Mysteries can be tricksy things to handle. Reveal too much and you’ll leave nothing for later. Reveal too little and you could frustrate your audience. Similarly, some mysteries work better when left mysterious, because speculation and hype are great marketing tools. So let’s chat briefly about why revelation isn’t always desirable.
I’ll be talking about Prometheus here, in relation to the Alien franchise. First, a disclaimer: I’ve not seen Prometheus, nor am I likely to. I’m the type of person who loves lore, who enjoys reading all the history and back story and world building behind any franchise I like. Babylon 5, Stargate, Fallout (excluding Bethesda’s), Lord of the Rings, and so on. Anything like this that has a wealth of background to be immersed in beyond the immediate story is my jam.
Why am I bringing this up? Because Alien and its associated spin-off material is exactly the sort of franchise that tends to have this sort of lore. Yet in reality… it kind of doesn’t. Not canonically, at least until fairly recently thanks to Prometheus. The Alien creature is scary for a variety of reasons, but the sheer unknown is, for me, one of the major draws.
It’s a terrifying, implacable, relentless killing machine. It can’t be talked to or reasoned with. It has no remorse, will never, ever show mercy, and is damn near indestructible. Unless you happen to have some serious ordnance on your person, anyway. And even then, these things are so emotionally and physically overpowering that they reduce goddamn space marines to gibbering wrecks.
So when someone starts developing detailed back story and lore for a creature like this, a lot of the mystery is lost and, along with it, the terror. Think back centuries to when people believed diseases to be acts of God, or similarly superstitious reasons. Over time, science came to the fore, people learned and experimented and understood what diseases were and why they did the things they did.
These days, diseases are just another mundane fact of life. We named them, figured out what they did, and – to some degree – beat them. But to someone five-hundred years ago, a virulent disease like the Black Plague could be seen in no more complex terms than a displeased God punishing the unbelievers.
Not to mention the issue of people killing cats for being the Devil’s familiars. Cats were the only thing that stopped the real culprits: rats, and the fleas they carried. Great job, guys. Science is A Good Thing™, just in case you were wondering.
Knowledge is power, and words also have power. Likewise, a nameless terror like the Alien creature loses a lot of its ability to terrorise us the moment we give it a name, an origin, maybe even a race who created them. If you say ‘it’s a bioweapon developed by X race for Y purpose’, suddenly the mystery is lost and it’s no longer as scary or interesting.
The crashed ship on LV426 in the original Alien was eerie, haunting, desolate. And utterly baffling to the crew of blue-collar miners who stumbled across it. Speculating about who the ship belonged to, who the Space Jockey is, why they’re here, what they were doing, why they seemingly had a cargo hold filled with a deadly organism of apocalyptically deadly proportions…
Engaging with the world like this is fun and interesting, but a large part of why it’s interesting and enjoyable is because it’s such a mystery. Revealing that mystery dulls all the things that made it interesting in the first place, and some things are best left unsaid.
So no… I very much can’t see myself watching Prometheus. Because revelation isn’t always desirable, and sometimes what’s left unsaid is more powerful than what isn’t.