Prometheus: We talk Alien and tech with Ridley’s writer duo

Jun 1, 2012
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Prometheus has arrived with a bang, Ridley Scott's expansive Alien prequel, and SlashGear sat down with writers Damon Lindelof and Jon Spaihts to talk Quadrilogy canon, SpaceX and angry androids. Jointly responsible for a screenplay that has spawned intense debate and no small amount of controversy, both Lindelof and Spaihts have a history of creating science-fiction that's as cerebral as it is explosive.

Creator of the original script, Spaihts developed the initial "bridge" concept between the Alien universe and humankind - a team of explorers seeking answers to the origins of life on Earth, in a mission that drops them squarely into terror - and worked on the project since late 2009. Lindelof - who, with JJ Abrams, counts Lost to his name, along with the Star Trek reboot - was brought onto the team in mid-2010, and helped guide the screenplay away from a direct Alien prequel and toward the point where it straddles both the Xenomorph universe as audiences know it, and a new and engaging story in its own right.

[Vincent Nguyen] Congratulations on the premiere! Are you excited to have it out in the public eye finally?

[Jon Spaihts] I've been walking around for weeks, being careful what to say, and it's gotten harder as the trailers come out and are getting longer and longer, so more and more information is getting into the public space, which makes it harder and harder to remember what it is I'm allowed the talk about.

[Damon Lindelof] I think I'd say the same, I'm really looking forward to talking about what it is versus what it's gonna be for fear of again, we are, experiencing it sitting it in a movie theater and you see a trailer, and you think "ah, I saw the entire thing!" And so we want to adhere to not giving anything away, but at the same time you don't want to feel like you're being overly protective, or too cagey, or keeping this secret because you have something to hide.

[JS] Plus, you don't want to patronize people, because so much information has leaked out; you try to play your little cloak & dagger game, and keep it quiet. They can get impatient with it.

[DL] So it will be a relief in that sense, that there's still a tremendous amount of "how's it gonna be received?", "what's the box office going to be?", "are people gonna say 'I'm glad this movie exists' or 'it never should've been made in the first place'." All of those things create, y'know… we're writers, we're anxious guys.

[JS] Yeah, we want to be understood, we want to be welcomed.

[DL] Jon has been working on Prometheus for three years; I've been on for two. So, it's a big influence, it's a large part of your life.

Damon Lindelof on the Prometheus red carpet:

[Chris Davies] Obviously there's a large amount of mythology of the universe, the Alien Quadrilogy is much-loved by science-fiction enthusiasts. It wasn't billed as a prequel, though it was quickly described as one. How much pressure did you feel to kind of fit it in to that sort of universe?

[aquote]It's impossible to fit it completely into the Alien universe, because it isn't internally consistent itself[/aquote]

[JS] It's impossible to fit it completely into that universe, because that universe isn't completely internally consistent itself. There are, online - I found out when I first embraced the project - these colossal compendia of lore about the Alien universe, that try to reconcile the minutiae of four nominal films and two spin-off films, and novelizations, computer games, graphic novels, comic books… there's so much stuff. And a lot of it doesn't agree with itself.

So you try to honor the lore as much as you can, with what the fans consider canonical, as much as possible: why revisit a universe you're not going to honor? But in the end, I think it's an impossible task to be consistent with everything, and your first task must be to tell a compelling story that stands in its own right.

[DL] Yeah, and I think that, just playing off of what Jon just said, which is better articulated than what I could articulate… I look at the original movie, Alien, as this great album that Ridley Scott made, and there are songs on this album that I'll feel like they're "of the Alien", and the goal for Prometheus is to say "we have to play a couple of those hits, and where in the set are we going to play them?" Are they in the encore, do we mix them in? How many of the original songs do we play compared to new songs. But what was really important was that this new songs felt like they were new but they were in harmonic convergence with the tracks from the original. So you don't want to stray too far afield from it, but at the same time it has to justify its own existence.

The big idea of the movie that pre-existed my involvement was right there on page one of Jon's script, saying "We are… this movie isn't about wandering into a haunted house, this is about seeking one out" and why would one ever want to seek out a haunted house? Let's populate it with characters who are motivated to do precisely that. And when I read it I thought "oh, this is not at all what I expected from the Alien prequel that I've heard about, I wanna go see that movie", and that was the beginning of my journey, and I felt a very compelling idea which the movie now delivers - it was a worthy story to tell.

[VN] Speaking of characters, was there any inspiration from [Star Trek's] Seven of Nine and Data? I felt there was a little bit of similarity between her role…

[DL] Hmm, we never talked about that …

[VN] … and Data, and David, I felt like…

[JS] I've seen it all

[VN] … they were very similar characters. And I love them both, I love the way they were similar.

[JS] It would be interesting to look at the timeline for the space-fairing android in popular culture.

[DL] It's a good name for a college band

[JS] "Space-fairing Android"? Awesome. It would be acid jazz probably

[DL] Uh-huh

[JS] I expect you could probably draw a line from Data the android and the crew of the Enterprise, to Ash and the crew of the Nostromo; it became a trope in the Alien universe that there was an android aboard. And it wouldn't surprise me if that inclusion - although, y'know, Robbie the Robot was aboard the Space Family Robinson's flying saucer, so I suppose the trope goes farther back than that - the mechanical man as one member of the crew. So I think there are definitely instances of a trope that runs pretty far back into the culture of sci-fi.

[aquote]I'm already amongst my creators and I have to be honest with you, I'm not impressed[/aquote]

[DL] One of the things that think though that was definitely already existing in, that Jon created in the character of David, and that got pushed further and further as the movie developed, was that unlike Data or Seven of Nine - and more like Ash - David was not interested in being a "real boy." This idea that Data is sort of fascinated by humans and so desperately wants to be one and experiment, his adventures with his emotion chip. David was already looking at himself as "not too close, I hope"… there's this moment of, like, "hey, look, I sort of look at your tired desire to seek out these questions, the answers to these questions as folly, as I'm amongst my creators and I have to be honest with you, I'm not terribly impressed."

[JS] Exactly

[DL] And I think that that is a slightly different spin on the robot.

[VN] In some sense the robot thought he was better than them, because he felt that he could do much more than them.

[JS] Yes, and one of the things which is interesting to me - [Damon] this is your work - he always had that intellectual vanity, that sense of, that knowledge of his own superiority. And one thing emerged from the work that Damon and Ridley did after I was on, was kind of cosmetic vanity, or personal vanity that accompanied that intellectual vanity, and the line of association came along afterward, and plays on the same points.

[DL] I had a… I often change the case on my iPhone cover, and Ridley was like "Why do you keep changing that?" And I said "I don't know, it's the same iPhone but I like to dress it differently." And he said "Do you think David would do that?" And I said "What do you mean?"

And he said "well, he's a piece of technology, there are obviously thousands of models that look exactly like [David actor] Michael Fassbender, but would they mod themselves? And that was the beginning of the conversation of, like, well what if he was obsessed with Lawrence of Arabia. As opposed to, he's a cybernetic individual who watches every single movie in the history of movies, which we've all seen before, there's just one that he really liked and watches over and over and over again; he says, I'm gonna dye my hair blonde right down to the roots, because I think that's cool. And I said, oh, okay - this is an entirely different take on that idea, so let's run with that.

[CD] Do you think… obviously we're still quite a long way out from artificial intelligence of that kind of level, do you think inevitably they're going to end up resenting us as the evolutionary step that came before? Which do you think is more likely, the Data path or the David path?

[JS] I think that artificial intelligence good enough to converse with is definitely coming. What is not obvious to me - but that we tend to treat as obvious - is that when a machine gets smart enough it will begin to want things. I'm not sure they ever will begin to want things, there's no reason that they should. We wanted things as biological organisms before we were smart; we wanted things since we were cells, it was in us first. It's not a property of our intelligence: although we can feel like we are generating it, feel like we own our desires, but we had them before we could think. Everything has them that is alive. That's where "want" comes from, and it doesn't follow for me that if you make a machine smart enough it will begin to want things too. So I'm not sure that we're going to see personalities like that.

So I think if we want our machines to want things, we're going to have to make them want things, and it will be a very difficult process. Harder than making them talk.

[DL] A more interesting root of your question is, why would we build a robot that looked exactly like us? I mean, the fundamental idea of, we can build robots that can go to places that we can't go, because they can withstand extreme climates or they don't require air. But what is the benefit of having Data onboard the Enterprise? Yes, I understand that somebody needs to be onboard the bridge 24 hours a day, and because he doesn't sleep there's no limitation, but why does he need to look like us? Why can't he look like Robbie the Robot, etc? There is this inherent vanity in saying "I'm going to create a being that looks exactly like me" - why? It's weird?

[JS] They spend billions of dollars that's identical to the fella you can hire off the street for twenty bucks an hour.

[DL] And there's this thing called the Uncanny Valley, which I'm sure you're familiar with, which is that thing where it's actually displeasing to look at something that's modeling human behavior but it's just off. It has… it's that Polar Express effect of the dead eyes.

[JS] Yeah

[aquote]Will movies that portray cybernetic individuals be portrayed by cybernetic individuals?[/aquote]

[DL] Of basically saying "this is actually a little bit disquieting, uncomfortable to look at" - and are we going to be able to build that bridge to Michael Fassbender, who looks more or less like a human, and is portrayed by a human. But my question is in twenty years will movies that are portraying cybernetic individuals be portrayed by cybernetic individuals? Wouldn't it be interesting to watch one of these movies where it's not Michael Fassbender, but we build Michael Fassbender to play David? What would that be like? We don't have that technology yet, but it could be pretty cool.

[CD] It's quite timely at the moment, with SpaceX's Dragon capsule going up as the first private company docking with the…

[JS] The International Space Station

[CD] Right. One of the big things all through the Alien franchise, and in Prometheus, is the idea of a private company pushing scientific exploration, but for its own agenda. What are your thoughts on that, where do you stand on this "government funded space exploration for the benefit of man" or that commercial angle to it

[JS] It's a tricky one. If some commercial benefit to space travel can be found, that's a much more reliable basis for space travel moving forward… we got to the moon through sheer force of will, but there was very little in it. There's nothing to bring home, there's no benefit economically. There was notional benefit, we benefited our superiority over the Soviet Union, we showed what man can do, we showed we could make very powerful missiles. And all of that was very important at that time, but when those, when that imperative, when that rivalry went away, the need to go back to the moon faded away, because it was an emotional need.

Jon Spaihts on the Prometheus red carpet:

Whereas geostationary orbit, and low-Earth orbit, are incredibly profitable places to be. Satellites are there, you can do really valuable things: they've studied the stars, they've studied the weather, they've gathered intelligence, they've broadcast communications. So there's a lot of private industry throwing satellites into orbit. I hope, actually, that we… there have been interesting speculations about mining asteroids, pulling them back for nickel-iron and whatever else to make money. I hope that we find some meaningful, profitable enterprise in space, because that will keep us exploring, that will get us off the world and reaching outward. And I think the private industry is ultimately the best way for a lot of those things to arise, in the same way that it was privateering that drove the nautical expansion of Earth's industrial civilizations, out to what they called "the unoccupied continents."

[DL] Or just manifest destiny in general. I'm a capitalist at heart, and I do think that greed or - certainly in the case of science fiction - the desire to potentially elongate one's life, or finding extraterrestrials, is cool, but there is this fundamental "what's in it for me?" that drives us all in terms of motivation. I think in the idealistic time of the 1960s, it was enough to just say "what's in it for me is the idea of, like, the unobtainable idea of landing on that thing that I looked up at there in the sky, that fifty years ago could not have been imagined, but now…"

[JS] Like conquering Everest

[DL] Yeah, "…but now technically now is within my grasp." But for our generation, we're so spoilt… so the idea of landing on Mars, we basically go "why? The rover landed out on Mars, I've seen the pictures; what are we going to do there?" Is [Total Recall's] Cohagen going to go there and, y'know, create atmosphere and mine it? That doesn't seem particularly sexy to me. But even a movie like Avatar, in science-fiction, the whole fundamental spirit of that movie is Unobtanium, and I think that [Director James] Cameron's desire to name it such is a wink at the obvious, in terms of saying "there's no reason to go to Pandora and hang out with these big blue things, unless we can make money off of it."

[aquote]Exploration for profit does make sense[/aquote]

That's relatable, that's something we can understand, versus hey, y'know, The Planet of the Apes idea, which is just more like the concept of astronauts accidentally landing in a place which is a weird and alien world, under the auspices of just exploration. Exploration doesn't really make sense to us any more. Exploration for profit does make sense.

[JS] Although the one interesting exception is that one of the great businesses that we can imagine in space right now is space tourism.

[DL] Yes.

[JS] That's a for-profit business driven by individuals' intense feeling of how cool it is to go there.

[DL] Just to say, y'know, I've been there.

[VN] Being a tech site, I would like our readers to know what are your favorite gadgets? In your regular life, aside from work.

[DL] I would say, as unoriginal as it is: iPhone, iPad, can't live without. And my Slingbox is now my… [to Jon] Do you have one of those?

[JS] No…?

[DL] Essentially it's a gizmo attached to your cable box or your DirectTV, and you download an app on your iPad and you can watch anything that your television has, or your DVR, as long as you have a WiFi connection. So it's basically a portable DVR. I love it.

[JS] I want to have an exotic answer too, but I'm deeply embedded in the iPhone, iPad…

[VN] And are you excited about the new one that's coming out?

[DL] There's a new iPhone?

[VN] Well supposedly, they're talking about…

[JS] They're talking about the [iPhone] 5 a little bit.

[VN] Is that exciting to you?

[JS] It will if they show me that I can do something new. I want a new super-power. Just bigger, better, fancier is not going to be exciting. Faster is not enough, but new super-power, new sale.

[VN] We'll take that back to Apple!

[JS] Good, please do!

[DL] You tell those bums, we're waiting!

Make sure to check out our full review of Prometheus, and standby for more coverage of one of the biggest movie events of 2012!


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