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With ‘Prometheus,’ Ridley Scott takes up the questions posed by 1979′s ‘Alien’

Published: June 8, 2012 | 7:01 am
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The Space Jockey — the seemingly-skeletal remains of a giant creature discovered by astronauts exploring a derelict spacecraft — is one of the most iconic images from 1979′s “Alien.”

But the scene almost never happened. During the filming of the now-classic sci-fi chiller, executives at 20th Century Fox grumbled about the budget, which had originally been set at $4 million but then doubled. The film’s director, Ridley Scott, had made only one other movie (“The Duellists”) and was still unproven. There was no guarantee that all his wild ideas and concepts would translate into a commercial picture.

Couldn’t he just leave out the Space Jockey nonsense and save the studio a few bucks?

“There was a big fuss about it,” Scott remembers. “We needed to cut the costs because we were running at $8 million, which sounds like a bargain today. But you have to remember that ‘Star Wars’ had cost $11 million. This was a lot of money back then. The studio was nervous, and they argued that you really didn’t need that scene for the rest of the film to work.

“That’s one of the arguments I won,” Scott says after a pause. “And now here we are today.”

The $130-million “Prometheus,” Scott’s first foray into sci-fi since 1982′s “Blade Runner,” hinges entirely on the existence of the Space Jockey — or “Engineer,” as Scott prefers to call him. Set several years before “Alien,” the movie answers questions that have nagged fans of the series for three decades. Who — or what — was that enormous being? How did it die? Why was it hauling a cargo of eggs that hatched into xenomorphic monsters with acid for blood? And was the creature traveling alone or did it have company?

Those are the same questions that lingered in Scott’s head even after three “Alien” sequels and two “Alien vs. Predator” spin-offs.

“I really wasn’t agonizing to make another science-fiction movie,” Scott says. “But I did find it curious that no one in any of the subsequent ‘Alien’ movies had ever addressed these questions. There was a little bit of it at the end of the second ‘Alien vs. Predator,’ but I don’t really classify them as ‘Alien’ films. The series was kind of done, and we still didn’t know why the Engineer was there or how he had died.”

So Scott decided to find out for himself. In 2009, he hired screenwriter Jon Spaihts, who turned in an early version of the script. In 2010, Scott hired Damon Lindelof (from TV’s “Lost”) to rework the story and eliminate a lot of obvious odes to “Alien,” hoping to make “Prometheus” a stand-alone film.

“That first script was 80% ‘Alien’ and 20% new ideas,” Lindelof says. “We flipped it around. The big idea of the movie was already in place — a group of characters who believe they have discovered evidence that man was created by extraterrestrial life. I suggested taking out a lot of the conventional, familiar elements — face huggers, chest busters, all that stuff — and turning it into something more original.”

In the new film, a crew of scientists and astronauts (including Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Charlize Theron and Idris Elba) journeys to a remote and barren moon, answering the beacon of an unknown race of alien beings. The question of what the crew will find has generated tremendous excitement — primarily because Scott is the one leading their exploration. If the filmmaker were able to create a future as real and vivid as the dystopian Los Angeles of 1982′s “Blade Runner,” what would he come up with using cutting-edge CGI effects and 3D cameras?

“I was curious about that myself,” Scott says, laughing. “But that wasn’t the primary motivation for making ‘Prometheus.’ I think of it as having found a great screenplay that happens to have a lot of special effects in it. I’ve had some practice with digital effects, but never to the extent of the number of shots in this movie. And, of course, I can do today things I could have never done back then.”

Among those things: creating alien worlds on an enormous, mind-blowing scale.

“Epic is a word that gets thrown around a bit willy-nilly today,” Lindelof says. “But I think part of Ridley’s desire to return to this universe is that he had a much smaller canvas with ‘Alien,’ and now he can make his Sistine Chapel. The movie is also bigger in its thematic intent. Ridley was 41 when he made ‘Alien,’ and he just wanted a movie that was scary and terrifying. Now he’s older and starting to ask different questions about mortality and the meaning of life. This movie is much more profound: It just comes in a package that will get people into the theater. You can see this happening all over popular culture right now — grand ideas wrapped in stories that have broad appeal. ‘Game of Thrones’ does that. Christopher Nolan makes Batman movies that are also commentaries on terrorism and the increasing gulf between the classes.”

Scott admits that a major influence on “Prometheus” was Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” — which is about as lofty as you can get when making a mainstream science-fiction movie.

” ‘Alien’ was a haunted house picture. It was a B-movie made on the scale of an A-movie,” he says. “With ‘Prometheus,’ I was reaching a lot higher. You have scientists who share a common goal of exploring our genesis as human beings, the notion that we are an accident of biological evolution, the possibility of reaching a point in outer space that would bring us face to face with our maker.”

But although the two movies share thematic ground, the look and feel of “Prometheus” is distinctly Scott, not Kubrick.

“There were entire days when we just talked about ’2001,’ ” Lindelof says. “Then the next day, we would circle back to our script, and I would understand why Ridley had been talking about Kubrick. He wanted to give me a sense of pacing for this 30-page stretch of the movie.

“One of the hardest things of being a writer is that you always have an impulse to cram high incident into every page of the script. But Ridley sees the world in a very unique way. My job was simply to channel his vision for this movie and put it on paper. He would draw scenes on storyboards and show them to me. I would ask him if I could just write ‘refer to Ridley’s drawings here’ in the script. And he’d say: ‘No, you have to write it! That’s what I pay you for!’ ”

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