When the teaser trailers for Prometheus started coming out months ago, a good friend of mine nearly jumped out of her seat in the theater. Not only did she adore the first two Alien films (and adamantly pretended that the third and fourth ones didn’t exist), but she also loved the worlds created by Ridley Scott.
And who could blame her?
Ridley Scott is one of the only film directors alive today who understands a concept that science fiction writers have known for years – how to create an immersive world in which his stories take place.
Take for instance Blade Runner. This 1982 masterpiece dropped audiences right in the middle of a futuristic dystopia that felt completely alive. The streets were dirty and filled with a culture all its own, including noodle stands and electric billboards. The characters had backstories that didn’t need to be spoon-fed to the audience. The history of the replicants was logical and integrated into the economy of the city. Sure, the movie was based on a book and that helped to make this rich tapestry, but many lovers of the film have never picked up a copy of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? so this can’t explain why the world of the film had such depth.
The world had depth because Ridley Scott didn’t just shoot a screenplay. He created a world – a world that existed before we got there and still exists in imaginations today with its escaped replicants and origami unicorns.
In Ridley Scott’s long anticipated return to science fiction, Prometheus also delivers a complex and well-defined universe that audience members feel like they are merely visiting. Backstories don’t need to be given just because someone spent $10 on a movie ticket. Scientific data doesn’t need to be broken down and spoon-fed to the popcorn-eating babies. This is a world in which we don’t need to understand what’s happening because the characters already know it and are interacting based on the needs of the people in their world – and not in ours.
And my, what a vast and slimy world this one is too…
From the opening shots of the film, I felt like I was transported to another world that was gorgeous and expansive, but where dangers came in the form of oily black liquid. This was a universe where I knew that I needed to follow the science and military personnel from Earth in order for me to make it out alive. The technology was well designed and practical for the needs of the world. The interactions between characters were grounded and realistic, and their motivations were human and identifiable.
This is not to say that the film blew me away. I don’t see myself running out to purchase it on Blu Ray when it hits shelves. Sadly, Prometheus was underwhelming in terms of plot. I didn’t care if the characters lived or died and because I saw the first film, I already knew how this one was going to end. I’m not sure if Ridley Scott was trying to go for a “we must learn from history or be damned to repeat it” theme or not, but the story was basically the exact same as the first film in terms of plot twists and expectations. I knew who would live, who would turn evil and who would die. And while seeing the female lead use a surgical machine to cut an alien out of her own stomach was impressive, I was still far more empowered by Ripley than by Elizabeth Shaw.
But I think that Prometheus serves as a valuable lesson for aspiring directors because it does so well what few films before it have done – it has created a world that has an almost sensory experience for the audience. I felt the greasy oil and the sticky slime of this world. I wanted to take a shower when I left because the world itself was so real and well developed. Writers of fiction can talk about smells and thoughts to help create this kind of visceral experience, but film directors don’t have those tools at hand. All they have is visual images with which to build their worlds. And no one uses those visuals to create an immersive universe like Ridley Scott.