When Titans Clash

Spoiler Warning

Prometheus tries to evoke the aesthetics of Alien in a way that is borderline obsessive. Even down to making sure there are cream-coloured leathery/cushiony pads on the spaceship corridor walls. Still greater attention is paid to replicating H.R. Giger’s design concepts for the derelict alien ship, cockpit and pilot from the original film. The really weird thing is that, even as Prometheus deliberately and slavishly tries to evoke and/or copy the aesthetics of Alien, it completely overlays them with an entirely different, clashing aesthetic sense.

Look, why is this image so powerful?

There are, I think, a number of reasons.

Most importantly, it’s because it is just explicable enough to make sense while also being inexplicable enough to unnerve.  We are plainly looking at a navigator or pilot in a cockpit.  We understand this.  We are also looking at something inhuman and estranged, something that evades any attempt on our part to relate to it directly.  The ‘Space Jockey’ (as it is sometimes called) is a pilot, evidently, but it is also a giant, a fossil, a mammoth, a skeleton, a statue, a cyborg, a petrified outgrowth of flesh embedded within a colossal machine.  We cannot separate the entity from the artifact.  The ribs of the creature flow outward into the cables of the chair.  The trunk of the face flows down into the workings of the mechanism.  We cannot disentangle organism from system, animal from engine.  They are fundamentally akin, interchangeable, interpenetrating, symbiotic.  This was always the intention: to suggest something that was inextricably both biological and technological.  The cockpit and the pilot are not discrete things but are conjoined to the point of identity.  They were one flesh, until the flesh peeled away.  It’s entropic in both an organic and mechanical way simultaneously.  It’s the ossified cadaver of a wrecked bio-machine.

It’s also beautiful, but not in a straightforward way.  It’s not pretty.  It’s hideously, ominously, unnaturally, grotesquely beautiful.  It’s beautiful in the same way as a scorpion, or the bleached skull of an ox lying in a parched gulch, or a pile of rusted flywheels that was once a graceful machine.  It has the troubling, terrible beauty of wreckage, of the predator, of the insectile, the dead, the decayed, the destroyed, the deadly.

And it’s fucking scary.  It’s a great big skull-faced monster in a huge black room made out of what looks like loads of bones.

Now, look at this:

This is pretty.  It’s the cockpit from Alien… decorated with shimmering CGI lights and swirls and spirals and graphics and glowing planets. It’s like someone stuck gold stars all over one of Goya’s ‘black paintings’ or inserted some watercolour daffodils into a Max Ernst canvas. Well, why am I dancing around this? It’s like putting pretty, computer-generated patterns all over a picture by H.R. Giger. The design and CGI rendering is perfectly nice in and of itself, but in this context it looks like a tawdry, clashing embellishment. It neutralises the uncanny effect of the setting.…

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