In the past few weeks I set a challenge for myself, to tackle the entire catalogue of the Alien films. It had been far too many years since I had given these creature-feature films a fair go at impressing me; namely, Alien3 (1992), Alien Resurrection (1997), Prometheus (2012), and Alien Covenant (2017). I’d seen most of the aforementioned catalogue films only once and for such a large franchise I felt it didn’t sit right with me knowing I hadn’t given these lacklustre follow-ups a fair shot at changing my grumpy-old-man opinion on them. Of course, it goes without saying that I exclude both Alien (1979) and Aliens (1986) from this list as I’ve seen both of those films nearly a dozen times. The first two films, to me, are near perfect as is.
Yep, that’s right, I’m a snob, I only watch the first two and then intentionally ignore every proceeding film in the franchise. Why? Well, for a few reasons; I’ve always been of the view that Alien3 and Resurrection held an unfounded reliance on the Ripley character, the studio couldn’t part with her or her star power and they ultimately wrote themselves into a corner. As for Prometheus and Covenant, well, they were plagued with needless revisionism of the story. A seemingly simple concept had been transformed into a tiresome allegory of religious symbolism and complex narrative branches. Too many ingredients in the pot made the soup taste like everything and nothing.
While I would love to yap on about the trauma I endured rewatching all of the latter four films, I must stay on topic, as the focus today is specifically on Prometheus, and as the title of the article infers, Joker (2019) is a point of focus too. The thread that connects Prometheus and Joker is an invisible and ineffable one, one that can only be explained to you by first giving you a chunk of context. No, it’s not a plot point that connects these two films or a trope or even a narrative theme; to put it as simply as possible, it’s a trajectory, a similar direction that both of these films went in. What is the nature of this trajectory you might ask? Well, that’s complicated, but I’ll try my best to lay things out as clearly as I can.
To understand what ties Prometheus and Joker together we must first divulge the problem that both films have. If there were one major gripe fans of the Alien films had with Prometheus (besides of course its many nonsensical story directions) it was that director Ridley Scott and writers Damon Lindelof and Jon Spaihts were attempting the give the Alien itself (Xenomorph) an intricate and fully fleshed out origin story; a detailed account of where it came from and how it came to be. Now, don’t get me wrong, I have no issue with the concept of a prequel film; they come in all shapes and sizes and all manner of quality – but when a prequel deteriorates the tone of the original films, then it becomes a problem.
You see, the Alien films are at their best when they’re built on simple foundations; a group of characters are placed in an isolated location and are slowly picked off by an alien (or aliens); and only those with their wits about them have a chance of escaping the horror. What makes the alien (Xenomorph) such an effective monster is its simplicity. It’s the “perfect organism”; with tremendous strength, speed, and durability – it has acidic blood, can sneak up on its prey virtually undetected, and can multiply rapidly once a nest is established. To put it simply, it’s a threatening and terrifying monster. The audience is well aware of the threat it poses and not knowing its precise origins makes the mystique behind this creature that much more alluring. There’s an unspoken rule in horror, that when you show off your monster too early, you lose the tension the audience was feeling; Prometheus (and its followup film Alien: Covenant) don’t just show off their monster, they point a microscope at it – literally and metaphorically.
Both films divulge in detail the precise origins of the Xenomorph; where it came from, why it was made, and how it was made. When you do that, you lose something in the process. It’s like discovering that the secret recipe behind grandma’s cookies is a mundane component, suddenly the magical aura around them dies. The less is more approach works miracles in horror. With the audience having quite literally zero context on the Xenomorph’s origins, it allowed them to create their own head-canon on its origins or just leave it all a mystery. But the moment we were given an origin was the moment the Xenomorph was no longer that mysterious perfect organism. It was now an open book, with little if anything left for interpretation.
And here we land on Joker. You see, the Joker is much like the Xenomorph; as a character, he benefits greatly from having an occluded and mysterious origin. The core principle of his character is to be an agent of chaos and the antithesis of Batman. Much like the scrupulous detail that was given in Prometheus and Covenant about the Xenomorph; Todd Phillips Joker (2019) aggressively details the Joker’s character origins to damning levels. Yes, Joker was a partial adaptation of Alan Moore’s Batman: The Killing Joke, but Todd Phillip’s adaptation takes it a step further by over-examining the Arthur Fleck character in a different way.
The difference between Todd Phillip’s vision and Alan Moore’s is that The Killing Joke makes no attempt at rationalising the Joker’s motives; once he takes a dip in that bat of chemicals, he becomes the Joker – the narrative focuses more on his complex relationship with Batman than it is about who the Joker really is and why he is that way. The Joker’s motives only make sense in his own mind and that’s the beauty of it – the insanity of the Joker is not rational, that’s what gives him that mystery, that mystique. Just like the Xenomorph, once all the mysteries of its origin have been revealed, the mystique is shattered. Phillip’s Joker goes in too deep, rationalising the irrational to explain something that is better left a mystery.
On the surface, both Prometheus and Joker share little in common bar a vague narrative direction that seemingly aims to abandon its sense of mystique. The brass tacks for the Alien franchise is that despite spending two entire films meticulously creating an origin story for the Xenomorph, nothing meaningful is gained in elevating the creature to scarier or more interesting levels; on the contrary in fact, it served only a reductive purpose – dematerialising whatever substance was left behind for the Xenomorph after multiple critical flops. As for Joker, similar rules apply. Both of these “characters” benefit from having mysterious origins, they are both mechanisms designed to drive the narrative forward in unique and interesting ways; learning about the mechanisms origins won’t suddenly make it work any better.
Well, that’s it for this long-winded explanation folks. Like any comparison, it’s all up to interpretation. It’s been fun drawing vague threads between these two vastly different films and I hope you’ve enjoyed my blabbering as much as I’ve enjoyed… blabbering.