Return of the 'Alien' Mind

Ridley Scott
Ridley Scott
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This story first appeared in the May 25 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

In July 2010, Lost co-creator Damon Lindelof was summoned to a private meeting with Ridley Scott to discuss a top-secret project the director had been developing for the past two years. Lindelof had never met Scott, but the filmmaker called out of the blue asking him to read a screenplay hand-delivered to his home in Studio City. The script had no cover and no title, yet it was precisely the one Lindelof -- a sci-fi geek with A-list television credentials -- was hoping for: the much-rumored, massively pursued manuscript known variously as The Alien Prequel, Alien Origins, Alien Engineers and Alien Zero.

Now Lindelof was ushered by the director to a building adjacent to Scott's sleek Los Angeles offices. "Ridley walked me up a stairwell, and there was a great big metallic vault door," recalls Lindelof. "It was a foot thick with some kind of locking apparatus, and he opened it carefully." Inside was a beehive of activity. "He introduced me to production designer Arthur Max and four 20-year-olds sitting at computers, designing stuff."

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That "stuff" was the future as seen through Scott's eyes, his vision for a world set in the years 2089 to 2091, which would return him to themes that had swirled through his mind since Alien more than three decades earlier. It was the incubator for the movie now known as Prometheus.

"All around the walls was conceptual artwork -- for the planet and the ship, as well as 'the creature,' " remembers Lindelof. "I got to step behind the curtain."

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The curtain will be lifted June 8, when 20th Century Fox releases Prometheus domestically. Almost four years in the making, with a budget of $120 million to $130 million covering 1,300 CGI shots and an 87-day shoot that took its crew from London to Iceland to Jordan's Wadi Rum desert, the picture -- named for the mythological Titan who stole fire from the gods -- is one of the most anticipated in years.

For Fox, which co-financed with Dune Capital Management and Ingenious Media, the R-rated movie is crucial to revitalize a now-extinct franchise and replicate the success of the $8.4 million Alien; that seminal film not only earned $81 million at the domestic box office -- a huge sum at the time -- but also led to three sequels and two prequels, culminating in 2007's desultory Alien vs. Predator: Requiem.

For Scott, a revered helmer who was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 2003, it would add to a significant body of work that includes Blade Runner and Thelma & Louise -- and give him his first mega-blockbuster since 2000's best picture Oscar winner Gladiator. It would also allow him to remain one of the highest-paid directors in Hollywood with a multi-million dollar fee. (He cuts his salary substantially for passion projects, including his next film, The Counselor.)

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Scott's new movie has gone from being a prequel to a self-contained story starring Charlize Theron, Michael Fassbender and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo's Noomi Rapace. It only makes passing reference to its 1979 inspiration and pays heavy tribute to author Erich von Daniken's ideas in his 1968 book Chariots of the Gods? -- which argued that we are not alone and another sentient entity might have spawned us.

The movie has been under wraps for years: Fox would not even confirm it was related to Alien and refused to show more than a trailer to any significant number of viewers until mid-April. But on a gray April 3 in London, under relentless rain, I approach the squat Abbey Road Studios -- home of Sir Edward Elgar and The Beatles -- where Scott has promised to unveil long portions of the film for the first time.

A security guard checks my ID; a receptionist scrutinizes me. I follow an assistant into a small mixing room -- and there is Scott, 74, redheaded with a small goatee. He hunches his compact body like a pugilist, scans me for danger and then suddenly, with disarming gentleness, pulls up a chair for me and points to a TV-sized monitor dangling from the ceiling.

Even on this tiny screen, the images are breathtaking.

A spaceship travels comet-like across the universe, traversing planets and stars in a desaturated world. Next we see a barren landscape with traces of water, then a hooded figure standing by a magnificent waterfall, staring out at a spaceship that hovers above it.

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A third sequence shows a cave-exploring couple, Rapace and Logan Marshall-Green (Devil). Their flashlights illuminate primitive drawings; in one, a human figure points toward spherical objects in space, leading Rapace to observe, "I think they want us to come and find them."

Then, in a scene likely to be memorable, the severed head of an android speaks as it lies on the floor. It's the moment most reminiscent of Alien and Ian Holm's decapitated robot.

A sequence with a ship hurtling on a collision course with another ensues. Finally, there is a riveting moment in a cavernous corridor when Rapace and her colleagues encounter giant humanoids -- made of shimmering lines that resemble X-rays -- who race toward them and pass straight through, as nebulous as neutrinos.

Scott gazes at this, mesmerized by the sheer beauty of it all, just as he must have been in his teens when he first contemplated life as an artist.

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Prometheus dawned when Scott told Fox Filmed Entertainment co-chairman Tom Rothman that he wished to revisit the territory that had been under his skin since he was bypassed for 1986's Aliens, the sequel that propelled James Cameron's career. "I was really pissed off, frankly," he says about the old wound.

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