SAN DIEGO – By far, the biggest of today’s Hall H panels in terms of anticipation had to be the one thrown by 20th Century Fox, and they wasted no time in making sure people got what they came for when Damon Lindelof, the moderator of the panel, walked out to discuss the new movie “Prometheus.”
He thanked everyone in attendance for choosing the Fox panel over the “Game Of Thrones” panel which was going on at the same time, and then teased us a bit by suggesting that he might be able to produce a real knight to talk to us.
“I was driving in my car a year ago and my phone rang and someone said, ‘Ridley Scott will call you in five minutes. Are you available?’ So after I crashed my car and dealt with the aftermath of that, Ridley Scott did call me, and he told me he was going to send me a script and he wanted to know what I think of it. I read that script, and at the time, the question was ‘Is this an ALIEN prequel?’ That was the start of a process where I got to sit across the table from him and really go to work with this guy whose work inspired me so much in the first place.” That really is a dream scenario, and Lindelof’s enthusiasm for whatever they ended up building together was palpable as he introduced the first footage from the film.
The clip began with images from most of Ridley Scott’s earlier films, all cut together and jumbled up, a persuasive reminder of just how many things Scott has tried over the course of his career. Finally, it moved into new footage, and the first thing that struck me was just how familiar it felt. Not in a bad way, but in the sense that it absolutely feels like the world of ‘Alien’ brought back to life. One of the complaints I have about the “Star Wars” prequels on a design level is that it’s hard to imagine that the shining, perfect worlds of the prequel films precede the beat-up dingy worlds of the original trilogy. Here, though, I can see exactly how the world of “Prometheus” might synch up to the world of “Alien” at some later point.
Using both behind-the-scenes footage and actual images from the film, the preview reel suggested that this is a film about both the origin of mankind on earth as well as our first encounter with an alien intelligence significantly different than our own. It looks scary, thrilling, and bizarre, and I can’t think of anything I’d want from a new Ridley Scott science-fiction film more than that. The H.R. Giger influence is clearly felt in the sets we saw, including one that features what looked like egg tubes embedded in the floor around a statue of a giant face. We caught quick glimpses of Charlize Theron doing naked push-ups, Noomi Rapace lighting someone on fire with a flamethrower, a blonde, short-haired Michael Fassbender weeping a single milky android tear, and much more. We were shown the sets they built at Pinewood Studios, including the ones that took over the entire 007 stage, and it looks to be a massive physical build.
At the end of the footage, Charlize Theron walked out to join Lindelof onstage, and they talked about how she ended up involved in the film. “For all actors, there’s that one Big One, the one you really want to work with, and for me, it was Ridley Scott. I got to know him socially, and i knew he was doing this. I was supposed to ship off to do ‘Mad Max,’ though, so I didn’t think there’s any way this would happen. Then that film got pushed, and I was in Malaysia and got this call from Ridley who said, ‘Do you want to come do this?’ And I was like, ‘Of course, I want to come and do this.’ And when I read the script the first time, it wasn’t quite at its full potential, but working with you and Ridley, I think what we came up with was very exciting.”
Lindelof talked about how Ridley Scott was the thing that got him involved as well, and what an opportunity that represents for him, and then added, “There is a shot of you doing naked push-ups in that footage, and I found it disgusting and pandering, and if that’s supposed to get us to go see the movie, it totally worked.” He then asked her to describe her character in the film, Meredith Vickers.
“She’s very different from anything I’ve done. She’s a suit. She runs the company that takes this mission into space. She’s very cold and frigid at first, and it’s all about the economics at first. She doesn’t believe in anything, and she runs a tight ship. What I loved about working about Ridley is that we’d all layered the character, and you don’t know who she really is, but Ridley did this interesting thing where he had me lurking in corners and things and it makes you really question who she is and what she’s doing. And the third act really strips her of everything so you can see who she really is.”
It’s hard to talk about a film like this when the movie is still in production, and it’s even harder when the director isn’t in the room. In this case, Ridley Scott is still shooting in Iceland, and to show just how far gone he is, they used a series of maps on the big Hall H screens showing where he is.
Charlize wasn’t having it, though. “I just came back on Monday. We were shooting in Hella, which is well-named. But him not being here… that’s bullshit. Ridley should have been here. It’s just one helicopter and seven flights away. He should be here. I wouldn’t say that if he could hear me, but… wait, maybe he is here. Ladies and gentlemen, Sir Ridley Scott.”
On the big screens, a satellite feed suddenly kicked in, and we were looking at Ridley Scott standing on the edge of a volcanic crater in Iceland. He smiled and said, “I feel like David Attenborough, like I’m about to introduce a wildlife program. My last day of shooting will compete our first scene of the movie.”
Damon pointed out that it’s been 25 years since the last SF film that he made, and asked why it’s been so long since he’s worked in the genre.
“I was too busy doing other movies and other genres,” Ridley replied. “I never really thought about it until I realized that there was something in the first ‘Alien’ that no one really asked about, and it nagged at me. I realized there was something there that we could explore. None of the other movies used it, either. And so I wanted to play with the DNA of ‘Alien’ a bit. We’ve gone a very different direction with the film, but in the last few minutes of the movie, you’ll see what I mean.”
“I hope so.”
“So do I, and so does Fox.”
I didn’t realize Ridley was shooting digital 3D for the film, although I double-checked and it’s been announced. I guess I’m so used to thinking about him as an old school film lover that it didn’t seem like something he’d be interested in. I was surprised, though, when he and Damon talked about the process and about building almost everything practically in this age of digital wonders.
“3D has been a wonderful exercise. I started as a cameraman, so I quickly realized that it’s really about lensing and picking the right lenses to make the 3D work. I’ve had help from Darius (Khondji) and his crew. Now that I’ve done it, I’ll never work without 3D again, even for small dialogue scenes. It opens up the whole universe. Doug Trumball once said to me, ‘if you can do it live, do it live.’ That was 28 years ago, and even though we’ve got marvelous digital capabilities, I’d still say do it live.”
Damon asked him, “Are you a replicant, and if not, why did you leave origami shit on my chair all the time?”
Ridley rejoined, “I thought you were a robot, actually.”
As everyone laughed, Damon continued, “Speaking of which, there is a rumor that there is a robot in this movie.”
Ridley considered his answer for a moment, then smiled. “There may be two. The thing is, robots and androids and replicants have become so much a part of the landscape that they’re not unique, so the challenge is coming up with unique notions that make something fresh. I’ve had a better time with this movie than I have in many years, and I want you to do the next one. That ‘s why I’m buttering you up, you creep. The cast I worked with on this has been as good a time as I remember.”
When asked about the cast, Ridley gestured for the cameraman on his end to pull back to a wide shot, revealing “Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” star Noomi Rapace standing a few feet away from him. “I saw a film about ten months ago and then saw it again and then saw it again. And honestly, I think ‘Girl With The Dragon Tattoo’ is… it’s very special. I kept thinking who is this Noomi Rapace? And there’s Charlize, and Michael Fassbender, and someone I was thrilled to work with, Guy Pearce.”
Speaking to Rapace, Lindelof said, “This has been a physically demanding role for you.”
Rapace’s English seems to be flawless, and she jumped in to answer. “Well, I just came back from space two days ago. It feels weird to come back to Earth again. We were up there for many many days. Long days and hard days, physically and emotionally. It’s been the best journey ever, thanks to this man. My respect for him has been growing every day, and I’ve been coming home late, but smiling. When we started getting into this, I forgot everything else, and it felt like discovering something. I’m bruised. I look like shit today. I have cuts and scars and bruises.”
Finally, Damon asked a question that seems fitting since the original ‘Alien’ was an unapologetic R, a movie for adults. “If I were in this audience, I would ask you, is the PG-13 going to inhibit you from telling the story you want to tell?”
“No, not at all. I have a responsibility to my studio and Mr. Rothman, but I always make sure we have every option, and we’ll look at both versions together to decide what we can do.” In other words, no decision has been made yet, and Ridley’s covered his ass by shooting a harder and softer option for any scene where it might be an issue.
With that, they wrapped up “Prometheus,” and that group left the stage.
Lindelof talked about moving to Los Angeles in ’94 and reading a lot of scripts at the time. One in particular that jumped out at him was “The Truman Show,” and he talked about how impressed he was with the way the film’s fantastic premise was grounded by the writer. With that, he introduced writer/director Andrew Niccol, who joined him onstage. I think it’s interesting that Niccol doesn’t view his new film as science-fiction, and I’d agree. I think he writes in pure metaphor, using his big ideas to discuss some very basic and fundamental things. He referred to this new film of his, “In Time,” as “the child of ‘Gattaca.'” This is another movie about the effects of genetic manipulation on a society, although this is a pretty extreme version of the idea.
In “In Time,” the good news is that you stop aging at 25 years old. The bad news is that at that point, you only have one year to live, and so time itself has become the primary currency of the age. People spend their minutes and seconds on things they live, and they hustle to find ways to earn more minutes and hours. He talks about how an invention like that would be the death of invention and progress, and how the film is more of a parable than a hard science-fiction story.
Damon asked about casting a movie like this, and Niccol said, “I was looking for both new souls and old souls, since we have people who are from 25 to 105 years old, and we needed to show that. I had to find a 75-year-old worn out character actor in a 25-year-old’s body, for example.”
With that, we were shown a long series of clips from the film, and I’ll say this: it looks slick. It’s a hard premise to swallow, and the idea that your mortality is controlled by a digital clock in your arm doesn’t make logical sense. But if you make the jump, it’s basically an action film with a literal ticking clock. You can see the footage yourself right here.
Afterwards, Justin Timberlake and Amanda Seyfried walked out to discuss the film, and Timberlake talked about how “Gattaca” was a film he loved. He also mentioned how movies like “The Fugitive” and “Die Hard” and “First Blood” were his favorite types of action movies, films about the normal man thrown into extraordinary circumstances. That’s a fair comparison to this one. Timberlake’s character, a hustler who is constantly trying to get more time for himself, ends up with a full century of a dead man’s time on his arm and no explanation for why. He abducts the daughter (Seyfried) of a wealthy man and uses her as his buffer as he tries to figure out what’s going on.
Seyfried talked about how the entire film was basically her running in high heels, and that led into a discussion of how much fun it is to shoot guns, something that Timberlake agreed with. They also mentioned that Cillian Murphy is in the film as the Tommy Lee Jones from “The Fugitive” character, the guy chasing Timberlake who may actually believe in his innocence. Finally, Timberlake talked about how strange it is to have Olivia Wilde, who is three years younger than him, play his mother in the movie.
As they left the stage, everything went dark and we saw what looked like a YouTube video of a bunch of guys in Africa making fun of a chimp and how it walks. They hand it an automatic rifle, and when it figures out how to fire the gun, they scatter, leading to the chimp standing alone, triumphant, gun hoisted over his head.
With that, Lindelof returned to the stage with director Rupert Wyatt to discuss “Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes,” and he talked about how important the tech jumps in performance capture over the last few years are to the idea of making this movie.
After Wyatt discussed the notion that Andy Serkis is the first great performance capture-era movie star, Serkis was brought onstage to talk about how he played Caesar, and the clip they showed was impressive, a sequence in which Caesar is left alone with the Alzheimer’s stricken father of James Franco’s character, played by John Lithgow. Lithgow is having a rough day, and unsure where he is, he wanders out into the front yard where a neighbor has left a car parked at the curb with the doors open while they run inside for a moment. Lithgow gets in and throws it into gear, immediately crashing it into the cars in front and behind where he’s parked. The neighbor, not sure what’s happening, runs out and starts screaming at Lithgow, dragging him out of the car and poking him repeatedly, and when Caesar sees that, he snaps. He breaks out of the house and attacks the guy, chasing him down the street and beating holy hell out of him, leading to him biting the guy’s finger almost completely off. In the final moments, as the police arrive, Caesar goes to Lithgow, both to comfort him and to be comforted, and as he lays his head on Lithgow’s shoulder in a move of unexpected tenderness, there is real soul behind those digital eyes. It’s impressive overall, both emotionally and technically.
The next clip they showed is basically the birth of the revolution, the moment where Caesar decides to escalate the development of all of the other apes he’s in captivity with. He breaks out, steals the chemical that has accelerated his own development, and then unleashes it on the others. The next day, as each of the other apes wake up, there’s a silent moment as he checks each of them by looking into their eyes, and he sees fresh intelligence lurking there. Again… all performance. It only works if you understand what they’re thinking, and Wyatt seems to have pulled it off.
Serkis talked about how technology is just a tool to help actors play new roles, not a replacement for those actors, something that I’ve said repeatedly. I’ve heard actors complain about the idea of motion capture, but it’s only because they’re threatened by it and don’t understand how important actors remain to the process. The last clip they showed us was just an assortment of the mayhem shots from the film’s third act, and it’s good stuff. But what will make this work in the end (or not work) is just how strong the characters and the story are, and that is true no matter how much technology they throw at something.
Overall, it was a strong showing for Fox, and a confident panel, and Lindelof handled his moderating duties well. I’ll have more for you on the other panels from today all night long, and we’re here at Comic-Con until Sunday, so there’s plenty more to come.
“Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes” opens August 5, 2011.
“In Time” opens October 28, 2011.
“Prometheus” opens June 8, 2012.