Prometheus (2017) is the first of three prequel films in Ridley Scott’s reworked Alien franchise. These ‘backstories’, of a kind, take the Alien timeline from the past up to the original Alien (1979) point in the timeline. Prometheus chronicles a Weyland Industries expedition into deep space. It’s mission, to discover the origin, and consequentially the meaning of life. The journey begins with life being seeded on Earth by a human-like alien being, then it jumps to the decoding of a distant star system drawn on a cave wall, and then it jumps again to the arrival of the expedition on the distant planet. The dream of meeting mankind’s creators, potentially as equals — and for Weyland himself, discovering the key to everlasting life — turns into a nightmare when the expedition learns that the mysterious structure hides a terrifying force — monstrous aliens.
In Interstellar (2014) a visionary ex-astronaut, living on a dying Earth, reignites the dream of interplanetary space travel, and peruses the hope of mass migration to another planet, one that can sustain life, in order to save humanity. In parallel to this adventure there’s the story of his leaving home and maintaining a meaningful relationship with his daughter.
While Interstellar is a space adventure, a space odyssey (to borrow Kubrick’s language), and Prometheus is an action horror, they are both stories set in the boundlessness of space bundled up with a philosophical tone. Where ‘man’s journey’ was once through the North American desert, through the ‘Wild West’, these stories — like Star Trek and The Martian — take place in the new frontier of outer space. This vast expanse emphasises humanities relative smallness in context to the almost unimaginable immensity of the Universe. In some ways space is the perfect arena to question humanity’s relationship with nature, the origin of life, and our long-term survival. Interstellar is more focused on humanity’s future, taking an optimistic view that we can use science and technology to flourish. The meaning and implication of this is handled in an almost poetic manner. It becomes a celebration of love, the human spirit, resilience, and faith. Prometheus follows the story as warning vein, alerting the audience to the danger of human curiosity. The philosophical questions relating to the creators, the origin of human life and the alien monster become interlinked in the second film in the rebooted Alien trilogy Alien: Covenant, but instead of leading to uplifting answers show our creators as warmongers, developing genocidal weapons (the alien monsters), and a complicated truth with yet further unanswered questions — who created the creators themselves?
Humanity is aided by amiable but industrial-looking robots in Interstellar and a lifelike android in Prometheus, who we learn follows in the darker tradition of science fiction AI beings, like HAL in 2001. These non-human characters provide a context between human empathy and feeling in contrast to rational logic, and intellectual necessity. One story leads to something beautiful, a voyage of discovery to a new future for humanity; the other leads to a terrifying menace, a new take on Frankenstein’s monster.