Ridley Scott's reputation for capturing a sci-fi story with skill and grandeur precedes him
It's been three decades since he last created a film in the genre
This weekend's "Prometheus" is his long-awaited return to the style
Not quite a prequel, "Prometheus" has the same DNA as 1979's "Alien"
In the three decades since he directed his first feature film, “The Duellists,” filmmaker Ridley Scott has crafted a diverse filmography, serving up everything from the classic “Thelma & Louise” to the Oscar-winning “Gladiator.”
But it’s his seminal 1979 science-fiction/horror film “Alien” that will be called to mind this weekend as Scott makes his long-awaited return to the genre with Friday’s “Prometheus.”
Although it’s sometimes described as a prequel to “Alien,” Scott’s clarified that “Prometheus” isn’t really a prequel as much as it shares “Alien’s” DNA, which in itself is enough to raise audience expectations several notches.
Scripted by Dan O’Bannon, “Alien’s” story focused on the crew of the spacecraft Nostromo, which was returning to Earth when it took a detour to respond to a distress signal. It’s a decision that leads to devastating effects, as Scott made sure we understood, “in space, no one can hear you scream.”
Film fans cherish “Alien” now as one of a kind, but critical reaction upon its theatrical release was actually pretty mixed. The New York Times called Scott a “very stylish director” but added that “Alien” wasn’t “the seminal science-fiction film one wants from him.”
Time magazine, meanwhile, said the film attempted to “crossbreed the scare tactics of ‘Jaws’ with the sci-fi hardware of ‘Star Wars,’” leaving viewers with “a cinematic bastard, and a pretty mean bastard at that,” but little in the way of imagination or wit.
That “cinematic bastard” grew legs as the years went by, and has been ranked by the American Film Institute as one of the 10 best science-fiction films ever made.
Part of the success is owed to H.R. Giger’s nightmarish alien, which Scott called in a recent Rolling Stone interview “one of the best all-time monsters.”
Without it, he went on, “I’ve got a nice, very well-acted, beautifully art-directed movie, but I ain’t got that f*****g heart-stopping son of a b***h that defies logic.” (We’d bet audiences would agree.)
There’s also the grim outlook that Scott employs, which, along with his characters, helps remove any fantasy gloss from the idea of what the future holds. As Wired magazine’s Brian Raftery puts it, Scott’s sci-fi was “progressively antiprogress” in a time when others were offering more optimistic perspectives.
So while the “Alien” franchise moved on without him, Scott was still rolling the story around in the back of his mind, particularly the question of what happened to the mysterious alien pilot, or “Space Jockey,” that was seen in the 1979 film.
“I must have thought about it for three or four years and thought in all of the films nobody had asked a very simple question which was – who is the big guy in the chair,” Scott told Empire magazine during a Q&A earlier this year. That turned into four questions, he went on: “Who are they? Why are they there? Why that cargo and where were they going or had they in fact had a forced landing?”
Seeking answers, Damon Lindelof of “Lost” and Jon Spaihts were enlisted to pen the “Prometheus” script which takes place in the late 21st century, before the events seen in “Alien.” With his sci-fi return, Scott’s exploring the idea of creator vs. creation as the crew of the Prometheus heads into space seeking the origins of mankind.
Noomi Rapace stars as scientist Elizabeth Shaw, who believes ancient cave drawings suggest the “engineers” of humans left the drawings as a kind of map to find them.
She’s joined by her scientist boyfriend Charlie (played by Logan Marshall-Green); the captain of Prometheus, Idris Elba’s Janek; Charlize Theron’s corporate-minded (and cold-blooded) Meredith, who watches out for the interests of the Weyland Corp.; and Michael Fassbender’s creepily cool android, David, who so far has been a critical favorite.
Although plot details have been kept close to the vest, “Prometheus” holds the promise of a space exploration gone horribly wrong, and reviews have been cautiously laudatory. The Hollywood Reporter acknowledged its technical magnificence while citing a need for more “adventurous thought,” while Entertainment Weekly praises Scott’s (per usual) command of imagery, but found the movie’s “origin fable … unwieldy.”
Time will likely tell how “Prometheus” holds up against Scott’s other films, however, and in the meantime, sci-fi fans can take heart – he’s already at work on a “Blade Runner” sequel.