Ridley Scott defined modern-day science fiction with two back-to-back projects begun over 30 years ago. Alien and Blade Runner set a new standard for the genre with their dark and dystopian visions of the future, and introduced the world to a new set of iconic characters.
Three decades later, Scott returns to the genre he helped define with Prometheus. Begun as an Alien prequel, the film's original mythology has been borne of DNA of that seminal original film, but its grand themes promise to stand very much alone and question humanity's understanding of the secrets of the universe.
One of the most lauded and sought after directors working today, Ridley Scott's career spans some of the greatest feature films in history. In addition to Alien and Blade Runner, Scott is also responsible for instant classics as diverse as Thelma and Louise, Gladiator and Black Hawk Down.
Scott has worked with actors such as Russell Crowe (Robin Hood), Denzel Washington (American Gangster), Leonardo DiCaprio (Body of Lies), Demi Moore (GI Jane), Tom Cruise (Legend) and Michael Douglas (Black Rain).
He adds Charlize Theron, Michael Fassbender, Noomi Rapace, Idris Elba and Logan Marshall Green as the ensemble cast of Prometheus. The script comes from Lost creator Damon Lindelof and the writer of The Darkest Hour, Jon Spaihts.
Talking from the offices of his Scott Free production company in London, Scott shares his vision for Prometheus, discusses his return to the science-fiction roots of his career, and his ideas about the creation of the universe.
What prompted a return to science fiction after all these years?
Science fiction is a wonderful – sorry about the pun – universe for – again, another much overused word – creativity. It's an arena where anything goes. But I think you have to make sure it's not cheesy and it's a good story and it's not abused. There's a serious lack of originality now. It's mostly dressing and it already utilises the science fiction idea. The opportunity presents itself to fundamentally do anything you want, providing that you draw up a rule book in the first place. You've got to draw up the rules of your drama and within that universe you've got to actually stick to your own rule book. I think that's what's happening – we're not drawing enough rules up when we do materials. It feels like writing a book. It's like when you write an article, you've got to box it into a three-act play. There's a beginning, middle and an end. That doesn't change whether you're writing a book or writing a screenplay. The hardest single thing you do is get the bloody screenplay right.
Where did your journey into sci-fi begin back then?
I carried myself forward into science fiction mostly with the inspiration from Jean Giraud – Moebius – and his marvellous original illustrations, thinking that would show itself in magazines such as Métal Hurlant and all those publications which I used to look at and hide from my children, mainly because it was so violent and so sexual. They were kind of adult comic strips but they didn't pull any punches, and I thought, "That's the way to go". In fact, Moebius designed my costumes [for Alien]. The idea of science fiction came out of the blue. I'm a dyed-in-the-wool designer, and I'll always be a designer, and I'd been mucking around with a quick story when I saw Star Wars. And Star Wars kind of knocked me sideways with all my plans.
So Alien was a reaction for you to Star Wars? A reaction against Star Wars?
No, no, to go, "God Almighty, where did this guy come from?" It stopped me in my tracks and changed my whole head.
You've talked about the idea of these post-apocalyptic films having been done to death. Is Prometheus your way of going in the opposite direction and wondering about the beginning of life?
It is, and I've got to check [for spoilers] very carefully here, but it is about the beginning of life and 'What if'. It's a giant 'What if'. Has this ball that we're sitting on right now been around here for three billion years or one billion? Either way, it's a long f***ing time. It's only our kind of arrogance that says "We're the first ones." Are we the first hominids? I really, really, really doubt it. In recent memory or legend we keep talking about wonderful, weird things such as Atlantis – what is that? Where does that come from? Is that real, was it real, is it a memory, did it exist? And if that did exist, did it exist three quarters of a billion years ago? There'd be nothing left now. How was that created and who was it?
It's also interesting that there are uncanny similarities between cultures that developed on opposite sides of the world.
Absolutely, it's something we don't know. Something that we really, really don't know. Is there a guiding force into this process? Is it a much larger idea and much larger entity that we can't really fathom? Because it's as if, if you stand by an ant, it doesn't see you. It doesn't even know you're there. I think it's different, because we're intelligent enough to go, "oh, that's a very large fellow," but that's a good metaphor.
How do the characters in Prometheus tackle these themes?
They have a different thesis about – what we were first talking about – being pre-visited, which is an old idea. But I think it comes out of a good place because it's an entirely good question. Is there a God or is there not a God? Are we a petri dish here or not, and if we were a petri dish, of whom? What was the force, what is the entity that we can't possibly even fathom, because it's something we haven't crossed that line yet?
James Cameron had a lot of success going all-digital with Avatar, but Prometheus will be largely practical. Do you think practical is better?
No, I think Jim definitely raised the mark both with what he did and the story, and then how he pulled it off – God, he's got patience, four and a half years – but I wasn't even going to get into that area, and I don't think Fox were either. Besides, what I've got is an expected engine. It's not entirely what you expect, but I think what I'm saying is going to be fairly scary, whereas Jim's is not that kind of film. No, that just evolved. The actual truth is, if you know what you're doing it's actually cheaper. Digital effects are not cheaper. We've done this film for a really good price.
What does the title mean for you?
The story of Prometheus is the idea that if you're given a gift from the gods, do not abuse it and do not think you can compete. He stole fire and they had his entrails torn out every day in perpetuity by an eagle as a punishment. Every night they'd repair and then the eagle would come back in the morning and rip his liver and his kidneys out again. It's perpetual purgatory. Basically, don't f*** around with gods.