“What if you could meet God but God turned out to be the Devil?” So asks Prometheus Executive Producer Michael Ellenberg of the themes at the heart of Ridley Scott’s first return to science fiction since his seminal work on Alien and Blade Runner.
At the core of Scott’s story are the eternal questions of human existence: who are we and where do we come from?
As Michael Fassbender summarises: “It’s basically about trying to find out if there was intervention in the birth of civilisation on planet Earth by other beings, which we come to know as Engineers, and whether they had a master plan in mind for us.”
Like all good science fiction, the germ of the idea began in examining the real world. Explains Ellenberg: “Ridley was inspired by everything from the Nazca Lines in Peru, which are these vast Earth sculptures can only be seen from the air, to cave paintings in France, to ancient Egypt and ancient Mayan civilisations. We’re pushing beyond what’s been found thus far and speculating about what maybe found in the future.”
For director Ridley Scott, the themes of Prometheus are a reaction to an abundance of post-apocalyptic cinema. Prometheus isn’t necessarily about looking forward, at what we might become, but it’s about looking back, at where we might have come from.
“It’s about the beginning of life and the eternal ‘what if’,” explains Scott. “Has this ball we’ve been sitting on right now been around for three billion years or one billion? And if we haven’t been pre-visited (by alien civilisations), then what was this planet doing for all that time before life came along? It’s only our arrogance that says, ‘No, it’s impossible, 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?”
After working on a draft with screenwriter Jon Spaihts, Scott called writer Damon Lindelof, best known as a co-creator of Lost, and asked him to collaborate on the script. “Ridley first called me in mid-July of (2010),” he remembers. “I’d never met him before, but obviously I was a massive fan of his work. I was driving in my car when the phone rang and a voice on the other end said, ‘Ridley Scott is going to call you in five minutes, are you available?’ After crashing my car and dealing with the immediate aftermath of that, I started talking to Ridley Scott. I was sort of trembling when he called me on the phone and he said he was going to send me a script.”
Spaihts’s draft was a direct prequel to Alien, and Scott explained to Lindelof that he was aiming to branch off into slightly more original territory. “He was also driven by these bigger thematic ideas about what this movie could be about,” says Lindelof. “We started having conversations, and as a result of those conversations we worked very closely together for a couple of months, rewriting the script until he was satisfied that it felt like it was its own movie.”
Adds Lindelof: “The amazing thing that Ridley does, as a director, is ground big ideas in some sort of fundamental reality. What’s cool about this movie is that it doesn’t take place on Earth, in any real significant way, so the way that we’re experiencing the future is really away from Earth. It’s more about what people are like now. What have they gone through? What are the things that they’re thinking about? The idea that we’re basically all going to be the same a hundred years from now, but we might be driven by different ideas, is what’s driving the movie.”
Production designer Arthur Max says the themes have been key to the way he’s envisioned the look of the film. “Very loosely, these creatures are some kind of genetic Engineers on an interplanetary level,” he teases. “They go around creating life. In certain ways, they’re kind of God-like.”
Logan Marshall-Green plays Holloway. He sums up the importance of Prometheus‘s thematic tapestry as being, “a movie based on a philosophy and not an alien. The movie’s intelligence holds you through most its runtime before you get in to all the action. You’re turning the page not just because of what happens but what is said.“
Laughs Marshall-Green: “Certainly, it makes an argument that will move away Darwinism, let’s just say!”
“Prometheus, in literature, was a Titan who stole fire from the Gods because they were keeping it to themselves and they were worried what mankind would do if we got our little paws on it,” teases Lindelof. “That theme is a resonating idea in Prometheus, the movie; what humans are doing that we probably shouldn’t be doing, in terms of technological innovation and, perhaps, exploration. Is there a line that shouldn’t be crossed? Part of the fun of the movie is understanding why we call it Prometheus.”
For Fassbender, the film’s themes reflect in the way the characters on board Prometheus interact with one another. “There’s always politics within, and that’s why, I think, this cast got together. The tempo, the pace, the intelligence of the script; each person has got their own agenda on that ship and it’s each a very individual agenda. Some people are there for the pay. Other people are there to get answers. Other people are there to hopefully attain some sort of secret. Others are there in somewhat of a spite journey. You’ve got all these collective relationships, individuals and motivations and that’s what makes quite intriguing even before the shit hits the fan.”
Charlize Theron found her connection to the film’s themes in the dark motivations of her character. “I thought there was tremendous potential to explore themes that the script was already exploring, through the eyes of a character that was so different from everybody else who’s on this mission,” she says. “You have these scientists going out there – one is a believer, one really isn’t – and you play on all these themes, but to really experience all of that stuff from the point of view of somebody who comes from a much more cold, economic, business suit sense of it was interesting.”
“I think that one of the really interesting ideas that the movie is dealing with,” describes Lindelof, “is this sense that space exploration, particularly in the future, is going to start to be not just about going out there and finding planets, so that we can build colonies, or anything else, but also this inherent idea that, the further we go out, perhaps the more we learn about ourselves. And, I think the characters in this movie – some of them at least – are very preoccupied with the idea of, ‘Where did we come from? What are our origins? What is our place in the universe? Are we the only sentient beings, or are there others?’”
It’s this point that Lindelof thinks really separates it from Alien. “In Alien it was just, ‘Hey, we’re miners. Oh, we ended up stepping in this huge pile of very frightening shit!’ So, although there are elements like that in this movie – and there certainly are scares – the idea of fundamentally and thematically exploring this idea of creation was always a big deal for Ridley.”