Prometheus unbound

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

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!’”

 

    

Statue of Prometheus, New York

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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As the falcon flew towards us, its face looked alarmingly like Hannibal Lecter’s muzzle

In your faces, twitchers!

The BBC2 programme Springwatch may have made the RSPB’s reserve at Minsmere in Suffolk the Mecca of popular birdwatching, but Cley on the north Norfolk coast is still its Alexandria, a haven for wanderers of all species and a repository of ancient and arcane knowledge. I learned what little I know about birding there in the early 1970s, sitting at the feet of the bird artist Richard Richardson as he gave his sea-wall seminars on the intricacies of behaviour and identification. Richard could put a name to any bird, but he never believed that this process rigidly defined it.

The reserve at Cley has been gentrified recently, with smart boardwalks and a solar-powered visitors’ centre, but something of its old, feral spirit remains. On a trip early this winter, we were greeted by birders with the news: “Saker! Middle hide.” Sakers are big, largely Middle Eastern falcons, favourites with rich desert falconers. No convincingly wild individual has ever been seen in Norfolk, so it was likely that this bird had escaped from captivity, which reduced its cred a mite.

The middle hide proved to be full of earnest and recondite debate. The consensus now was that the bird was not a saker but a tundra peregrine – the form known as calidus that breeds inside the Arctic Circle from Lapland eastwards. We had missed the first act of the drama, in which the bird had ambushed a marsh harrier twice its size and forced it to abandon its prey. It was now earthbound, mantled over its dinner on the far side of a lagoon. It was bigger than a standard peregrine, and in the low sun its back looked almost charcoal, flaring into unusually high white cheeks behind its moustachial stripes.

Then it took off. It swung in a low arc around the perimeter of the lagoon and straight towards our hide. It flew so fast that I couldn’t keep it focused in my binoculars, and for a moment its face looked alarmingly like Hannibal Lecter’s muzzle. At the last minute, when it seemed as if it would crash through the window, it did a roll-turn and showed off the full detail of its tessellated under-plumage. In your faces, twitchers!

It was a thrilling display, but that didn’t entirely quieten the identity anxieties in the hide. One or two dissenters wondered if it might be a hybrid bird, or just a large but eccentrically marked common peregrine. The majority stuck with the tundra option. This form migrates in the autumn to sub-equatorial Africa, and days of north-easterlies may have blown it off-course, along with other bizarre vagrants: an albatross had passed offshore the day before.

Calidus means “spirited” in Latin. The Arctic firebird treated us to ten minutes of pure mischief. It winnowed low over flocks of lapwing, scythed through the screaming gulls, not seeming to be seriously hunting, but taunting a blizzard of panicky birds skywards. At one point, it hovered above a hapless tufted duck that dived repeatedly, only to resurface with the quivering scimitar still above it. Then it took another strafing run at the hide.

Does it matter whether the peregrine was a rare variety, or just an odd individual? Naturalists often categorise themselves as either “lumpers”, happy with the great unlabelled commonwealth of life, or “splitters”, rejoicing in the minutiae of diversity. I swing from one to the other, but, in the end, I can’t see them as contradictory positions.

The bird from the tundra was a hot-tempered peregrine to the core. But its strange facial markings – however much their interpretation panders to the vanity of human watchers – are the outward signs of a unique and self-perpetuating strain, adapted to extreme conditions and yet making a 6,000-mile migration that might take in a visit to a Norfolk village. Lives intersect, hybridise, diverge, in the counterpoint between what Coleridge called “uniformity” and “omniformity”.

Next week: Felicity Cloake on food

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage