In his eagerly awaited film, Ridley Scott returns to sci-fi, the genre he helped to redefine with 'Alien' and 'Blade Runner'
You get the sense that Scott, 74, shares this view of his career to some extent. It would certainly explain his decision to return to science fiction after three decades with this weeks enigmatic genre entry Prometheus, and soon, perhaps, with a rumored Blade Runner sequel. (Unless we count the sometime ad mans memorable, 1984-inspired Super Bowl spot introducing Apples Macintosh, in which case its only been, oh, 28 years.)
Scott, his Prometheus collaborators, and the studios marketing team have teased fans for months with cagey hints and deflections about the film and whether its in fact an Alien prequel. The official synopsis: A team of explorers [Noomi Rapace, Charlize Theron, Michael Fassbender, and Idris Elba] discover a clue to the origins of mankind on Earth, leading them on a thrilling journey to the darkest corners of the universe. There, they must fight a terrifying battle to save the future of the human race.
So there we have it clear as the mud on some alien-spittle-slicked extraterrestrial surface. Still, you can bet that Scotts aim is to school audiences all over again in how to redefine a genre. On that note, we submit our list possibly soon to be amended of Five Things Ridley Scott Has Helped Teach Us About Sci-Fi:
1. The future is a grimy place to visit, and you wouldnt want to live there.
In Alien, Sigourney Weaver and her shipmates might be sailing through deep space, but theres no final-frontier wonder about it, none of the excitement that comes with discovering a galaxy far, far away. Their ship, the Nostromo, is a cargo transport carrying hauling mining ore the spacefaring equivalent of an oil rig, as the films realistically contained, industrial-dreary set design constantly reminds us.
In Blade Runner, 2019 Los Angeles has a mesmerizing nighttime sheen, but the light sources include refinery flames, Jumbotron blimps pitching exorbitant off-world escapesa better life off-world (Scott the ad man again), and glowing umbrellas devised to cope with the relentless dirty rain. The film doesnt hesitate to take showy elements conceptualized by futurist Syd Mead and just scuff them right up; whatever beauty the cityscape offers from a distance, up close its shabby, crowded, and, well, gross. (No wonder Harrison Fords android-hunting cop does a light undercover bit as a moral-violations inspector.)
In her 1987 book, Screening Space: The American Science Fiction Film, cinema scholar Vivian Sobchack uses the term inverted millenarianism to characterize Scotts genre aesthetic: the visual trashing and yet operative functioning of what used to be shiny futurist technology. And in this case, were not talking about Star Wars jalopies destined for great things; brightly lit adventure doesnt lie just around the corner of Scotts visual heaps. As Prometheus co-writer Damon Lindelof (Lost) reflected in a recent Entertainment Weekly interview, Ridley decided to say, Im going to look at the future the way it might actually look. Im going to think about what urban design is going to look like, the ships are going to be gritty and grungy, the people who inhabit this world are blue-collar people. He took the fantasy out of sci-fi and grounded it in a profound way.
2. As the tagline for Alien famously put it, In space no one can hear you scream. But women sure can roar.
Sigourney Weavers Ellen Ripley is, of course, one of the great, strong maternal heroines in cinema history. No, Scott wasnt responsible for that poster image of Weaver clutching orphan girl Newt in one arm and a creature-blasting machine gun in the other; thats from Aliens, James Camerons 1986 sequel. (For the original, Weaver is probably more typically pictured climactically confronting the monstrous xenomorph in her undies. Consider that another lesson from Scott: Space travel demands cottony comfort.) Still, Scott and Weaver together composed all of the key notes for the character. On a ship crewed mostly by men, Ripley is the one with the resourcefulness and resilience to survive. She gives half the orders, always with an eye toward protecting the group. And while she might not have a kid in her care just yet, shes almost suicidally attentive toward that danger-prone cat. The ships computer isnt the only Mother on board the Nostromo.
You can see strands of Ripleys DNA in a variety of screen heroines whove captured our imaginations since. Youd guess Cameron had her somewhere in his mind when he conceived Linda Hamiltons character for The Terminator, and particularly when he had Hamilton morph into a driven she-warrior for T2. In Scotts Thelma & Louise, Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon, like Ripley, find themselves drawing on surprising reserves of back-against-the-wall gutsiness.
In both the Swedish and Hollywood adaptations of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, cyberpunk hacker Lisbeth Salander also feels, in a way, like a Scott creation. Some have likened the character to Daryl Hannahs Blade Runner wackjob Pris, a lethal, screwed-up, grotesquely made-up fembot. But consider Lisbeths dark echoes of Ripley: Shes a formidable fighter when pushed, and at the same time manages to reconcile her ass-kicking streak with a need to look after partner/lover Mikael Blomkvist. No coincidence, maybe, that Prometheus lead Rapace played Lisbeth in the Swedish Tattoo.
3. By definition, creature features feature creatures so better make em good and scary.
Scott studied at art school and draws his own elaborately composed storyboards. Early in his career, he even held a BBC production gig that nearly saw him overseeing design on Doctor Who. (A scheduling conflict reportedly killed an assignment to develop cult-fave robotic villains the Daleks.) Despite this background or because of it he shrewdly enlisted Swiss surrealist artist H.R. Giger to handle the creature designs for Alien. (Same idea with Mead on Blade Runner.) The phallic, eyeless skull, the telescoping razor-toothed maw, the creepy biomechanical hide all of it flowed from Gigers primal renderings. Few movie monsters have been more iconic.
Its telling that today, even with all of the effects technology at Hollywoods disposal, sci-fi movies cant seem to conjure up anything even a fraction as potent. Any guaranteed lasting memories of the beasties in Men in Black 3? Probably not. John Carter? Nope. Cowboys & Aliens? Sorry, pardners. But hey, good news: Giger reportedly contributed a couple of background elements to Prometheus.
4. Androids apparently never got the memo re: Better Living Through Technology.
The replicants of Blade Runner Rutger Hauers Roy Batty, Hannahs Pris, and friends are the ultimate in existential angst, artificial beings tormented by questions of identity and purpose precisely because they know that answers might be out there. No wonder theyre so unforgettably, homicidally nuts (Batty is right).
This wasnt the first time that Scott imagined that humanoid robots might have it in for us. In Alien, Ian Holms coldly clinical undercover android Ash established the genuss insidiousness in fine, freaky style. Part of the fun of re-watching Alien is recognizing the bird-of-prey tics Holm flashes as Ash dispassionately studies the monsters vivisection of the crew. Wired magazine featured an intriguing piece a few months back discussing a robotics-confounding concept that one scientist has dubbed the uncanny valley the eerie sensation that people feel seeing creations that appear almost human, but not quite. While Ash might not be on the valley floor hes played mostly by a human performer, of course wed say hes on the slope leading there.
5. Forget about any unwritten rules against leaving fans hanging. Do just that, and theyll hang with you for decades.
Is there some definitive read that Blade Runner audiences are meant to have on the origami unicorn that Edward James Olmoss inscrutable cop leaves for Harrison Fords Deckard and lover/replicant Rachael (Sean Young) at the films conclusion? Cultists still wonder, and not just idly. (Skeptical? Try Googling Blade Runner unanswered questions.) What was the story behind, say, the fossilized Space Jockey that Ripleys crewmates stumble onto when they ill-advisedly answer that fateful distress signal? We never found out at least not until now, as word has it that Prometheus revisits the mystery. Not a bad job of holding fans attention for a director whos been otherwise occupied since you were knee-high to a chestburster.
Tom Russo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.