'Prometheus' vs. 'At the Mountains of Madness': How Ridley Scott's 'Alien' prequel killed Guillermo del Toro's dream project

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Image Credit: 20th Century Fox

Guillermo del Toro spent 20 years trying to bring horror author H.P. Lovecraft’s novella At the Mountains of Madness to the big screen. Why did Ridley Scott’s Prometheus finally force him to abandon the project earlier this year? And might Mountains—like the book’s ancient monsters—yet come back from the dead?

(Warning: This article contains Prometheus spoilers.)

Guillermo del Toro was around 11 years old when he first read H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness. Originally penned by the legendary horror writer in 1931, the story tells of an Antarctic expedition which unearths the presumed long dead bodies of strange, starfish-headed creatures—only for the specimens to wake up, slaughter their discoverers, and dissect one of them like a laboratory rat. By the tale’s conclusion, a pair of surviving expedition members has found out that these scientifically-inclined “Old Ones” are members of an ancient alien race who were responsible for creating our simian ancestors as well as even more dangerous beings called “Shoggoths” which, the narrator fears, may yet emerge from their subterranean lair with apocalyptic results.

Packed with horror, terror, and Lovecraft’s trademark sense of cosmic wonder, At the Mountains of Madness is wild stuff even if you’re an adult. Its effect was titanic on the young del Toro. “I became absolutely obsessed with [Lovecraft],” the Mexican-born director would recall in 2010, “and the notion of being created as a joke, as a cosmic joke, and humanity being given free will and ambition as you would give catnip to a cat, to amuse yourselves.”

Del Toro’s obsession would prove an enduring one. Over the past two decades the director of the two Hellboy films and the Oscar-winning Pan’s Labyrinth has repeatedly attempted to bring Mountains to the big screen, only for studios to balk at the project’s costly elements—Antarctica! Monsters! Period-setting!—and del Toro’s insistence the film needs both a downbeat ending and an R-rating to truly serve Lovecraft’s vision.

Two years ago, the movie looked set to go at Universal with del Toro’s longtime friend James Cameron signed on as producer and Tom Cruise the likely star. In the end, that effort turned to ashes. Finally, in April, del Toro effectively announced he was throwing in the towel. The final straw came not from cautious studio executives but from the dramatic and thematic similarities del Toro suspected might exist between Mountains and director Ridley Scott’s then-forthcoming Prometheus. On April 30, del Toro posted a message on his official website stating that he believed Prometheus was going to echo the “creation aspects” of At the Mountains of Madness. The director wrote that, if he was proven correct, Scott’s film would “probably mark a long pause—if not the demise—of ATMOM.”

As audiences discovered this weekend when Prometheus opened to big box office numbers, the film, like Lovecraft’s story, does indeed track the adventures of a scientific expedition who discover that an ancient alien race were responsible for creating our ancestors—as well as a race of monsters which seem more than capable of wiping out humanity. Certainly the new, aquatic aliens introduced in the film will ring bells with fans of Lovecraft whose most infamous creation, the monstrous “Cthulhu,” is described in another of the author’s yarns as resembling “an octopus, a dragon, and a human caricature.”

While no one is suggesting Scott and his screenwriters Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof plagiarized either Lovecraft or del Toro’s take on the material, there’s little doubt the movie fulfills the Hellboy director’s worst fears in terms of the two projects’ similarities.

The cosmos seem to have played a particularly cruel and ironic joke on both Cameron and del Toro. The former, of course, turned the Alien franchise into a franchise with 1986’s Aliens while the latter is a huge fan of Ridley Scott’s original movie. Indeed, del Toro is well aware the Alien movies have always featured a large amount of HPL in its DNA. “I think there is a huge Lovecraftian influence, and a huge At the Mountains of Madness influence on the first Ridley Scott Alien,” the director declared in Lovecraft: Fear of the Unknown, a 2008 documentary about the author. “The idea that they find a derelict, city-sized ship, dead denizens in it, and something that is very much alive and waiting and then takes over the humans. That’s essentially, you could say very much, in the Mountains of Madness.”

Next: “What you need is the cinematic equivalent of Lovecraft’s prose: That’s very hard to achieve.”

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