My first brush with Sir Ridley Scott in the physical world was in 2008, when I glimpsed him leading a march of collaborators across the sterile boulevard of Warner Brother’s New York backlot. Little did I know then that it wouldn’t be the last time I would come so close to his orbit. Three years later, I would find myself at the Scott Free offices in West Hollywood, interviewing for a position assisting Scott’s then-left-hand man, producer Michael Ellenberg. This second brush would be far less direct, culminating in a brief meeting with Ellenberg’s assistant on an upper-level patio. I remember wanting this particular job very badly, despite the high level of stress and workload it would inevitably entail. To interface with Scott himself in such a close manner would have been nothing short of a dream, especially when considering that, at the time, he was working on his long-awaited return to the ALIEN franchise— 2012’s PROMETHEUS.
The job undoubtedly would have provided a glimpse into the making of the film from the inside, but thankfully, Scott’s zeal for supplementing the home video releases of his work with extensive behind-the-scenes presentations has offered an exceedingly-detailed insight into PROMETHEUS’ making— and all without having to fetch anybody coffee. Scott had been a key player in the revitalization of science fiction cinema in the 1970’s, with his breakout ALIEN (1979) quickly following on the heels of STAR WARS’ earth-shattering success. Naturally, the prospect of his return to the genre for the first time since 1982’s BLADE RUNNER left fanboys and critics alike foaming at the mouth, so the story had to be reflective of three decades’ worth of pent-up anticipation. Scott already knew the entry point for this new outing: since the 1979 original, he had been fascinated by the mystery of what he called “The Space Jockey”, an interstellar traveler whose calcified husk Ripley and her crew come across during their exploration of a ruined spaceship that crashed onto the surface of planet LV-426. He had long wondered who exactly that Space Jockey was, and why it was left to rot amongst a field of xenomorph eggs.
The project that would ultimately become PROMETHEUS rose from the ashes of another failed ALIEN sequel, which would have seen Scott unite with ALIENS director James Cameron had it not been for Twentieth Century Fox’s insistence on also developing the crossover ALIEN VS. PREDATOR in the early 2000’s (2). While Cameron bailed outright, Scott continued to sniff around the idea of another ALIEN; still mystified by the Space Jockey’s enigma. Around this same time, emerging screenwriter Jon Spaihts was making quite a name for himself off the strength of his spec script, PASSENGERS— a high-concept science fiction adventure that would ultimately manifest in 2016 as a bloated box-office catastrophe starring Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence. Scott took a meeting with Spaihts, who subsequently pitched his idea for an ALIEN prequel on the spot. Scott was so enamored with his take — positing that the Space Jockey was a member of an ancient interstellar race that seeded the Earth with life — that he immediately commenced Spaihts on a full draft. First titled ALIEN: GENESIS, Spaiht’s script detailed two origin stories: that of the iconic xenomorphs, as well as our own as the genetic descendants of godlike alien beings called Engineers. For all its unique ambitions, Spaiht’s script still reportedly hewed too close to ALIEN franchise conventions for Scott’s liking. He subsequently commissioned a dramatic rewrite from Damon Lindelof, a writer currently experiencing his Big Moment in the pop zeitgeist thanks to the success of the television series LOST. This, arguably, is where things began to go wrong.
Sidebar: I try hard not to editorialize too much with these essays, as I believe THE DIRECTORS SERIES should not critique, but rather analyze and reflect. That said, I personally cannot stand Lindelof. I understand his appeal, and his value within the Hollywood machine, but I have always found his skill as a writer to be severely lacking, derivative, and emotionally bankrupt. Of course, I’m no Paddy Chayefsky myself, but something about the dude’s whole vibe just doesn’t sit right with me. I’ll give the man credit in having the instinct to move the story away from the ALIEN mythology, towards a tangentially-related, yet wholly-unique one. Admittedly, this was exactly what the stale ALIEN franchise needed: a shot in the arm, a radical up-ending of established formula and theme. I say this is where things went wrong in the sense that, as compelling as Lindelof’s ambitious approach promised to be, it’s my opinion that his reach far exceeded his grasp. Ambition begat unwieldy storytelling, resulting in a muddled plot that prompts more questions than answers. The finished film’s reception bears this out — Scott’s impeccable direction and the committed performances of its ensemble were frequently hailed as visionary, whereas the harshest words were reserved for a muddled screenplay that fumbled its most salient ideas with hamstrung character dynamics and some profoundly-stupid actions.
Over the course of forty-plus years and nineteen feature films, Scott had covered nearly every genre but had yet to make a sequel to his own work. 2001’s HANNIBAL was a sequel, yes, but to Jonathan Demme’s SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991). Whether he had a personal aversion, or the opportunity had just never presented itself, this was one of the last blind spots left in Scott’s extensive filmography. This might explain when Scott initially hired commercial director Carl Erik Rinsch to helm PROMETHEUS— a choice ostensibly made to mitigate his risk of “sequel stench”, that is until Fox threatened to shut development down entirely if Scott himself didn’t direct (3). He apparently decided the ideas expressed in the film were too pressing or evocative to be left unsaid, and thus reunited with ALIEN producers David Giler and Walter Hill for the first time in thirty years.
Taking its title from the eponymous Greek myth about a Titan who stole fire from Zeus and gifted it to mankind, only to suffer an agonizing punishment for all of eternity, PROMETHEUS sets forth into the deepest reaches of the universe in search of forbidden, God-destroying revelations about humanity’s origins. After a brief prologue that finds a marble-white Engineer seeding a primordial Earth with life in a manner resembling ritual sacrifice, the story picks up again in 2089 AD, in the wilds of Scotland. A small archeology team led by Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Dr. Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) venture into a dark cave in search of an ancient painting that matches similar ones they’d previously found all over the world. These paintings point to what they hypothesize to be a distant star system— home to these enigmatic creators of humanity. Four years later, they are onboard the starship Prometheus en route to said star system, specifically: LV-223, a small moon orbiting a massive ringed gas planet. The crew’s mission upon arrival: find any traces of our ancient celestial ancestors and, if possible, make contact. Like the title suggests, this ragtag crew of scientists and technicians are bound to learn far more than they bargained for— not only are the Engineers are our creators, but our destroyers as well, having developed horrific biological weapons of mass destruction.
Despite billing itself as an entity altogether separate from the ALIEN franchise, PROMETHEUS nevertheless evidences its cinematic lineage by adhering to a similar template. While our first glimpse of anything resembling our beloved xenomorph doesn’t occur until the very end, these terrifying creatures operate in nearly the same way: once they’ve infected their host (often through violent means), their offspring rapidly gestates inside the host’s body until it’s ready to burst forth from within. The character dynamics of the Prometheus crew also take a page from the ALIEN ensemble playbook, featuring an eclectic mix of personalities that convey just how democratized and accessible interstellar space travel has become in Scott’s vision of the late 21st century. Rapace’s Dr. Shaw fulfills the obligatory Ripley archetype, her presence serving as a nod to the importance that the franchise (and Scott) places on strong heroines. That said, Dr. Shaw is very much not Ripley. Her occupation as a scientist and her deeply-held beliefs as a Christian strike an odd, yet intriguing juxtaposition, throwing the film’s thematic exploration of science vs. religion into stark relief. Like Ripley, she’s unbelievably strong and determined, but she is not what one might call a “badass” — her naive curiosity simply gives way to tactical determination as things go from bad to unimaginably worse, prompting a nightmarish test of faith.
Marshall-Green, a Tom Hardy-lookalike best known at this point for his brief stint on THE O.C., plays Shaw’s partner— in life as well as work. His Dr. Holloway is a very bad scientist; he’s not incompetent, but he has trouble restraining a brash impulsiveness that often gets him into trouble. The discipline required by the scientific method is too much to ask of Dr. Holloway, who Marshall-Green has described as an “X-Games” archaeologist. While the pair of Shaw and Holloway present themselves as the verifiable protagonists, Scott’s true narrative interest lies instead with Michael Fassbender’s David, an earlier iteration of android like Ian Holms’ Ash or Lance Henriksen’s Bishop. Indeed, David is easily the film’s most interesting and promising element— an organic robot able to mimic his human creators to near-perfection, and is, in many ways, humanity’s superior. Cold, calculating, and impossibly elegant, Fassbender’s mesmerizing performance is endlessly watchable as he works behind the scenes to drive the film’s dizzying sequence of events. Unlike the androids seen in previous ALIEN films, David feels no need to blend in with his human counterparts; the knowledge that he’s a superior being allows his smug detachment from their trivial human dramas. Like Shaw, he is scientifically curious too, but his is a much more malevolent curiosity, conducting experiments on his crewmates like someone testing chemicals on animals. With so many other impeccable performances to his credit, Fassbender’s work as David counts as a career-best, yielding no shortage of surprises in the film’s exploration of beings interacting with their creators.
Scott rounds out the rest of his PROMETHEUS ensemble with a sterling collection of character actors, all of whom are granted their own moment to expound upon the film’s ambitious thematics. Idris Elba channels the “truckers in space” flair of ALIEN’s Nostromo crew in his performance as Janek, the laidback and aloof captain of the spaceship Prometheus. Having appeared previously in a bit part in Scott’s AMERICAN GANGSTER (2007), Elba gets a sustained chance to display his undeniable charisma here, giving PROMETHEUS several moments of much-needed comic relief without disrupting the careful balance of tone. Charlize Theron plays Meredith Vickers— the sleek, chilly face of the Weyland Corporation. Having bankrolled this trillion-dollar mission, her employer has tasked her with making sure the money is spent wisely, and that the fruits of their discovery can be properly exploited for maximum profit. Originally cast as Shaw before scheduling conflicts forced her to drop out (1), Theron was able to later rejoin the production as Vickers, who proves that just because she’s one of the corporate fat-cats doesn’t mean she’s a physical weakling. In matching Shaw’s courage and strength, Vickers becomes her inverted mirror image— the icy brain to Shaw’s fiery heart. Guy Pearce buries himself under pounds of old-age makeup and prosthetics to play her employer, Peter Weyland. The insanely-wealthy, decrepit namesake of the Weyland Corporation, he could have been a Gilded Age industrialist had he been born a few centuries earlier. Filled with grandiose visions of immortality and cosmic domination, Weyland has spent his life building a corporate empire that operates more akin to a city-state than a business, and the Prometheus mission represents an opportunity for him to attain the immortal godliness that has so far eluded him. Pearce’s casting in the role is somewhat curious— it made sense when he played a younger version of the character delivering a futuristic TED Talk for a promotional short, but one wonders why an older actor wasn’t considered for PROMETHEUS proper. Certainly, a situation that saw long hours in the makeup chair in exchange for an ultimately-unconvincing effect could have been avoided had Scott gone with someone like, say, Max Von Sydow. Funnily enough, Scott initially had Sydow in mind for the role, but a planned sequence depicting a younger Weyland interacting with David via a hypersleep dream interface necessitated a continuity of actor— hence, a younger man trying his best to play an age in the triple-digits (1). That said, since the scene in question was never filmed, the audience has no way of reconciling this casting quirk unless they were to take the deep dive into PROMETHEUS’ making-of documentaries. Still other actors emerge for brief stints in the spotlight, be it Sean Harris’ punk geologist, Rafe Spall’s monumentally-dumb biologist, Benedict Wong’s stoic co-pilot, or Patrick Wilson in a brief cameo as Shaw’s father, seen by David as he watches her dreams during hypersleep.
PROMETHEUS heralds a major inflection point in the development of Scott’s technical aesthetic, being his first major effort captured with digital cameras. The film rides the wave of 3D releases directly following Cameron’s AVATAR (2009), but avoids the fate of a hasty post-conversion by shooting with three dimensions in mind from the start. The transition from the old-school celluloid world to the digital 3D one can be daunting for any filmmaker, let alone one of Scott’s pedigree (and age, honestly), so hiring the right cinematographer would be crucial. Despite a fruitful working relationship with longtime cinematographer John Mathieson, Scott needed a cameraman who not only understood the advantages and quirks of digital capture, but who also knew how to navigate the complicated rigging of 3D acquisition. Towards this end, Scott would look to Dariusz Wolski, who previously had worked with brother Tony on films like CRIMSON TIDE (1995) and THE FAN (1996). Considering that Wolski has gone on to shoot all of Scott’s subsequent theatrical work to date, it’s safe to say their initial collaboration on PROMETHEUS was a successful one. Scott was already well-versed in shooting with multiple cameras simultaneously, conducting the action between a cluster of monitors in video village like it was a grand symphony. The arrival of 3D allows Scott to crank his “command center” into overdrive, rigging up a fleet of Red Epics with stereoscopic wiring and flashy high-definition monitors that allow him to tweak a frame’s depth effect with the simple twist of a knob (2). His signature visual aesthetic quite easily makes the leap into the digital realm, its inherent malleability enabling Scott unparalleled control over his characteristic high-contrast lighting and cold color tones — rendered in PROMETHEUS via a steely palette of grays, greens and blues punctuated by the occasional pop of orange piping on a spacesuit, the shock red of a mapping drone’s lasers, or the glaring chartreuse of onboard helmet lights. The lightness and mobility of digital cameras enables Scott to easily set up majestic aerials and swooping cranes that capture the primordial alien vistas of Iceland with a staggering sense of scale. Their nimble, compact nature also allows him to get up-close and personal with a series of “helmet-cam” POV shots that place the audience directly onto the barren surface of LV-223. As expected, Scott populates his sleek 2.39:1 frame with atmospheric layers that make returning production designer Arthur Max’s sets come alive with sparks, ash, silhouettes, lens flares, and the humid mists of a post-historic world.
One of the key aspects of Scott’s interest in returning to the ALIEN franchise is the opportunity to reinvent and expand the franchise’s mythology. The science fiction genre, far more so than any other, allows Scott to indulge his love of worldbuilding by creating a whole universe from scratch. An ambitious vision demands an equally ambitious execution, and every set — nay, every frame — of PROMETHEUS boasts the rich detail we’ve come to expect from Scott and Max’s harmonious partnership. Anything and everything within a given shot is the product of an extreme attention to detail and impeccable craftsmanship. Realizing Scott’s vision for PROMETHEUS was always going to require a great deal of CGI (indeed, the film is his most VFX-heavy to date), but he and Max resist the temptation wherever possible by prioritizing whatever can be captured in-camera. Where many filmmakers would simply resign themselves to creating LV-223 entirely inside a computer, Scott and Max construct PROMETHEUS’ starkly-beautiful and foreboding planet via a combination of Iceland’s slate-gray tundras and expansive sets that evoke H.R. Giger’s organic-machine aesthetic from the original ALIEN (indeed, Scott even went so far as to bring Giger himself back for early design consultations (2)). Max built these cavernous sets on the sound stages at Pinewood Studios in England, and it has to say something about the scope of Scott’s vision that Max had to actually construct add-ons to the iconic 007 Stage (one of the largest in the world) because it was still too small (2). Longtime editor Pietro Scalia and composer Marc Streitenfeld also lend their considerable talents to PROMETHEUS’ core team, with the latter‘s evocative and ominous score reprising key components of Jerry Goldsmith’s theme for ALIEN. A key innovation finds Streitenfeld recording his suite of mournful horns, tense strings, and low-throated choral elements backwards, which he then reversed with digital tools so as to achieve an extremely subtle, yet profoundly unnerving musical effect (1). The idea is not at all dissimilar to a visual technique employed by Francis Ford Coppola in BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA (1992), wherein he shot one of Dracula’s brides ascending a staircase backwards, and then reversed the motion in playback to add an intangible “creepy factor” to her slow descent. Frederic Chopin’s “Raindrop Prelude” adds an elegant, classical flair to Scott’s introduction of the David character, serving as a musical echo of the android’s cybernetic sophistication while nodding towards the profound influence that Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968) undoubtedly holds over PROMETHEUS (as well as any science fiction film of this magnitude).
Scott’s use of a classical track during David’s introduction is far from a case of a director simply referencing one of his favorite films (although that can be seen in David’s watching and quoting of LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962) — a cornerstone influence of Scott’s visual aesthetic, references to which pop up several times throughout his filmography). The thematic equivalency Scott makes between the timeless compositions of the nineteenth-century Romantic era and David’s near-perfect emulation of humanity underscores a core concern fueling the director’s work in the science fiction genre: the perils of artificial intelligence. BLADE RUNNER — and to a lesser extent, ALIEN — may traffick in the idea of subservient creations gone rogue, but PROMETHEUS provides a jumping-off point for a deep dive into the various ethical quandaries engendered by Mankind becoming God via the creation of artificial life. The film’s very title implies this road leads only to apocalyptic ruin; the closer mankind comes to godliness through technological progressions like artificial intelligence and interstellar space travel, the more we risk self-annihilation by the physical and psychological monsters we unwittingly unleash. After all, we immediately weaponized our newfound ability to recreate the energy of a star by putting those innovations to use in the atom bomb. Funnily enough, Scott’s interest in this arena results in a franchise crossover far more organic than the woefully-misguided ALIEN VS. PREDATOR— fans of both ALIEN and BLADE RUNNER had long suspected the two properties might share a singular universe, but PROMETHEUS’ Blu Ray supplements cemented the notion into canon by revealing Weyland had been a protege of BLADE RUNNER’s Eldon Tyrell, whose Tyrell Corporation had been responsible for the invention and development of androids known as Replicants. The Weyland-Yutani corporation was born when Peter Weyland spurned his mentor’s ideas about the Replicant program in favor of what he considered to be a more sophisticated approach to androids, eventually culminating in PROMETHEUS’ David.
In presenting three “generations” of self-aware beings (Engineers, humans, and androids), PROMETHEUS puts a distinct twist on Scott’s career-long exploration of xenophobia, whereby each racial generation becomes so consumed by their minor differences that they fail to recognize their greater similarities. Mankind finds itself caught in the middle, spurned by godlike ancestor and robotic successor alike as an inferior life form better suited to extinction instead of proliferation. The sweeping timescale of PROMETHEUS, beginning at the dawn of life on earth and ending sometime in the distant 21st century, allows Scott to pack in compelling philosophical ideas about our origins while framing the central conflict as a battle between science and religion— indeed, Holloway and other members onboard the Prometheus make a lot of noise about how their making contact with the Engineers will immediately render all religion obsolete. And yet, after Man has finally met its maker in the most gruesome of meet-cutes, Dr. Shaw’s Christian faith holds stronger than ever. Contrast this with Weyland, a man with a severe God complex who expires in a state of profound despair when he encounters nothing but a black, empty void at the gates of death. This struggle between faith and logic — and moreover, the suggestion that both can co-exist — gives PROMETHEUS an added resonance, especially when one takes into account that (spoilers) Shaw is the only human crew member to escape LV-223 alive. The reductive, kneejerk interpretation would be that humanity discovers the science behind our origins at our own peril, and we should simply retreat to the blissful ignorance of religion instead. Such an interpretation misses the mark by a light-mile. PROMETHEUS instead suggests that mankind’s ability to hold fast to our faith is the very quality that makes our species special amongst all others. Yes, it may very well keep our eyes down to the earth beneath our feet, impeding us from realizing our full evolutionary potential. But in a time of crisis, it also allows us to imagine a different fate for ourselves. Science may give us reason, but faith gives us hope— and in the end, that can be the crucial difference between extinction or survival.
As arguably one of the most anticipated movies of all time, there’s no way PROMETHEUS could have met everyone’s expectations… but damned if it didn’t try. Scott’s ambitious vision of the future is packed with so many great ideas, like its attempt to weavethe Engineers’ earthly manipulations in throughout ancient antiquity, or a harrowing emergency cesarean setpiece that could confidently stand toe-to-toe with the original ALIEN’s chestbursting scene. The drawback of Scott’s approach, however, is that there just might be too many ideas; so many that a central, unifying idea gets lost in the muddle of ideological tangents and structural genre demands. The film’s lineage as an ALIEN offshoot drove $400 million in worldwide box office receipts, cementing its legacy as a global financial success even though the domestic takeaway was considered something of a disappointment (4). This mixed performance was replicated on the critical side, wherein a bulk of the negative reviews were no doubt fueled by thwarted expectations for a return to the franchise’s narrative conventions. The general air of disappointment upon release was so thick that it’s easy to overlook that PROMETHEUS was actually reviewed positively by the majority of critics— their praise centering mostly on Fassbender’s compelling performance and the staggering grandeur of Scott’s visuals (6). It was even nominated for an Oscar come awards season, in the form of a Best Visual Effects nod.
For all its flaws — perceived or real — PROMETHEUS is the movie that Scott set out to make. He won’t hesitate to release a Director’s Cut if he feels his vision has been tampered with in any way, so it really says something that he turned Fox down when they later asked him to create a new version for home video (7). Make no mistake, the Theatrical cut of PROMETHEUS is Scott’s definitive cut. There are those who felt so burned with disappointment that they will never revisit the film or give it a second chance, and that’s fine. PROMETHEUS isn’t for them. PROMETHEUS is for the perpetually curious; those who are prone to wander, to wonder about our place in the universe, or about what monsters might be hiding out there in the dark. Masterpiece or no, Scott’s return to the ALIEN mythology nevertheless marks a career that has come full circle, bringing a subsequent lifetime’s worth of insight and experience along with it. His re-engagement with the properties that built his career might suggest an old man looking backwards to his heyday, but the progressive and ambitious vision laid out in PROMETHEUS, its 2017 sequel ALIEN: COVENANT, and even BLADE RUNNER 2049 (2017) tell a different story: that of a man far too busy to focus on something as trivial as “legacy” when there are still countless new worlds to build and explore.
PROMETHEUS is currently available on 4K Ultra High Definition Blu Ray via Twentieth Century Fox.
Written by: Jon Spaihts, Damon Lindelof
Produced by: Ridley Scott, David Giler, Walter Hill
Director of Photography: Dariusz Wolski
Production Designer: Arthur Max
Edited by: Pietro Scalia
Music by: Marc Streitenfeld
- IMDB Trivia Page
- “The Furious Gods: Making PROMETHEUS”, dir: Charles de Lauzirika (2012)
- Via Wikipedia: Spines, Christine (June 5, 2009). “The Hollywood Insider”. Entertainment Weekly. Archived from the original on May 11, 2017. Retrieved June 13, 2012.
- Via Wikipedia: Shirey, Paul (April 16, 2013). “C’mon Hollywood: Don’t Give Up On The Prometheus Sequel!”. JoBlo.com. Archived from the original on May 22, 2013. Retrieved May 22, 2013.
- Via Wikipedia: Chang, Justin (May 30, 2012). “Prometheus”. Variety. PMC. Archived from the original on June 16, 2012. Retrieved June 1, 2012.
- Via Wikipedia: “Prometheus (2012)”. Rotten Tomatoes. Archived from the original on September 12, 2012. Retrieved June 1, 2012.
- Via Wikipedia: Goldberg, Matt (October 8, 2012). “Ridley Scott Refused to Do an Extended Cut for Prometheus Blu-ray; Jon Spaihts Reveals Details about His Original Script”. Collider.com. Archived from the original on October 8, 2012. Retrieved October 8, 2012.