I've not seen the film yet but Ridley Scott went on record at the premiere of Prometheus saying that it wasn't a prequel to Alien but then said in the same interview that if it was there would need to be three more films to bring it up to the period that Alien is set; what's your opinion on writers/directors going back and adding to a series after a period of time? Is it worth potentially diluting the series just to utilise the computer technology we have today?
That’s a tough one. In the case of the ‘Star Wars’ prequels it’s abhorrent, but I think that it was more an issue of execution (script, casting, the whole nine). I think it becomes okay if the script is universally excellent and respectful to the original material. And in terms of the effects, the main issue I see is if filmmakers wish to take advantage of the new technology that we have, then they must use that technology properly. It’s a particular failing of the CGI craft, which I was going to write about in a post, but since you’ve brought it up it’s likely the best time and place to address it.
The beauty of films like Ridley’s original ‘Alien’ in 1979 was the use of practical effects in front of the camera. The creature was done so incredibly well, and was lit accordingly. Same could be said of the aliens in James Cameron’s ‘Aliens.’ But with the advent of CGI, the use of puppets / costumes / miniatures has dwindled, and replaced with CGI.
I’ve no particular umbrage with CGI, but like any other tool, it has to be applied correctly. A lot of the CGI I see in films today lack - for lack of a better term - gravity. The characters move within their own physics and seem to have a different mass and sense of weight than the live action characters in the film. They are very clearly CGI, and we know it, and for me that renders the film as that much less effective in making me take the leap of faith it is requesting me to do.
I still put forth that the best CGI in any modern film is still the velociraptor sequence in Steven Spielberg’s “Jurassic Park.” Even though the CGI is done on technology that is 22 years old, the film’s effects still hold up, in large part because the filmmakers gave the CGI dinos true mass - they move with the same logic and rules as the humans in the film - and we feel their weight. They are also lit in the same scheme of the cinematography, and there is no separation of CGI from the image. To their credit, it was also a mix of CGI and puppetry. It’s a brilliant piece of work.
If we compare this to George Lucas’ use of CGI, we can see the problem of doing prequels with new technology. First let’s look at Jabba the Hut in ‘Return of the Jedi’, done as a puppet with no CGI.
And here’s Jabba with CGI, versions 1997 and 2004:
Even in the ‘upgraded-upgrade’ version of 2004, the creature lacks veracity. No person or creature actually moves like that, and it feels flat and two dimensional, because it actually is.
It’s sad that with all of our technological advances that we haven’t pushed the use of miniatures and puppets even more. Servos and motors are so small, and everything can be controlled wirelessly. We should, I think, strive for that balance of CGI and practical, and I think we’ve swung way too far into CGI. I know with ‘Prometheus’ that Ridley Scott liked to keep as much to production design and practical effects as possible, and it’s a large reason why the film looks so incredible and convincing. But it still lacks the true depth and gravity of ‘Alien’ or ‘Blade Runner.’
The old adage with CGI and visual effects is that the best ones are the one that aren’t seen, meaning that they are integrated so seamlessly into the film and our own perception of reality that we are no longer aware of it. I think of “The Dark Knight” where Christopher Nolan pits the Batman against the Joker and uses practical effects to give us impact - he upends a real semi truck - and we feel the weight of the situation, the characters, the film. The only CGI in the sequence was to get rid of the safety riggings. Nolan’s use of wires and rigged sets to make people float and fly in “Inception” is another brilliant use of practical effects over CGI. He created a revolving chamber and the effect is outstanding.
I know that the production team on “The Avengers” used a mix of puppets and CGI for the Hulk, and on a whole I think their efforts paid dividends. After all it was the same team at ILM that gave us the velociraptors from ‘Jurassic Park.’ But in the end I still knew I was watching CGI, and I don’t know if that is my problem or the filmmaker’s dilemma.
So long answer short, I think it’s okay for filmmakers to go back in time and expand the universes of their previous creations, but it must be absolutely in concert with the craft in which the originals were created. Upgrades in technology should never be the reason to make the attempt, that’s just putting the cart before the horse. Ultimately the script and the concept behind the script should be stronger than the available technology. I like that ‘Prometheus’ is exploring an entirely different aspect of the ‘Alien’ world. But it doesn’t feel like a prequel because, strangely enough, the image quality is so outstanding and crisp. It was wise then for Ridley to distance this film from the others, to make it its own animal. But had I been given a crack at this (which would never happen), I would have appropriated the similar cameras and film stocks used to make the 1979 original, and make a ‘dirty’ film. But I guess you can’t do that if you’re shooting 3D. That’s where business and art comes to a head, I guess.