Thirty-five years ago, Ridley Scott was a hotshot London adman, crafting slick TV commercials. He hadn’t yet directed Blade Runner or Thelma & Louise or Gladiator. He hadn’t received any of his three Oscar nominations. And he certainly hadn’t been knighted ”Sir Ridley.” In fact, he’d only just finished his first film — a moody, Napoleonic period piece called The Duellists. Scott had recently turned 40 and was well on his way to a brilliant second career in Hollywood. Or so he thought. Then The Duellists opened in America and no one went to see it. Everyone was still buying tickets to a different movie. ”I remember someone coming into my office and saying, ‘Ridley, you better go see this movie Star Wars,”’ recalls Scott while preparing his latest film, the eagerly awaited, top secret 3-D space thriller Prometheus (rated R, out June 8). ”People were lining up around the block! I’d never felt that sense of mass excitement before or since.”
Scott had already planned his next movie, an adaptation of the mothball-festooned medieval romance Tristan and Isolde, when he walked into Star Wars. But after being transported to George Lucas’ galaxy far, far away, he scrapped everything. ”I thought, ‘Why the hell am I doing Tristan and Isolde? Things are changing. It’s time to get down to business!”’ Six weeks later, he signed on to direct Alien. Scott likes to joke that he was Twentieth Century Fox’s fifth choice for that groundbreaking, bloodcurdling, face-hugging 1979 space odyssey. Even so, sci-fi movies as we now know them wouldn’t exist without Sigourney Weaver’s badass heroine Ripley and one of the greatest chest-bursting scares of all time.
When Alien came out, accompanied by the tagline ”In space no one can hear you scream,” the $8 million production became an instant classic. It grossed $105 million worldwide and in many ways has defined Scott’s career — epic, visionary, and whip-smart.
It’s also the film that he’s had the hardest time getting out of his head. Scott, who says he was ”marginally hurt” that he was never offered the chance to direct any of the Alien sequels, publicly flirted for years with returning to tell a new chapter in the saga — one that would be bigger and brainier. He wanted to grapple with some of the knotty philosophical questions that the first film only hinted at (Are we alone in the universe? Where did we come from? And who the hell was that mysterious elephant-headed alien pilot fans would later call ”the space jockey”?).
Then, in January 2011, Scott and Fox announced he was finally moving forward on a hush-hush sci-fi spectacle called Prometheus. Little was known about the film besides: (a) Its cast includes Charlize Theron, Michael Fassbender, Idris Elba, Guy Pearce, and in the lead, the original Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Noomi Rapace; (b) the script is by Jon Spaihts and Lost‘s master of the mysterious Damon Lindelof; and (c) its story revolves around the crew of a spaceship called Prometheus that heads off to a distant planet whose inhabitants visited Earth long ago.
In the absence of more information, the Internet thrummed with speculation that the film might in fact be the long-awaited Alien prequel — that Scott was finally returning to right the ship of a franchise that had started to lose momentum with 1997’s Alien Resurrection and completely capsized with the cheesy Alien vs. Predator smackdowns in the 2000s. For his part, all Scott would say at the time was that the film contained ”strands of Alien‘s DNA.” It was the ultimate tease for a man who’d cut his teeth in the bait-and-switch world of advertising. Hopefully, a visit to the set of Prometheus — two hours northeast of Reykjavik, Iceland — would yield some answers.
The first thing you notice about Iceland in July is that it’s light out 24 hours a day. It messes with your head. But it also has practical benefits, especially for a film like Prometheus that’s fallen a week behind schedule: You can literally shoot around the clock without fear of losing daylight.
The second thing you notice is Mount Hekla, a giant snowcapped volcano looming nearby. ”We actually have an Icelandic crew on volcano watch,” says executive producer Mark Huffam. ”There were rumors that it was going to blow when we first got here. Believe it or not, the guy who’s in charge of watching the volcano is named Thor.” When asked if Prometheus has volcano insurance, Huffam shrugs. ”I’m sure we don’t.” What about an evacuation plan if it decides to erupt? ”Yeah, we have one of those: Run!”
At the foot of the volcano are rolling black lava fields. The terrain looks like the surface of an alien planet. So much so that during the run-up to the Apollo space missions, NASA sent its astronauts here to simulate their landing on the moon’s surface. Before arriving, Scott and his crew spent nearly four months filming at Pinewood Studios in England.
Scott is 74, and he’s directed 18 films since his date in the dark with Star Wars back in 1977. Dressed in a parka and hiking boots, he wears the giddy grin of a much younger man. ”I forgot how much fun this can be,” he says. ”I’ve enjoyed this more than anything I’ve done in a while.” Scott says another reason he’s so amped up is that the scene he’s shooting today is ”when all hell’s about to break loose.”
Looking around, it seems like it already has. Scattered across the jagged onyx-colored rocks are hulking chunks of metal debris left over from a crash landing on the alien planet. Here the crew will meet horrors that will lead them to second-guess their mission. In the script, Theron, who plays Meredith Vickers, an icy representative of Weyland Industries (a nod to the shady corporation in the Alien films), warns the crew, ”If you go down there, you’re going to die!” Today, Scott’s lambs are headed to the slaughter.
Theron and Rapace stand off to the side in skintight blue neoprene spacesuits and egg-shaped glass helmets that are lit with a ghostly glow from within. They rehearse running in terror down a steep black hill away from some sort of monster that will be conjured on a hard drive later. I tell Scott that I can’t help but feel a bit cheated. He laughs and promises that whatever it is I’m not seeing now will be jaw-droppingly awesome in the theater.
As the two actresses experiment with different expressions of ungodly fear, Scott camps out in the back of a flatbed truck lined with video monitors. It’s as good a time as any to ask him about the dreaded P-word. Is this movie a prequel to Alien? Scott doesn’t answer. He just shoots me a sly grin. ”There may be a vague notion, some slight DNA from the original Alien,” he says. ”But barely. Fans of the original Alien will notice some things, especially toward the end of Prometheus. Like, 12 minutes from the end. But I really can’t say more than that.”
But Scott does say more than that. He constantly makes comparisons to Alien, goes off on tangents about the mythology of Alien, and at several points unwittingly slips up and flat out calls Prometheus ”Alien.” He may be a great director, but he’s a terrible poker player.
It doesn’t help that his cast isn’t sure how much to reveal either. Fassbender, who plays David, the ship’s resident android, says, ”There’s definitely a link to Alien. There are creatures in it that you’ll recognize, but that’s only one tiny facet of what’s going on.”
In her trailer, Rapace has just emerged from a shower and is dressed in a white robe. Her hand is bandaged from a spill she took earlier in the day while running away from a monster-to-be-inserted-later. In the film, Rapace is Elizabeth Shaw, an archaeologist who, with her scientist boyfriend (played by stage actor Logan Marshall-Green), discovers a series of star maps on cave walls left behind by aliens thousands of years earlier. She sees them as an invitation to blast off into space and pay a visit — a visit that, needless to say, doesn’t go well.
The Swedish actress got a taste of big-budget moviemaking in last year’s Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows. But Prometheus is her first Hollywood leading role. For a while, it looked as though Theron might portray Shaw, but she couldn’t commit because she was slated to star in George Miller’s Mad Max reboot with Tom Hardy. When that movie got delayed, she took the smaller role of Vickers. ”I’d rather be a smaller character in a great film than the lead in a s—ty movie,” she says. Rapace too doesn’t seem to care about whether she’s the lead or Crew Member No. 12 — she was elated to get the chance to work with the man who created her childhood idol. ”I remember when I first saw Alien, it was the first time I ever saw a woman that strong. I thought, ‘Oh my God, who is this woman?’ Sigourney Weaver was my hero.”
Rapace’s other favorite film growing up was Thelma & Louise — another movie directed by Scott. She doesn’t think it’s a coincidence. ”Ridley creates female characters like no one else. He says that his mother was very strong and he admired her, and that shows,” she says. ”I could be running around half naked in a scene and I never felt like he was watching me in a sexual way. He doesn’t objectify women. I adore him for that.”
Prometheus is set in the year 2093. For those of you keeping score at home, that’s roughly 30 years before the events of Alien. This is just one of the secrets that Scott spills when I visit him at his glass-and-steel L.A. production office seven months after the Iceland shoot. He’s called me there to offer me a first look at some of the film’s 3-D effects. And despite the extra $10 million he says was added to Prometheus‘ budget, he’s thrilled with the way they look. ”After Avatar changed the game, it was a no-brainer to do this one in 3-D,” he says. ”I wish I’d done Gladiator in 3-D. It would have been marvelous.”
Since we last met, both he and the studio have slowly parceled out more hints and head fakes about Prometheus through a barrage of teasers, trailers, and buzz-building viral videos, such as the clever infomercial about Weyland Industries’ latest line of androids, featuring Fassbender. One of the teasers even calls Prometheus ”the most anticipated movie of the year.” (It’s fair to say that Christopher Nolan might have a different opinion.)
The more they show of the film, the more it definitely looks like an Alien prequel…and the more the studio denies that it is one. For fans, this tap dance in semantics is maddening. Hinting that Prometheus is connected to Alien gives it an instant marketing hook (Come see our new Alien film!); denying that it’s linked helps tap into a younger audience unfamiliar with the franchise (Come see our film, we swear you don’t need to know anything about Alien to dig it!).
If there’s anyone in a position to know the tricky balancing act that the Prometheus team is trying to pull off, it’s the film’s coscreenwriter Lindelof. For six seasons on Lost, he catered to the loopiest conspiracy theories of Fanboy Nation, building to a finale that, in the end, couldn’t possibly please all of its followers. ”Everyone wants to know what the relationship is between the movie and Alien,” says Lindelof. ”And one could argue that we’ve set ourselves up for an inevitable disappointment. But look who you’re talking to. If there’s anybody who’s known for inevitable disappointment, it’s me. I’m Mr. Inevitable Disappointment!”
Then again, it could be argued that the whole is-it-or-isn’t-it-a-prequel shell game has been catnip to Alien‘s geekiest fans, making them temporarily forget their disappointment in a series that didn’t exactly leave off on a high note. ”We haven’t always done as well by the heritage as we would have liked,” says Fox chairman Tom Rothman. ”To bring Ridley back is a chance to honor that heritage.” Asked if he thinks his marketing gambit will help or hurt his studio’s biggest summer box office bet in the end, Rothman says he honestly has no idea. ”We’ll see how clever we are when we see who comes!”
Prometheus: What’s in a Name?
According to Greek mythology, Prometheus was a god who stole fire from Zeus and gave it to man. To pay for his sin (and hubris), he was bound for eternity to a rock — where every day an eagle would peck away at his liver, and every day it would grow back anew. But hey, Prometheus is also the subject of a cool bronze statue in New York City’s Rockefeller Center.
358 Years of Alien Action
A quick look at the entire sci-fi saga, from Prometheus to Alien Resurrection.
Tech tycoon Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce, below) gives a speech about the myth of Prometheus to announce a quest to ”change the world.”
Archaeologists find a star map painted by aliens inside a cave in Scotland.
Spaceship Prometheus lands on planet Zeta 2 Reticuli.
Towing vessel Nostromo (with Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley, right, on board) picks up a signal from planet LV-426. The crew investigates.
After 57 years in hypersleep, Ripley is taken back to LV-426 by a military crew.
Ripley, impregnated with an alien queen, crash-lands on the penal planet Fiorina 161.
Ripley and an android (Winona Ryder, right) team up to destroy all alien life forms. (But did they?)
The Scoop on Ridley Scott’s New Blade Runner Film
Alien isn’t the only film Ridley Scott is revisiting. The director says that he’s been busy developing a sequel or a prequel (he doesn’t know which yet) of his other sci-fi masterpiece, 1982’s Blade Runner. ”I’m meeting with writers, and I’ve also gone back to [original coscreenwriter] Hampton Fancher, and he still speaks the speak,” says Scott. The filmmaker is quick to shoot down rumors that he’s had discussions with Harrison Ford (left) about reprising his trench-coated role as futuristic detective Rick Deckard. But Scott won’t rule out a reunion, either. ”I’m not sure that’s going to be a story point…. But if it were, nothing would please me more.”