June 12, 2012

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It has been 30 years since Ridley Scott directed Blade Runner, and he hasn’t lensed an indelible image since. That is, until Prometheus, the Alien prequel which resurrects H.R. Giger’s oozingly organic set and creature design. Scott has never had a more brilliant collaborator, and filming the late Giger’s vision in elegantly executed 3D makes for an immersively entertaining spectacle, opening up the dank corridors of Alien into deepening chasms and high-vaulted chambers. It’s a 3D film with depth effects in every frame, one of the rare blockbusters to fully take advantage of the technology.

The story is starry-eyed pulp, as God-fearing scientist Elisabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) believes that the symbols from ancient cave paintings point to a distant planet that may hold the secret to the origins of human life. She and her douchey husband Charlie (Logan Marshall-Green) are hired by the demonstrably evil Weyland Corporation to explore said planet, and discover that its inhabitants, instead of divulging the secrets of the universe, might want to implant wriggling monsters into their chests.

There’s a lot of convoluted mythmaking here, along with a tossed off religion vs. science debate, but in its most basic form it follows the template popularized by The Thing From Another World (1951), where a small group of adventurers are trapped in an isolated area and threatened by a malevolent force. In the hands of Howard Hawks, the setup is an excuse to explore the dynamics of a group at work, while It! The Terror From Beyond Space (1958) is a B-movie spin on the material more concerned with streamlined thrills. It is the latter that was one of the main influences on Alien, although initially unacknowledged. The ’58 Edward L. Cahn film is about an exploratory space ship in which a monstrous alien stowaway hitches a ride on the return trip to Earth. Screenwriter Jerome Bixby said, “I feel like the grandfather of Alien“, because of all of the similarities between the two films, and even consulted his lawyer about taking legal action against Dan O’Bannon’s script (Which is all very silly, considering how much he admittedly lifted from the Hawks film).

Damon Lindelof and Jon Spaihths’ script for Prometheus, despite all its gestures towards the mystical, retains the structure of Thing and It! and Alien. It is almost a beat for beat remake of the latter, opening with a steadi-cam tour of an emptied out ship, its inhabitants still in stasis. Then there is the touch down onto the strange planet, the growing realization that something is “off” (including a foreboding storm in both), with chaos soon ensuing. The only departure Prometheus takes from Alien and It! is that the main action occurs on the alien planet, not the ship. This allows for grand landscape shots of a dramatic mountain valley (shot in Iceland), that opens up the film and creates a nice tension with the tight dark hallways that dominates the rest of the action inside what is thought to be a hollowed out hill. These interiors eventually open up themselves, revealing intricately designed, bone-edged chambers. These grand crevasses and dark hallways are perfect for 3D, and Scott and his collaborators take full advantage.

Director of Photography Dariusz Wolski was instrumental in getting Scott to shoot in 3D, convincing him that they could shoot at the same tempo as 2D with new “atom” rigs from 3ality Technica (see below) that are half the size of usual stereoscopic setups. This allowed them to attach them to tripods, dollies and steadicams, enabling the same freedom of motion as 2D cameras. Stephen Pizzo from 3ality describes the setup: “They had the four studio cams working continuously and they would bring in the steadicam rig as required. The crew moved the rigs around just as if they were regular cameras, and other than the addition of a convergence puller for that shoot, it looked very much like a standard crew compilation.” The results are often stunning, as the film adds the cavernous dropoffs of waterfalls and mountain valleys to add to the depth effects of the narrow passageways of Alien. Further enhancing the effect is the sparing use of green screen, with the majority of scenes shot in massive sets constructed by Scott’s long time production designer Arthur Max. This gives the 3D a tactility gone missing in most of the all-CG 3D blockbusters. According to Wolski in Variety, Scott reacted to the new technology by saying, “Guys, we’ve been shooting 3D all our lives. We always think three-dimensional, now we just have a tool to enhance it.”

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