Improving Prometheus

John Powers, artist, blogger at Star Wars Modern, as well as Rhizome contributor, might now add "script doctor" to his bio. Yesterday, he unveiled his recent project — a rewrite of the script for Prometheus. I asked Powers several questions over email about his improvements to the script:

What was your reaction to Prometheus? How does that compare with your feelings about the films Alien and Aliens?

I was disappointed but still engaged. I had been looking forward to the film. After Requiem I could never have been lured back to another Alien movie, but it was Ridley Scott. And while I really don't like slasher films at all, body horror is something I've always been fascinated by. From Cronenberg's Fly, to Aronofsky's Black Swan, to  Natali's Splice, body horror has always been a genre that my imagination has latched onto. Alien is the ultimate. I would love to know the page count of academic papers written on the sexual horror of those films. When I realized Scott was making a stab at 2001 via Alien- ala a scifi film about God (but founded in body horror) I got really excited. 

So Prometheus has more in common with 2001 than the original Alien?

To horribly misquote Allen Ginsberg:  I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving, hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the exercise of filming their own 2001; A Space Odyssey

In 2002 Steven Soderbergh made a run at it (and bombed), via Post-Soviet chic, with his remake of Solaris. In 2006 Darren Aronofsky all but destroyed any artistic credibility he had by making The Fountain, a over-blown scifi opus about life, the universe, and everything. A year later Danny Boyle did it with a little more success (but not much) with his movie Sunshine (wrote about that one). In 2010 Christopher Nolan was clearly aiming for the Kubrick-esque moon with his film Inception (I wrote a LOT about tht one). And Terrence Malick was clearly swinging for the Jovian moons with Tree of Life

All these films excepting Inception (which is more about the film director as God, than God) are catastrophically flawed. All of them attracted A-list talent (Clooney, Jackman, Dicaprio, Spicoli...) and all were clearly passion projects on the part of their directors. So yeah, Ridley Scott may have said "I want to scare the living shit out of you." but then he turned around and explicitly tackled the themes of emerging post-millennial Kubrickian genre that Geoffrey O’Brien rightly calls "the speculative science fiction epic willing to flirt with cosmic pessimism; the eternally recurring saga of the space voyage toward our point of origin or ultimate destiny." 

Alien wasn't about the Nietzschean concept of man as "The Rope" between beast and Star Child, it was a bunch of kids trapped in a cabin with a killer on the loose -transposed to a space ship. Prometheus is peopled by creepy pale Aryan Übermensch (that unfortunately looked like a teenage boy's drawing of a muscleman). But while Kubrick and Clarke believed that contact with a God-like being would be indistinguishable from contact with THE creator, Ridley takes an amazing different view: God-like is not God. That Scott ends up in such a pessimistic disillusioned place - more Lovecraftian than Nietzschean - was, to my mind, the core of the film - and the core of what I tried to preserve in my script. 


How did the script rewrite come about?

The artist Bill Powhida and I both looked forward to Prometheus for months. We sent each other videos, essays, spoilers - whatever. Afterwards he organized a meet up for folks (guys really, it was a total sausage fest) at the Scratcher to talk out the film. Bill corresponded with me and read umpteen drafts of the script. I can't imagine doing something like this without at least one person who totally gets it.  

Also, just before I saw Prometheus I read Ken MacLeod's latest novel, Intrusion. It's an updating of Orwell's  1984, far less dire in obvious ways, but just as dystopian. For me the take-away of Ken's book and Scott's film were the same: that eventually, every dystopia will produce the citizen it deserves. An individual, or individuals, so alienated, with so little stake in their own society's welfare and therefor so little to lose from its collapse, that they will stand by or even hasten its doom. David is the man his world deserves. 

Criticism of Prometheus seems to be that it was overloaded with too many details. But your updated scripted doesn't read like cutting the fat. Don't you feel that a complicated plot might be too much of a departure from the original film? 

I didn't want to cut or to add. I wanted to rationalize and darken, not simplify. While I changed a lot of imagery and added plenty of dialogue, I didn't add any characters or entirely new scenes. My script pretty much follows the course of the original scene for scene. But where they say "cesarian" I say "abortion". I trust that you are an adult and that you want to be challenged, that you are willing to be made uncomfortable.

My biggest departure from the original was that I didn't make a movie, I made a script. To enjoy what I made, you have to have seen the film; You have to have that art work in your mind's eye, to see what I am trying to show you. I am asking you to re-imagine those same faces, that same score, those same sets, but slightly, and crucially,  different. I am using your memories of the original to give my ideas flesh, but also - I hope - getting you to reconsider the what was (David's contempt) and wasn't (Shaw's longing) the crux of the original. 

Could you describe some of the major changes you made to the script? 

I had a great time making Fifield and Millburn sound and behave like scientists - but doing so without changing their roles within the greater plot. 

There are some weird Hollywood ticks that I felt compelled to get rid of. Scott and his collaborators seem to take a couple particularly terrible pages from the Lucas playbook. The first is the idea that audiences like when you repeat things. I felt that David's pain and contempt for all those around him had been squandered. I flet strongly that Shaw did not deserve to be in the same room with Ripley, much less take up her mantle. So I didn't feel honor-bound to end my story the way they ended theirs. 

Assitionally I really dislike the idea that Christianity can be treated as an archetype. This isn't because I'm a Christian, I'm not, I just really can't stand Joseph Campbell. I did my best to root out the whole "space Jesus" idea embedded within the original script - and to do so without making Shaw an atheist or a Zoroastrian. I didn't want to get rid of Christianity, but I wanted to treat it with the respect I think it is due: as a belief system; a moral code, not a myth. I benefitted from a great essay by Adrian Bott on the christain symbolism of the film.

(re)Engineer (author's maquette)

Would you consider this fan fiction? 

Totally. It isn't a brand of Fan Fiction I've seen before, I'm not writing an unauthorized sequel or imagining Fifield and Millburn having gay sex (weirdly enough someone else has done that in graphic detail). Like every other artist living I am guilty of appropriation, allusion, evoking, out-right stealing, and ham-fisted homage. I call my Star Wars project "fan nonfiction", so this wasn't a huge step for me, but still one that I knew would leave a lot of people scratching their heads. Now that I've done it though I wondered why I haven't seen more artists doing fan-fiction (and why it took me so long to do it myself). Maybe its just that no one has ever thought to do a "show" of fan fiction...