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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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear