Ridley Scott is one of the greatest film makers of all time. Even his less successful films are superior to many another director’s best efforts. Blade Runner and Alien are without question two of the best films ever made. They’re bound to be included in almost any Top Twenty cinematic list. For me, Gladiator is in there, too.
His films have grossed well over $2.5 billion so far. One of the reasons often cited for his commercial success is the artistic originality of his films. He is not only original himself, he also has the gift of recognising originality in others – writers, painters, photographers, technologists. A talented artist, he has the even greater gift of attracting and working collaboratively with others, equally talented, to create works on an epic scale.
In some respects, Prometheus is his crowning achievement. It took more than $300 million at the box office in only its first two months and has been seen by millions of people in 3,400 cinemas wordwide to both public and critical acclaim. No criticism of mine could possibly dent his titanic reputation. When the cinema lights go up, we are merely the spilled popcorn on the grubby red carpet of the lobby, while he remains heroic, honoured, fulfilled.
And yet I cannot shake off my sneaking suspicion that, late at night, he prowls the empty corridors of his vast mansion alone, a real life Charles Foster Kane, attempting to quieten his inner doubts. From his hand he lets fall not a snowstorm paperweight, but a tattered copy of a screenplay from the 1970s, and from his lips, falls not the word “Rosebud”, but “Alien”.
It was Scott’s great fortune – and his misfortune – to make the best sci-fi space opera ever conceived. But he made it in the pre-CGI era. What Fritz Lang could only dream of in 1926 with Metropolis, Scott could bring to convincing life in 1979. Using H. R. Giger’s eerie and disturbing designs, fusing the organic and the mechanical, he created a world and a monster that so shocked 1970s audiences that they demanded to be shocked and disturbed all over again in 1986, 1992 and 1997. And that doesn’t even include the self-parodies of 2004 and 2007.
And yet, with each passing year, advances by George Lucas’s Industrial Light and Magic, and by the new breed of digital studios, brought miracle after miracle to the cinema screen. Jurassic Park, Star Trek, Terminator, Titanic – each new digital triumph must have felt to Scott like his Alien creature’s acid blood, eating through his skin and bones and, eventually, even his soul.
The dumbest Hollywood drivel could now routinely deploy miraculous special effects, bought by the minute, off the shelf. Directors without talent enough for a Supermarket TV ad, routinely chilled the spines of millions of cinemagoers thanks to digital technology. How these easy wins must have chafed at Scott’s artistic spirit. How the acid of envy must have dripped into his eye, into his ear, into his film-maker’s heart.
Finally he could stand it no more. The technical means now existed for him to re-make his greatest film – one of the greatest films of all time – using a digital technology sufficiently advanced to live up to his surpassing vision. It was more than flesh and blood could stand. Now at the peak of his powers as a director, he could command with ease what he had to fight for in his youth: cash, locations, talent – but above all, millions of dollars’ worth of computerised special effects – the one tiny flaw in his 1979 production, when compared to today’s films.
And it was a flaw that would worsen with time. As the years rolled onwards and technology improved irresistibly, his original film would sink further and further back into the prehistoric realm of pre-CGI movies – destined one day to be as naive and charming as Georges Méliès Voyage to the Moon of 1902, the bathos of a cream-pie face receiving a rocket in the eye.
While there is still time, he must have thought, while I still command respect from the studios and the money men, while I still have the strength, let me make sure of my cinematic immortality by re-making Alien using modern technology – the way it ought to have been made, if the technology had been available.
But there was a problem. People with hundreds of millions of dollars to invest – even the pea-brained hucksters of Hollywood – don’t invest in mere re-makes. They want something more; something new. And the cinema-going public doesn’t want a re-run of a film they have seen dozens of times on late night TV. They, too, want something more. Perhaps most important of all, Ridley Scott, the auteur, could never be satisfied with a mere re-tread of a past triumph. He, too, demanded something new.
And so we have Prometheus.
The paradox that gave rise to the film must also have been evident from the first script meeting. The goal was to recreate the terror of Alien, but it must be Alien in a new form. The film must be new, but it must also be old – true to the original.
The solution adopted was the solution that had worked so well in the prequel to Star Trek in 2009, where J.J .Abrams had miraculously breathed astounding new life into the 40-year-old franchise by taking us back before the period we knew. But where Abrams had succeeded by playing in a nuanced way on what we already knew about the Enterprise crew, Scott merely reprised his previous most successful moments now clothed in CGI finery. And not merely reprised them, but re-filmed them, shot for shot, seeking to make them more gross, more bloody, more horrific, more terrifying, more scientific, more realistic.
And so we had to sit in the cinema and watch again the crew of a corporate space ship reawaken from cryogenic sleep, tended by a humanoid robot who is their intellectual superior but is treated as an inferior form of life. We had the obligatory black ship’s captain who was both anarchic and courageous (and who wore his baseball cap back to front in moments of stress.)
We had the discovery of alien life – the same alien life-forms as before. We had parasites who invade their host through the mouth and burst through their abdomen to be born. We had a second-hand glimpse of the parasite in attack mode in the form of a blip on a CRT screen. We had the android’s head being ripped from his shoulders and lying on the floor still talking in a puddle of green goo. All shot for shot from the 1979 film.
We also had shameless imports from other blockbusters. We had irresponsible billionaire John Hammond from Jurassic Park reincarnated as Guy Pierce’s Weyland, first appearing as a hologram in a lecture theatre. We had the alien starship disguised as a pyramid from Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull. We even had a “Luke, I am your father” moment. When Guy Pierce’s Weyland (a Rupert Murdock-alike economic despot) discloses that the icy-blond expedition leader is his daughter.
In terms of scriptwriting or storytelling, the screenplay was textbook Hollywood. It was linear, with the turning points of its three acts in the right places. The hero’s journey was played out through a (politically correct) female protagonist. Deconstructing her name is illuminating. She is named Ellie – stolen from the main character of Carl Sagan’s Contact, Ellie Arroway, and imported complete with the flashback to her dead father giving her life meaning. Her surname is Shaw. Shaw=sure. Ellie is the religious believer in the story and hence the only moral person who deserves to survive.
What has the addition of CGI done for Alien? The claustrophobia of the original has been replaced by a kind of cinematic agoraphobia. Everything is now on a grand and heroic scale. No one walks when their ship lands – they take the multi-wheeled vehicle that we just know is going to end up a wreck sooner or later. The alien ship is so vast you get lost in it (yet mysteriously, its deadly cargo is restricted to one tiny area). In flight it is as large a small city, yet when it crashes to the planet’s surface it’s like a smallish gasometer falling on you – you just dodge behind a rock and you’re Okay.
There are also miraculous CGI moments – and certainly moments we’ve never witnessed before – not least of which is the heroine performing a caesarean section on herself to deliver an unwanted alien pregnancy. The trouble is that none of these jaw-dropping creations advances the story or adds to our knowledge. They are there not because they are necessary but because they are now technically possible. Their omission from the 1979 original harmed it not one bit.
Even if everything I say here is correct, does it matter? Does it in any way detract from Scott’s magnificent achievements? I want to say “No, of course not” but I have a horribly queasy feeling – a little like John Hurt catching up on his missed breakfasts – that something isn’t right. It’s as though Michelangelo had a second crack at the statue of David in expanded polystyrene, or Gustav Eiffel chose to rebuild his tower in pre-cast concrete sections. Modern but brutal.
As one of Ridley Scott’s greatest fans, I wish he had left his masterpiece alone, and left me with my memories of Alien untarnished.