Tuesday 16 January 2018

Why we can't wait to meet the daddy of the Aliens

Sci-fi fans are all aflutter, because on June 1, Ridley Scott will release Prometheus, his long-awaited prequel to Alien. Although Scott's classic 1979 science-fiction chiller inspired a raft of sequels, the English director was not involved in any of them, and fans are hoping the new film will restore some of the original brilliance to a franchise that's been badly diluted down the years.

Prometheus is set in the 21st Century, and not directly connected to the stories told in the four Alien films.

After scientists discover virtually identical 'star maps' among the artifacts of three separate ancient civilisations, a space mission is launched to search for an alien race that may provide a missing link in the origins of mankind.

Noomi Rapace, Charlize Theron and Idris Elba play various members of the spaceship Prometheus's crew, but what sounds like the plum role goes to Michael Fassbender as David 8, an advanced android that cannot conceal its intellectual contempt for its human colleagues.

With its ambitious storyline and $100m (€78m) budget, it will be interesting to see if Prometheus manages to capture some of the magic of the original Alien.

That film sprang from nowhere to provide a dark counterpoint to the child-friendly Star Wars sagas, and completely change the course of the sci-fi genre. And however many times you've seen it, it's still the kind of movie you end up watching from behind the couch.

The idea for Alien had been knocking around Hollywood for several years by the time Ridley Scott got involved in the project, and was the brainchild of eccentric screenwriter Dan O'Bannon.

After collaborating with John Carpenter in the early 1970s on the cult sci-fi comedy Dark Star, O'Bannon began working on an idea about a terrifying alien that runs amok on a spaceship.

He called it Star Beast, and after he and another writer called Ronald Shusett had refined their script and given it the snappier title of Alien, it was picked up by a production company called Brandywine that was backed by 20th Century Fox.

O'Bannon had always assumed he'd get to direct the film, but practically no one else but him thought that was a good idea. Fox considered such steady Hollywood directors as Robert Aldrich and Walter Hill (who ended up producing the film), before Hill suggested an unknown Englishman called Ridley Scott.

Born in South Shields, Tyne and Wear in 1937, Scott studied art in London before pursuing a career in advertising.

In the early 1970s he directed some iconic television advertisements, including the famous Hovis ad, 'Bike Round'. But by 1978 Scott had just one feature film to his credit, a well-regarded low-budget period drama called The Duellists.

Fox executives were understandably nervous about his lack of experience, but hired him after he submitted impressively detailed storyboards for the whole film that included original designs for the spaceship, Nostromo, and the crew's suits.

O'Bannon's original idea for the film had been as a kind of "Jaws in space", and Scott agreed that the focus should be on horror rather than abstract science fiction.

Scott's boards and concept for a film he envisioned as "the Texas Chainsaw Massacre of science fiction" were so good that Fox doubled his budget from $4.2m to $8.4m, and a shooting start date of July 5, 1978 was agreed.

But the film's most important concept would come not from Scott or O'Bannon but from the mind of Swiss surrealist painter and designer HR Giger.

O'Bannon introduced Scott to Giger's extraordinary paintings of sinister, elongated, dome-headed beings, and the artist was hired to design the multi-jawed predator that terrorises the Nostromo's unfortunate crew.

O'Bannon and Ronald Shusett had already come up with the alien's alarming life-cycle, and the finished result was perhaps the most impressive imagining of an extraterrestrial species yet.

But Scott and O'Bannon knew that however good the creature's design was, its impact would be diminished if it appeared too early, or often.

Following the Spielberg/Jaws principle that what you don't see is much scarier than anything you do, the stowaway alien would only be glimpsed partially, down shadowy passageways and at various stages of its development, building tension.

In fact, Scott's film only became slightly problematic when the monster finally did appear, played by a seven-foot-tall Nigerian student called Bolaji Badejo, who wore a latex body suit. But Scott got away with it, because after all the carnage that had preceded it, this ungainly beast seemed plausible.

Shot in 14 weeks for an eventual budget of $11m, Alien became one of the surprise hits of 1979, making over $100m worldwide and establishing Scott as a major new director in Hollywood.

Sigourney Weaver, then an unknown young New York actress, was excellent as Ellen Ripley, the Nostromo's strait-laced but resourceful warrant officer.

The creature's gruesome lifestyle was brilliantly rendered by Scott and his special-effects team, and the part where the infant monster bursts out of John Hurt's stomach is one of the most famous scenes in cinema history.

In James Cameron's hugely successful 1986 sequel Aliens, Ripley is revived after floating through space in stasis for 57 years, and agrees to return to the LV-426 colony to combat an apparent outbreak of alien activity.

It was typical Cameron stuff: loud, violent, stylish, well-made and absolutely gripping. Aliens was hailed as among the greatest film sequels ever, and made $130m at the box office.

But however accomplished, Aliens lacked the focus and purity of intention of its predecessor, which worked on sheer tension rather than fireworks and cathartic fight scenes.

Still, Aliens was a worthy successor to Scott's film -- but things went rapidly downhill from there.

Alien 3 was doomed before it was ever released, thanks to slapdash script rewrites, studio interference and the last-minute appointment of a young David Fincher as director.

When Fincher finished shooting the film, Fox took it off him and extensively reworked it, and the experience almost put the talented director off working in Hollywood for good.

In Alien 3 (1992) poor old Ripley crash-lands on a high-security prison colony, bringing with her the customary alien infestation.

It was gloomy, dark, incoherent stuff, but would look like Citizen Kane compared with the dismal sequel that followed it.

Ellen Ripley had died nobly at the end of Alien 3, taking the hissing alien queen with her, but in Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Alien Resurrection (1997), she is revived through cloning to do battle with the alien once again. It was an unqualified mess.

The monster returned in the mid-2000s in the Alien vs Predator films, two clumsy action movies that attempted to fuse two sci-fi franchises into a new one.

All in all it was a sorry end for a sci-fi franchise that had started out so brilliantly.

And that's why fans are hoping that Scott's new prequel will restore the class and chilling majesty of his 1979 masterpiece.

Prometheus is released in Ireland on June 1.

pwhitington@independent.ie

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