CINEMA’S fascination with the end of the world has a banal predictability. “Yes, they’ve got to stop that,” British director Ridley Scott says. “That and vampires, right? What is this obsession with vampires?”
Scott, of course, flies against cinema orthodoxy. As far as anyone can tell, his upcoming Prometheus will be a beginning-of-the-world film. He says “no one’s seen anything” of it, his first science fiction film since Blade Runner in 1982.
“We’ve kept it pretty much under wraps because I like to do that. You’ve got nothing to gain by showing it.”
Not in this instance, anyway. The anticipation – cruelly stoked by an inventive viral marketing campaign of associated clips, including a TED conference talk from 2023 by Guy Pearce’s Peter Weyland character – for Prometheus is intense.
Scott, 74, made his mark early in the genre with his seminal 1979 sci-fi thriller Alien. Then there was Blade Runner, before he promptly left the realm for historical epics and contemporary dramas. The desire to see how a lauded visual stylist envisages the genre 30 years on is palpable, particularly when there is the promise of a connection to Alien, which spawned not only one of cinema’s most viscerally unattractive villains but three subsequent films and two more spin-offs.
Prometheus, which opens in 2089 in a cave in Scotland, was pitched as a prequel or sequel to the Alien series, at least initially. Scott says he started conversing with writers and “seriously looking” at the series only two years ago. Jon Spaihts then wrote the original screenplay and Lost’s Damon Lindelof was brought in for final rewrites.
Scott says he and the writers began with a “direct connection to Alien” but, as he surmises one would with a book, their plan easily drifted from original moorings. “So the film in connective terms to the original has the DNA of Alien but that’s about it,” he says before explaining, perhaps anti-climactically for some, DNA “for a start is microscopic”.
For those who can’t wait, he hints – and look away now if you wish to maintain some mystery – “about the last 12 minutes of the film” has a connection to Alien. “It’s not so much a revelation as [about] where you’re going to go next,” he says.
“Assuming nothing, but if there were to be a sequel to this, which makes sense, you’ve got the next step, the next place to go, which is a new, completely new land, a new venue.”
But first things first. Prometheus appears to take us to the beginning of our existence. It’s not sci-fi apocalypse but sci-fi birth. Nevertheless, the portents are ill if you appreciate that, in Greek mythology, Zeus punished Prometheus for stealing fire and giving it to mortals by having an eagle hack at his guts each day.
Scott shares my tiredness of Hollywood’s facile end-of-the-world scenarios wherein if it’s not aliens, asteroids or the environment itself threatening our existence, it’s our own boneheadedness. The trope is even emerging in dramas such as Lars von Trier’s Melancholia and unlikely romantic dramas and comedies this year with Steve Carell and Keira Knightley’s characters befriending each other in Earth’s last days in the coming Seeking a Friend for the End of the World and Seth Rogen preparing his own comedy, The End of the World.
“I think we need something new,” Scott says of the apocalyptic genre. “Cinema is like writing books and I always say to myself, are we making too many movies? Can there be that many good movies? Can there be that many good stories, because you look at the book world, how many really, really great books occur in each year? The top line is always really, really limited and I think it’s the same for movies.
“In the movie year there’s a few good films, then there’s a lot of mediocre potboilers and there’s a lot of dreck.”
Yet people still flock to the cinema, Scott muses, half-bemused, half-enthused. “So I really, really try every time to make it different, try to make it fresh, try to make it new, [present] a different slant on things,” he says. “It’s what we do.”
Prometheus is different. It is a grander visual spectacle, not as claustrophobic as the original Alien. It is in 3-D and, well, more plausible as sci-fi goes. The Alien saga – we’ll ignore the risible Alien vs Predator spin-offs – lurched through hundreds of years and occasional implausibilities in the hands of James Cameron (Aliens), David Fincher (Alien 3) and Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Alien Resurrection).
Scott, like most, thought the series was flat and finished. Every gram of acid blood had been squeezed from the alien, every possible offspring mutated and every Ripley resuscitation attempted. “Having seen four films completed on the Alien thematic, the game was up, it was done really,” Scott recalls thinking. Yet he realised none of the Alien films, not even his own, had contemplated following an early, and key, plot point in Alien.
“I sat and thought about it for a while and thought none of the three films following mine had ever asked one of the most obvious questions, and that’s what really started it all off,” he says.
After Ripley and her crew discover a derelict spaceship and, in the pilot’s chair, a giant humanoid being with an exploded chest, all hell breaks loose. But after four films, the questions remained: who was in the pilot’s chair, why did the spaceship land there and why was it carrying such “wicked biotechnology”? Essentially, how did this malarkey begin?
The question “gestated in my brain as I was doing other things”, Scott recalls, including reuniting with Russell Crowe in Robin Hood – he directed Crowe in Gladiator, for which he and Crowe wons Oscars – and continuing an ever-expanding production business. But Scott itched to return to science fiction. And who would deny the director of an Academy Award best picture if he were to return to the genre of two of his greatest triumphs?
That’s when Scott’s imagination started racing. Not for him a glib alien-creation premise set on a faraway planet or creatures being propelled from their galaxy. Scott has shown a touch more complexity, pulling from all angles to develop a “grand new mythology” that is equal parts religion, science and pop culture.
And he’s hard to stop once he starts divulging his inspirations. He begins by citing Erich von Daniken’s hit 1960s book Chariots of the Gods and the notion of primitive, huge earthworks such as the Nazca lines in Peru being communication with alien visitors.
“These drawings in the desert are miles long, so to draw them you’d have serious knowledge of theodolite work because you’re doing the work of an ordinance surveyor, right?” he asks, before talking of the storied alien sightings, and supposed storage, in the Mojave desert of the “marvellous Mayan carving of a being lying on his back in a frame and the frame underneath the frame is fire and above the frame is the universe and the person is helmeted”. Then there are the UFO and alien sightings or, at least the “phase and a fashion for sighting” in the 60s.
Before you think you might next see a dishevelled Scott on a street corner waving a naive placard, he is quick to note these examples provide a context for alien contact that may be driven by intuition rather than fact.
The hokey alien fascination of the 50s and 60s represented something collectively, Scott argues, and now we combine that with the recent “general ease across to acknowledging that . . . we are definitely not alone”.
Certainly sectors of science point that way. With the discovery of water on Mars, and speculation Jupiter’s moons Europa and now Ganymede may harbour water, if not life, Scott could sense a merging of pop history with real history.
“It’s entirely arrogant to believe we are in this galaxy alone, and I’m not saying we’re necessarily talking about people walking around with two arms and two legs and eyes,” he says.
“But is there life form out there? Of course there bloody is. There must be. It’s ridiculous to think we are it, we are the selected ones? F . . k off!”
Scott asks if there is something as elementary as bacteria on Mars, what happened elsewhere? And it’s all thrown into the sci-fi majesty of Prometheus, which asks the basic question in a big-budget entertainment: Where are we from?
It visits what is now emerging as what may be considered an existential middle point. There is increasing empathy for the notion that it is illogical for life on Earth to have emerged without a nudge from some source.
“The evolution of where I can be talking to you right now from me being a piece of carbon three billion years ago, the logic and likelihood of that being done by pure evolution without help is almost mathematically impossible,” Scott says.
“Why did f . . k all happen until about 70,000 years ago?” he asks. “Or did it, and was it destroyed a billion years ago by a cataclysmic event? There’s no one there to argue that except people like us who think these things up and think it’s feasible.”
Again, he halts his fervour. “I’m not some religious nutcase, but I’ve got a fairly serious imagination and I think when you do have that, you can read all you like. But then there’s a point where you start going off on a slight tangent believing what you have to believe.”
Scott mentions “that thing Tom Cruise follows”, Scientology and its “loose belief” we are related to aliens. Everyone laughs and chides those who accept that belief, he says – before quickly demurring that he is not a Scientologist and hopes he is not asked to become one – but isn’t Darwinism’s tenet just as incredible?
Scott cites what he considers an amazing path: the movement from all fours, to ape, to hominid, to standing, to losing our hair, to caveman who burns fire, then realises a dead antelope tastes better cooked, and from that meat comes grease from which can be made a candle, and from charcoal you can draw pictures on a ceiling, which is the first form of entertainment.
“That’s what I think: bang, bang, bang,” Scott says enthusiastically. “But that movement of a man who’ll pick up a lump of charcoal, and look at the limestone roof that is getting a bit dirty with the fire at night to keep them warm, and decides to entertain or to draw is bigger than f . . king Newton with an apple dropping on his head.
“Imagination is everything. Imagination is the fundamental basis of all things, including mathematics.”
I feel as if I’ve been on a wild journey with many paths, but there is some sense to the ride if one is not satisfied by the mystery of religion or the big bang to explain existence. Scott brings it back to Prometheus, a film that asks, fundamentally, who created us? “Were we created on a petri dish by a superior lot, or was it God?”
Two characters in the film represent the philosophical divides. The first, and expected to be Prometheus’s recurring Ripley type if it becomes a series, is Noomi Rapace’s space archeologist with faith, Elizabeth Shaw, who discovers a 35,000-year-old cave painting that draws her to a distant world. The colder, rational types are represented by Charlize Theron’s corporate executive, Meredith Vickers, and Pearce’s interplanetary corporate titan, Peter Weyland.
Where Scott sits in defining our source is a little unclear, but what is clear is that, as any artist should be, he’s open to possibilities. He was struck by his own evolution only recently when he stumbled across a documentary about Blade Runner.
“I couldn’t believe it, I was staring at someone who was very familiar and it was me 26 years ago,” he says.
Scott, who was knighted in 2003, says he hasn’t evolved much. “With me it’s entirely creative. I’m creatively driven; from the days of art school right through my life. I’m fortunate in that respect because I see the world in a certain way and there’s beauty everywhere, there’s beauty even in the industrial areas where I lived, Hartlepool, and its steelworks and things like that. So you have to see things in that particular order.”
He believes his mind was “pre-set” that way and evolved through study, design and then directing, which “fought me a bit because critics would say the film is too beautiful! I would think, go f . . k yourself because I’m actually dealing with a medium which is almost entirely to do with pictures, so why shouldn’t the film be visual, right?” he rails.
Time has been his greatest validation. The Duellists, Thelma & Louise, Black Hawk Down and American Gangster excuse him his Hannibal and A Good Year.
“Whether you’re a writer, a journalist, a book writer, a sculptor, a painter, only one opinion really counts, and that’s yours about your own work,” he says. “That’s how you stay with your head above water. If you listen, it’s dangerous.
“You’ve got to believe that what you’re doing, for you, is correct,” Scott adds. “My films for me are my canvases. And that’s not being pretentious, that’s just a good parallel to explain it. You walk in every morning and look at a canvas and think f . . k me, I hate that, why did I do that yesterday. And you start to adjust it. It’s the same for film. It’s essential that you’re self-critical.”
Prometheus is directed by Ridley Scott, from a screenplay by Damon Lindelof and Jon Spaihts. The film stars Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Charlize Theron, Guy Pearce, Idris Elba, Sean Harris, Rafe Spall, Logan Marshall-Green, Patrick Wilson and Kate Dickie, and is due for release on June 8th 2012 in the USA, and June 1st 2012 in the UK.