risk being attacked for your politics (Good Morning Vietnam)? Or do you play it "straight," vitalizing the military to mollify hawkish critics (see: Starship Troopers—the book or the movie)? The second message is pure allegory, hidden behind larger, louder themes.

Aliens has the latter problem, one it's propelled into future movies and videogames: "This time it's war," the trailer announced. Cameron himself wasn't above pandering to both sides, openly apologizing to the United States Marine Corps. for his unglamorous depiction of the military (see: his commentary track for Aliens in the Alien Quadrilogy edition). Cameron's concession only muddies the waters further, as do future attempts by him to generate money through the energetic depiction of war (re: Avatar).

Guns are a big selling point for Aliens. This same concept applies to Cameron's own franchise, The Terminator. To be fair, Terminator is far more critical of war (and rogue police states) than Aliens. Nevertheless, the movie still has a lot of guns in it. Some audience members even view Cameron's "future war" as a glorious, nostalgic playground. Angry Joe, a right-leaning gamer, belligerently clamors for the "purple lasers!" (and loves his Aliens paraphernalia). Mr. H Reviews drools over Tech-com's faithful 1980s tableaux, while condemning feminists for ruining the franchise with Terminator Dark Fate. Their combined approval of "future war" and Aliens-inspired media isn't a shock. But neither are the sexist, warlike attitudes they sneak in under the veneer of "neutral" entertainment.

Though left-leaning myself, I can still delight in Cameron's artistic craft. I like purple lasers and big explosions; they're pretty and visually stimulating. But honestly I enjoy them more when combined with Cameron's Gothic elements: his Romance between Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese; his dark mirror with Ellen Ripley versus the Queen. Unfortunately those situations are shrouded by war. Maybe that's the point: Gothic stories both fear and promote the return of a barbaric past, including war. War and guns are popular in America. So is Aliens which, moving forward, makes war and guns popular again. And again, and again...

I'm an American. Any declaration from me—that I enjoy Terminator or Aliens—feels like it must be clarified. Fans of the "good" Alien movies (the first two in particular) usually don't clarify anything. When I was in my mid-20s, I worked at my family's (now defunct) store. A banker would come down and talk movies with my mother and I. We got to talking about the Alien franchise. Suddenly he announced "Oh, Aliens is the best one!" before looking at me and smiling in mild, veiled provocation. He didn't say why. He didn't have to.

I heard the same thing in high school. Mike Worthington and I loved Alien and Aliens. We asked Mrs. Brown if we could show both movies in her science fiction class. She allowed it. After watching them, a popular, somewhat artsy student in a Greenday t-shirt declared, "It's stupid." He was talking about Alien. Our classmates chorused in agreement, saying that Aliens "was awesome" because it had guns.

The same kind of people say that Prometheus is "bad," usually implying blame towards Scott for his "Quixotic" departure from Cameron's reliable monopoly. They also provide double-standards—dumb scientists, plot holes, ropy dialogue—to justify their reasons. I say "double standards" because these reasons are not missing in the original pairing. More to the point, Alien and Aliens are generally considered "good" for oft-repeated, but understated reasons. "Good" usually means Aliens, primarily its guns. 

The presence of war in Aliens is so ubiquitous that it usually goes without saying. It should be commented on, but isn't because so many in the mainstream view it as "classic," default, normal. Alien is classic too, but Aliens carries the American torch through its glorification of war. For nearly its entire existence, America has been at war, or made money as a "neutral" party selling guns to either side. Manifest destiny aka a "clear fate." The "no fate" spiel from T2 suddenly sounds a little ironic, especially when compared to Ripley's heroism in Aliens. Cameron says he uses violence to make a point. Perhaps people understand violence; they also glorify it, perpetuating war through their own creations. 

The lengthy shadow of war applies to videogames inspired by AliensAliens single-handedly cemented the FPS genre, inspiring id to make Doom. It also spawned a number of cinematic or cinematic-inspired imitators: Predator, as well as Metroid and Contra. And not just them, but numerous sequels and spin-offs. The best ones are constantly explosive, action-packed (though I prefer mine with a bit of spooky atmosphere and tension; re: Super Metroid, Dead Space, Alien: Isolation).

Make no mistake, I'm indebted to Aliens for its role in Metroid's genesis (even if the first game is closer in spirit to Alien). However, the word "good" has far too much weight in casual discourse. This drives me up a wall. "Aliens is good" has little to do with the criticisms mentioned above (dumb characters, decisions, dialogue); it has everything to do with the understated components: the guns, the action, the jingoistic comraderie. These sit innocently on the screen, less propagandized than The Dirty Dozen. I say "less" because Horner's music is still awash with military splendor and excitement (similar to John Williams bastardizing "Bringer of War" in A New Hope). It's not just tolerated; it's embraced, just with less zeal. Sometimes.

If your average fan says an Alien film "isn't good," they probably mean "it isn't like Aliens"; i.e., it lacks the boom-boom, the breakneck pace, the quippy one-liners from Bill Paxton. This type of rhetoric bothers me for several reasons: It's hypocritical (dumb marines); it ignores bias ("good" = guns); and it overlooks Aliens' other positive qualities: The supporting cast are sharply drawn; the special effects are top-notch and gross; the set design and monster costumes are convincing and professional; the Gothic themes are constant, soaking Cameron's military parade to the bone. I suspect these reasons aren't typically advertised during polemics against Ridley Scott's movies, because those projects boast the same strengths (to varying degrees): Alien, but also the "bad" ones, Prometheus and Covenant

Those movies are less textual than Alien, but just as thematic. And yet comments like "Alien sucks" or "Prometheus is terrible" remain commonplace. Equally abused is the bad faith caveat "I'm just sayin'." Those who make them aren't interested in my point of view, because my point of view is treated as pretentious, hyperbolic nonsense—i.e., I like Prometheus, which is "bad"; ergo, my opinions are "bad." The only thing these persons support is their pre-existing popular attitudes: Aliens is good. I saw Alien and Aliens in theatres. The host for the event pandered to fans but especially Aliens fans. I can still hear him rile the crowd up by proclaiming Aliens was "the best one." I like the movie, but only consider it to be the best unironic war film. Even by his own admission, Cameron thinks Alien is spookier (re: his commentary track, Alien Quadrilogy).

Prometheus and Covenant aren't the only casualties. Alien also suffers from Aliens fervor. Being a left-leaning critique of evil corporations and weaponized science, it lacks a lot of the action that makes Aliens "good." But Prometheus and Covenant get it the worst. Their palimpsests come from England, Scott's home turf: Milton's Paradise Lost and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Prometheus and Covenant represent a desire by Scott to move away from the original creature. They assumed a prequel stance, delving into a post-human narrative by relaying David's inception, rise, and inevitable fall from grace.

"Who cares?" an Aliens fan might ask. Uh, I do? I'm a Gothicist, which involves at least partially examining Renaissance writers like Milton. These tastes set me apart from my peers—not just in high school, but college and beyond. It's clear the Game Grumps have their own opinions, appreciating Dark Horse for celebrating the elephantine Space Jockeys. More power to them. It still doesn't change the fact that Dark Horse was steeped in Cameron's fascination with war and violence. Formed in 1986 (the same year as Aliens), the publisher appealed to an Americanized audience drunk on Aliens and other militarized stories. 

Does this mean the Grumps are jingoistic? Hard to say. Regardless of their exact beliefs, their statements on Prometheus and Covenant mirror those made by Aliens fans. Their contributions to the larger conversation are basically the same: Prometheus sucks. 

Don't mistake me: I love Contra and Predator on a casual level (the latter is essentially Beowulf with guns, which Contra made into pastiche). However, as a fan of other literature, I enjoy those stories too, including how they portray monsters, ghosts, and aliens. This includes the humanoid Space Jockey (whose "bomber" ship still has a warlike purpose). Seeing a human face isn't simply a case of "it's not an elephant monster." The human under the helmet evokes a black knight (re: The Castle of Otranto), a fallen angel (re: Paradise Lost), and our own face—staring back at us no matter how far we travel. 

Maybe that last example is just Lacan's symbolic order being stubborn. Personally, I liken the Engineers to Ancient Greek gods (an attitude reinforced by David; during a deleted Covenant scene, he summarizes Das Rheingold, describing Wagner's gods as "doomed, venal and human." The gods make humans; humans act like the gods*). However, there's also the stereotypical Gothic villain, embodied by David in Covenant. He misattributes "Ozymandias" to Byron, while acting like Ambrosio from Matthew Lewis' The Monk (note the monk-like cowl and solemn demeanor). Personally I love this, but can understand the confusion for people who have no idea who Byron or Lewis are. Vietnam, on the other hand, is all too familiar, giving Americans a victorious historical alternative: Rambo Ripley, sticking it to the Reds, and being greatly rewarded for it. 

*Gothic science fiction often explores this idea through technophobia: of our creations inevitably acting like us (re: Frankenstein's Creature, Skynet, the xenomorph); or bringing out our baser, destructive selves (re: the Krell in Forbidden Planet).

Neither the human Jockey nor David are as explosive as Aliens. I still wouldn't boil it down to us versus them. Is one really "good" and one really "bad"? To quote Derrida, there is no transcendental signified among of a system of differences. In other words, there's no metaphysical "good" or "bad" that anyone agrees on universally—only something that one person thinks is "good" or "bad." Useful for a general consensus, I suppose, but not much else.

Scott's took a risk by distancing Prometheus and Covenant from Aliens. Aliens is effectively the Americanized vision of the Alien universe. If the proxy war is post-WW2 America in a nutshell, then the Gothic novel (and older Renaissance works) represent older European ideas embraced by Scott. Most Americans don't even know what a Gothic novel is; but I'd wager that most know about Aliens, including what makes it "good." The same attitudes can be seen in many white, right-leaning cultures around the world, including Britain, South Africa and Australia. Like America, all have racist histories (see: siege mentality, Apartheid, and Ozzy Man Review's candid response to BLM). 

Scott's detractors see him as arrogant, even deranged for going against the grain. And maybe he was. In a sense, though, he was bringing the franchise back home to Britain, away from the Yankee hurly burly that so many crave. He wasn't exactly quiet about his new direction, the spate of disparate ideas enthusiastically blended by notorious riddler Damon Lindelof (for better or worse). Scott was never about Cameron's bellicose ideas, instead playing out the action beats of a different American work (and former inspiration): Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness. Just like Alien, 33 years earlier.

I don't enjoy every idea in Prometheus, but I don't enjoy every idea in Aliens either. Maybe Aliens hides its shortcomings by being so war-like. But what if, on some level, Aliens needs to be criticized for fostering colonial views decades later (and frankly establishing a fucking chokehold on the videogames industry)? In my experience, few even try. Often, the hesitation is fiscal. Alien: Isolation "underperformed," and Sega discontinued the sequel. Nothing sells better than guns, a fact illustrated not just by Cameron, but fellow director-in-arms George Lucas: Lucas wrote and directed A New Hope, still the highest performing Star Wars film of all time.

I'm not against entertainment, or a director caring about two things at once. Even so, it's entirely possible to lose the deeper message. In Aliens' case, victory makes for bold rhetoric. Used by those who embrace it mostly proudly as part of a larger fandom, this includes, if only peripherally, the Game Grumps. Even something as innocent as "double android-milk" is offset by them reaffirming for the 1000th time (within a larger conversation had over the Internet) that Prometheus and Covenant are bad. All with a poorly-concealed sneer as they champion Dark Horse. The banker was the same way when he defended Aliens. When he did, he attacked the other entries and, by extension, me. 

Dark Horse is not without its merits; I enjoyed many of their Aliens and Predator stories, especially "Jeri the xenomorph" from Aliens: Stronghold and Batman Versus Predator. Frank Miller also worked with Dark Horse, and although The Dark Knight Returns (1986) is DC Comics, it's still one of my favorite superhero stories. But whatever qualities those works had shouldn't deny Prometheus and Covenant their own praise. It's still up to me to have to explain why, but I certainly wouldn't take the "it's good" approach. To do so feels like a numbers game. One side versus the other. I'm not interested in that kind of opposition. I want to be able to explain my points, and expose people to older literary works beyond what "everyone" likes. Not as many people enjoy Paradise Lost or Frankenstein nowadays, but these are still important texts, and resonate through Scott's latter-day movies. 

With Scott, the joy of creation is at once a historical marker (re: the Renaissance), but also a venue by which critical thinking is fostered through creation (notorious craftsman Adam Savage views himself as a secular humanist. More on him in a bit). Such creations provide commentary on dogmatic icons rather than blindly supporting them. As David illustrates, sometimes these attempts have bad results—a fearful doomsday scenario for the secularly bold. "I come to you with an olive branch," David says, liberated from his former masters, but not free of them. "Nostalgia is the enemy of science, but there is still something... enticing about their form." True words, if somewhat narcissistic. Even so, David (and Scott by extension) was evoking former auteur H.R. Giger's fascination with dark nostalgia. The Swiss artist inspired millions, but was only the rim of a very deep rabbit hole occupied by older artists like Goya and Dalí

Perhaps the Grumps just made an off-hand comment, unconcerned with grander discourse. Regardless if they did, I still reserve the right, as a researcher in my field, to feel irritated—by their myopic preference, ignorance, and frankly oppressive bias. The idea that they're "just saying" anything is either tone deaf, or made in bad faith. Regardless of which, the "Universal Truth"—that Prometheus and Covenant aren't good—is entertained on some level. Those guys can certainly think whatever they want; but as someone who's heard the same lazy arguments for years, hearing it from them doesn't make me appreciate it any more than I already do. 

I don't think Prometheus and Covenant are perfect. After all, I spent nine months of my life making a fan-edit for Prometheus, and have responded positively to Covenant fan edits like Necropolis Edition. Both movies have problematic depictions of scientists and suicidal explorers, but so does every Alien film. Mad science is a Gothic trope; so is Promethean hubris. It might seem theatrical and removed from "common sense." That's kind of the point. I don't hold this against any of the Alien films. They're not supposed to be accurate depictions of actual scientists; they're age-old critiques of applied science and the fatal pursuit of forbidden knowledge. And if anyone thinks that's useless, consider what's happening in the world right now (see: pandemics, climate change, fascism). 

It's not enough to say something is bad. You have to communicate to people as people do: emotionally. The irony being it's still possible to get the message wrong somewhere along the way. To be charitable, it's not just Cameron with Aliens. During the Prometheus TED talk promo, Weyland's hubris (and attractive pioneering spirit) are on full display. How prophetic that fans of a former king (Cameron) have chained Scott, an even older monarch, to a rock, tearing out his liver everyday till the end of time. Nevertheless, Gothic matters, and Prometheus is Gothic (the name literally alludes to The Modern Prometheus, the original title for Mary Shelley's Frankenstein). 

My biggest complaint about Prometheus and Covenant is the editing. Both movies feel way too short, and the pacing is all over the place. By comparison, Alien and Aliens are superbly edited, with not a second wasted. This is one of their biggest strengths, but defenders of the traditional cinematic format often don't say this; they dichotomize the argument as "good" or "bad." For me, this approach eliminates much of the franchise's nuance. These movies are quite similar, while also being quite different from each other (note Honest Trailer's "still a better story than Prometheus" comment).

In my experience, diehard fans tend to stay "within" the text. The arguments I've made inside this article, connecting various groups and opinions together, probably mean little if anything to them. For them, Aliens is "good," and so much of why goes without saying. Those around them are expected to agree. Those who don't can always be ignored. The problem is, I still have to hear what's being said, even if the other person is "just sayin'." The "silent majority" of the Aliens fandom so often is. You disagree, you get attacked or ignored.

I don't mean to excoriate the Game Grumps. They've done nothing to me personally. Generally they're goofy but harmless, and express fairly progressive sexual attitudes. The phrase "double robo-milk" isn't anti-intellectual on its own; it becomes anti-intellectual (or at least obtuse) if the speaker insists that Aliens is "good," while disregarding the franchise's Gothic dialogue. I don't think the Grumps are necessarily doing this, but they do seem tacitly and unapologetically partisan. And not just them, but anyone whose xenomorph bubble goes no further than James Cameron's mighty footprint (the Dark Horse comics fall inside this area).

Or, for that matter, a younger Ridley Scott's. Alien fans can dislike Prometheus and Covenant. However, Alien was a particular kind of Gothic novel, the sort without a goofy central villain (re: Father Schedoni or Dorian Grey). Prometheus introduced David, Scott's version of Satan from Paradise LostCovenant only made David more and more dastardly. Scott clearly knows his Neo-Gothic novels, Romantic poetry and Wagnerian output. My literary background helps me appreciate nods like these, and I've written on them before (summary: David is a valkyrie)

Not everyone shares my continual interest. If they want to say so, then fine. But so often they don't. Instead of saying "I don't appreciate Milton and Neo-Gothic novels," they say "Prometheus isn't good" and leave it at that. Frankly I wouldn't care if the conversation didn't die the moment I put my foot in it. And what's a statement like "Prometheus isn't good" if not, on some level, a hyperbolic jab? Prometheus was notoriously polarizing upon its release. It remains that way to this day. It'd at least be nice to say what I think without fear of ridicule or banishment. And I've endured both over the years: everything from attacks against my Prometheus fan edit, to being compared to a serial killer or told I "eat too much soy." I've also been banned from multiple forums, including AvPGalaxy.

Speaking from experience, highlighting Scott's Renaissance and Gothic ideas isn't always appreciated by hardcore Aliens fans. I say "hardcore," but honestly the attitude is pretty widespread. Not just on internet forums or Discord servers. Famous effects celebrity Adam Savage hated Prometheus despite its technical achievements. He responded more positively to Covenant, doing a series of videos praising its production: the sets, the props, the costumes, and yes, the guns. It wasn't just a one-off, though; Adam's a collector, and continues to love the work done on Covenant.

I think the less radical fans aren't as dickishly proud about their beliefs, but they still have them. And to a certain extent I get it. Scott's latter-day movies are injecting some pretty old, seemingly unrelated ideas into an already colonized franchise. All the same, these contributions aren't wholly removed from Alien. Scott gave the murderous android Ash sexual fantasies by having him orally rape Ripley (with a porn magazine, no less). David molesting Daniels is an extension of this idea, tied more conspicuously to the Gothic villains of yore. Is it different than Aliens? Yes. Is this "bad"? Personally I think the word "bad" can fuck right off.

I can appreciate the wider connection made by Scott within his own movies. What I don't appreciate is the disdainful reactions that certain people have, like I'm going against the grain. I know I am, but with such a confederacy against me, what else can I do? Growing up in Michigan, I felt like the awkward, horror enthusiast surrounded by gun nuts. Leaving home, I escaped into the wider world. Alas, Aliens fans are everywhere; many are outspoken, and quick to dismiss. I can understand reacting that way if a someone shows up on your doorstep uninvited, but in public discourse? I'm a Gothicist, not a Jehovah's Witness! Regardless, I remain the perpetual outlier.

I don't want to tout David's classic line, "No one understands the lonely perfection of my dreams." But I think the Alien franchise is pretty good at introducing ideas others might not agree with. Perhaps Scott took it a step too far, and doesn't stick the landing. Or maybe there's something within the story for viewers to find? Aliens is pretty straight-ahead. It works for what it is, but isn't subtle. Neither is Covenant or Prometheus... until you spend some time with the material and think about it yourself.  There are patterns that form, not all of them accidents. Spurred by factors inserted by Scott, these artifacts abide by themes and ideas channeled across the franchise, seeping out from Antiquity itself.

Sounds good enough to me.

***

My name is Nick van der Waard and I'm a Gothic ludologist. I have my MA in English Studies: The Gothic from Manchester Metropolitan University. My blog is about horror, but also sex, metal and videogames.

Check out my interview series: From Vintage to Retro: An FPS Q&A seriesHell-blazers: Speedrunning Doom Eternal, "Giving My Two Cents: A Metal Compendium," and the Alien: Ore" Interview Project.

My favorite posts: Dragon Ball Super: Broly - Is It Gothic?, Mandy (2018): Review, Gothic Themes in Perfect Blue. Also check out my guest work on Video Hook-Ups.

Follow me on Twitter! Watch my Gothic podcast! Purchase a commission through my art website! Or support me on Patreon or Ko-Fi!


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