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Prometheus unbound

What happens when the word-of-mouth hype gets out of control

Statue of Prometheus, New York
Statue of Prometheus, New York

Word-of-mouth has always been a valuable tool for distributors, cushioning or limiting the drops in revenue that a film might otherwise experience naturally after a few weeks on release, or acting as a buoyancy aid for movies that could have sunk without trace. The whole concept of the "sleeper hit" came from exactly that phenomenon, where films without particular commercial advantage ended up with unexpected prominence or longevity entirely due to consumer enthusiasm.

The shape of a film’s lifetime has been altered and extended radically with the advent of increasingly hyperbolic marketing campaigns, and ever more ravenous online commentary. I know by now that you would rather be launched into deep space to take your chances with a carnivorous tentacled parasite than read or hear anything else about the P-word—look away now: we’re talking Ridley Scott’s Alien prequel Prometheus—but I’m afraid it’s the best (or perhaps worst) example we have today of the phenomenon of anticipation far outreaching achievement. From the moment the project was announced, the expectation of fans went into hyper-drive. That’s what happens. That’s why they’re called fans.

The studio (20th Century Fox) exploited that appetite with viral marketing, extra-curricular teasers (featuring Guy Pearce as a far younger incarnation of the Mr Burns lookalike he plays in the film) and seemingly endless trailers, teaser trailers, teasers for the teaser trailers. Fox didn’t really do anything wrong: it saw an opportunity to milk a surefire hit, and it lunged at it. But I wonder now whether anyone at Fox worried that the studio was writing cheques which the filmmakers couldn’t hope to cash.

I’m not going to rake over the problems of Prometheus, for they are as numerous as the stars in the sky. (You can get a small taste of the questions that are being asked about the film and its inconsistencies here. With spoilers, naturally.) That said, I’m less bothered by the plot-holes than by the fact that any Alien movie which can’t even drum up a hint of dread and claustrophobia has surely disqualified itself from membership of the series. (Would you, as a principled and intelligent NS reader, accept a Smokey and the Bandit film without car chases? Exactly.) For heaven’s sake, why did the crew members keep returning to the cave, thereby destroying any precious sense of enclosure and—No. I’m sorry. I was putting the “me” into Prometheus for a moment there. I didn’t come here to add to the shopping list of complaints and grudges. I came instead to remark upon how the nature of that shopping list has changed.

Films, even the ones we didn’t like, have always lived on in our conversations and memories. Technology has made that ephemeral life permanent. (A line from The Social Network springs to mind: “The internet isn’t written in pencil. It’s written in ink.”) Every conversation about every film is ongoing and unfinished—as it always has been, you might argue, and you’d be right, except that now all those conversations seem to be going on around the clock at fever pitch. This is where word of mouth can reshape adversely a movie’s life. 

Whatever Prometheus makes at the box office (currently more than £15m in 10 days), it looks like being on course, culturally speaking, to mirror the fate of Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace. That lucrative but much-derided prequel became a byword for directorial hubris and a humiliating disregard for audiences. None of which stopped it making in excess of $1bn. Then again, it’s a laughing stock. Money or respect: which would you plump for if you were Ridley Scott? Scott’s film is in line to be the adult Phantom Menace, at least until he issues the inevitable Director’s Cut. What’s the betting that Prometheus will be playing again in a different form in cinemas only a few years from now? Actually, I’ve no idea what the chances are, but employing a rhetorical question in that way disguises my cynicism as insider knowledge.

Nevertheless, I can exclusively reveal that the new version will (possibly) jettison the scenes showing the replicant David (Michael Fassbender) modelling himself after Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia, replacing them instead with David’s reverence for Christopher Nolan, director of Inception and The Dark Knight. Compare and contrast, folks. I can even see the new tagline: “In space, no one can hear you scream: ‘Chris Nolan wouldn’t have messed it up like this!’”