Prometheus, an Epic Cinematic Puzzle: TIME Talks to the Screenwriter Behind the Secrets

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If my post-screening discussion is any indication, Prometheus will be one of the most hotly debated films of the year.

Typically, film critics are in a rush to flee the theater after the credits. Particularly if it’s an evening screening, there is commuting to do, deadlines to meet and families to see. That’s what made the scene last week in Times Square that much more remarkable—following Prometheus, dozens of members of the New York press corps lingered in the theater hallway afterwards to debate the Meaning Of It All. And to float their theories about an enigmatic, universe-spanning plot that will have fanboys debating the origins of the alien species—not to mention the origins for mankind—for months to come.

The same night I was discussing the significance of Prometheus (alongside TIME’s film critic Richard Corliss, who has already published his review of the blockbuster) in New York, Damon Lindelof, the film’s expressive co-writer, was witnessing his first post-screening reaction with an audience in London. Widely known for his work on the TV series Lost, and also for serving as producer on the hit reboot of Star Trek, Lindelof said he came to Prometheus when the script was already well underway, reportedly reworking a first draft to add depth and mystique to a story that was already overflowing with Alien franchise references.

(MORE: See TIME’s complete coverage of Prometheus)

When I finally managed to wrestle away from the Great Times Square Prometheus Debate (watch for our analysis of the plot’s secrets early Monday morning), I had to give Lindelof props: If he was hoping to dust off a worn-down franchise, and restore some sense of wonder of curiosity, he sure got the job done. The movie studio may be hesitant to call Prometheus a “prequel,” but it is—in the best possible sense. It expands and deepens the mythology, adds complexity to the characters and decisions that are to come and colors the whole Alien universe in a shade of dark irony. Unlike the Star Wars prequels, here’s an early chapter that might entice me to look at the later ones slightly differently.

TIME talked to Lindelof about rethinking Prometheus’ alien appeal, working with director Ridley Scott, and the fine art of allowing moviegoers to connect the dots:

TIME: I’m trying to put myself in your shoes. This has to be incredibly stressful, to step into a franchise as storied as Alien and be asked to breathe new life into it. Were you intimidated?

Lindelof: Oh yeah. Are you kidding me? It adds a tremendous amount of pressure. I came in cold from the outside, and when I first read Jon Spaihts’ draft, I sent in a draft to Ridley (Scott), and I said: ‘I think there’s some really great ideas here, but almost a little too much Alien…too much cowbell.’ So I stripped almost all of it out, chucked it out entirely, and then I looked at the tent poles in the film, where we would need those elements to come back, and put back just the right amount. It’s almost like if you go to a U2 show, what songs do they have to play to give the U2 experience? If I leave the concert and they haven’t played ‘With or Without You,’ I’m going to be ticked. There are certain songs that have to be on that set list, and it’s the same when you’re talking about an Alien film: Do you need to see a xenomorph bursting out of the human body? And how do we do it in a way that you haven’t seen before? It’s sort of like playing ‘With or Without You’ but bringing B.B. King on stage and mixing it up with an African drum circle so that it’s a familiar tune, but a whole different song.

I think it’s safe to say that you rose above the ‘Greatest Hits’ here. The people outside our screening couldn’t stop talking about it; what was it like for you, to see it for the first time with a general audience? Did you deliberately set out to create something enigmatic?

Well, that’s one of the first questions I was asking myself when I got the phone call. Ridley wanted me to read the script he was developing, and I thought: ‘Good God, why me? He must have me confused with someone else.’ But when he realized what he was looking for, he was steered towards me, and I certainly agree this is what I do: I’m driven and interested and intrigued by ambiguous storytelling. Almost do-it-yourself. Writing for Ridley, I would often ask him what he wanted to convey in a certain moment, and then I would try to avoid verbalizing that intention. I want the audience to do it themselves. So while this is harder gratification, it’s like the Friday New York Times crossword puzzle—it’s so much harder than Monday’s, but also so much more rewarding.

(MORE: Prometheus and the Complicated Art of the Prequel)

But can you ever push that too far, where it becomes too difficult to enjoy? 

Well, when you get in the zone, you can easily do the Monday crossword. But in order to get Friday’s, you almost always have to collaborate with others. And the idea with the movie is that you’re going to want to find others to talk about it with. It’s really no different, if you think about it, than something like Blade Runner. Is Deckard a replicant? During this film, I found myself in the room with Ridley, literally the one person who can answers that question that I’ve been debating for 25 years. And honestly, I don’t want him to tell me. It might shatter my own theory, and having that theory, and that debate, that’s part of the fun of the film.

He’s a replicant, though, right?

I do not think he’s a replicant.

Hm. We’ll have to agree to disagree on that one.

Trust me.

(Warning: Slight spoiler ahead) At the end of the day, do you think you accomplished what you set out to do—to make something that was at once faithful and familiar, yet unique?

Definitely. This is very much Ridley Scott’s world, a universe that we’ve seen before. But he’s tried to channel as much of that into the storytelling. Take the opening of the film—it’s this mysterious being who takes this strange substance and then falls apart in front of our eyes. I say to Ridley: ‘So where is he? Is this the planet Earth or another planet entirely?’ He tells me, and then I go: ‘Okay, do you want to tell people that? Should we put up a credit?’ And he says ‘No, don’t do that.’ That’s when I knew we were talking the same language. We want people to try and contextualize, and we believe that people are seeing this for a reason, that they want to connect the dots for themselves. And I think the discussions that have erupted after seeing this movie is proof of that—this is a very, very active viewing experience.

Steven James Snyder is a Senior Editor at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @thesnydes. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page, on Twitter at @TIME and on TIME’s Tumblr.

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