More than three decades ago Ridley Scott's sci-fi horror classic Alien introduced moviegoers to a menacing, insectlike, parasitoid extraterrestrial species. The film's sequels and spinoffs over time created a rich mythology of a universe in which the films' predatory antagonists and doomed heroes coexist, complete with terraformed colonies, interstellar mining and commerce, and a recurring role for the fictional Weyland Corp., whose relentless efforts to capture and control the alien species set in motion much of the film franchise's narrative.
Scott returns to this universe on June 8 with the opening of Prometheus, a movie set in the same cosmos as the Alien films but several years earlier than the original. Although the moviemakers are keeping many plot details confidential in advance of the film's release, Scott has made clear that Prometheus is not a prequel to Alien. Instead, the new movie centers on scientific exploration—sponsored by Weyland, naturally—on board a spacefaring vessel named for the Titan in Greek mythology who stole fire from the gods and gave it to humans—and paid a terrible price for doing so.
The Prometheus is following a star map found at various unrelated archeological sites on Earth. The commonality of these images leads the scientists to believe that the map may help them discover humanity's origins.
Scientific American spoke with Prometheus co-screenwriter Jon Spaihts about the film's scientific pursuits, its portrayal of late 21st-century technology and the dangers faced by humans in such a hostile cosmos.
[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]
Prometheus is not a prequel to Alien but both films are set in the same universe. What does this mean exactly?
If a prequel is a story that presets the conditions for another story—gives you everyone's back story and so forth—and is mated to a specific set of characters and a specific tale, then this is not that. This is a story that shares a storytelling universe with the Alien films, in particular the first film. There are also some scientific notions and some storytelling archetypes that we inherit, but we are really not telling the same story at all. We're opening up a whole new branch of science fiction mythology.
What storytelling archetypes did you inherit, and how did you weave the old and new mythologies together?
One of the things I was very aware of in composing the story is that in the Alien universe there are a number of dualities that leap to the fore. There's a core duality between humanity and the alien species, obviously. The Xenomorph [as the alien came to be known] wasn't just something dangerous but something demonic in the perfection of its adaptation to destroy us. And it made Ripley—the female protagonist of Alien and its sequels—feel that much more innocent, vulnerable, human, real. This conflict between human and alien is central to these films.
A secondary duality is between the human and the artificial person. Whether we're talking about Ash in the first film, Bishop in Aliens or David in the new movie, an android is always there, and there's always a tension between the human and artificial characters that seems intrinsic to these stories. And then there's also a duality between the humans and "the Company," an implacable and self-serving interest, a heartless force. Although these movies are science fiction, we can relate [because of] similar tensions in day-to-day life. People feel uneasy about our dependence on artificial intelligence and robotic appendages as machines get closer and closer to us. And there's certainly a widespread tension between us and the corporate forces in our lives. All of these forces become concrete representations in the universe where Prometheus and the Alien movies take place.
The Alien films never fully explained the origin of the Xenomorph creatures, even though the first movie presents the audience with a derelict ship filled with alien eggs that have seemingly been abandoned on a hostile planet. What approach does Prometheus take to exploring the origins of life?