Ridley Scott and James Cameron return to science fiction

Ridley Scott has announced that he’s returning to the Alien universe that he created to direct a prequel to Alien, and footage from James Cameron’s Avatar, his first fictional film in 12 years and his first SF film since 1991, has finally been seen by the public. Should we care?

On the surface Ridley Scott’s return to science fiction might sound good but I’m sceptical: Scott isn’t an SF film-maker, he’s a director that happened to make, very early on in his career, two excellent, genre-defining SF films (and I don’t want to belittle that achievement — Alien and Blade Runner rank very highly in my top films of all time). Since then he’s avoided the genre entirely and his filmography is pretty staid, with the likes of G.I. Jane, Hannibal, Kingdom of Heaven, A Good Year and American Gangster padding it out. I’m not saying there hasn’t been some good stuff as well — I understand that Thelma & Louise has its fans, and I’ve a lot of praise for Gladiator — but the only aspect that suggests Scott might be a good fit for an Alien film is the fact that he did the first one; most of the rest suggest a middle-of-the-road director that makes pretty safe films for a wide and largely unthinking audience.

I’m also sceptical about the film itself. Does Alien need a prequel, and if so, how do you craft a human story around it without contradicting continuity? Early reports say that the film will tell the story of the so-called Space Jockey, the trunk-nosed alien with a burst rib-cage seemingly ferrying a cargo-hold full of Alien eggs somewhere. But everything in Alien points toward that film being the first contact between human and alien species, the Nostromo diverted only due to the warning beacon left in orbit. What can be fit into the story that hasn’t already been told? Another mining ship? More marines? Prisoners? And what of the time-scale? The space jockey was fossilised, fused to his own seat. How long would that have taken, and will Scott take us back that far, and how? Does any part of this story even need telling?

Admittedly this is all mindless speculation on my part and I’m not saying it won’t be any good, but I think it’s healthier to approach it with caution, seeing as Scott hasn’t touched the genre since 1982 (and how many good prequels can you think of? Any?). If it had been announced that a new film in the Alien series (be it prequel or sequel or, I don’t know, sidequel) was to be produced by Moon director Duncan Jones or District 9 director Neill Blomkamp, I’d be more optimistic.

An IMAX 3D Experience

Some blue furries, looking pensive

Meanwhile, James Cameron is returning to SF in the form of Avatar, a heavily-hyped blend of live action and ground-breaking 3D CGI. Cameron of course is no stranger to SF, having previously directed two Terminator films, Aliens, and The Abyss, though his most recent film was 1997’s Titanic which makes me have bad thoughts. Still, unlike Scott, his absence from SF has been comparatively brief, with 2002 TV series Dark Angel his last genre work.

A hallmark of Cameron’s genre films is the use of cutting-edge CGI and other film technologies — see the liquid metal T-1000 or the watery species of The Abyss — and I’m sure that Avatar will be very pretty, especially so when viewed in IMAX 3D, but I don’t see it advancing the SF genre much. Going by the teaser trailer (so I’m prepared to be proven wrong when more complete footage is available), it looks like a selection of videogame cut-scenes, and speaking as an affeciando of the videogame medium it may sound churlish to criticise a film for apeing them, but for me a videogame lives or dies on the quality of its interaction, not its passive, intermediary scenes. Accuse me of practising speciesism if you like, but I find it hard to imagine myself caring much about computer-generated blue furries and their gorgeously-rendered forest.

Previous Cameron films may have advanced and popularised CGI but they also tended to have a human story behind them: the story of the Connors in the Terminator films, the story of Ellen Ripley in Aliens, the civilian diving team of The Abyss; the audience cared about them, and I’m just not seeing that in Avatar yet — it seems to be a film exclusively about the technology used to deliver it to the screen, with a slushy Final Fantasy-style story pinning it together. Fine if you go to the cinema in order to be blown away by dizzying set pieces; unfortunately, I don’t.