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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In “Gary Numan: Android in La La Land”, the paranoid android visibly defrosts on screen

This documentary about the making of Gary Numan’s new album is full of the warmth and silliness of family life.

In a month that sees the release of two high-profile, music-oriented mockumentaries (David Brent: Life on the Road and Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping), it’s strangely refreshing to see the real McCoy in all its tender, ingenuous glory. Gary Numan: Android in La La Land may be howlingly funny in places but it’s no joke. The film follows the British pioneer of vaguely menacing synth-pop (“Cars”, “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?”) as he uproots in 2013 from a farm in England to a castle-style mansion in Los Angeles while putting the finishing touches to his comeback album, Splinter (Songs From a Broken Mind). With him are his highly animated wife, Gemma, and their three young daughters, none of whom shows any of their father’s shyness in front of the camera. Encouraging children to say funny things on camera may be a cheap way of earning a laugh, but that doesn’t make it any less pleasurable when one of Numan’s nippers gives him the once-over and announces: “You look old when you don’t have make-up on.”

Besides, Numan’s persona was always so calculatedly chilly that it is a joy to see it defrosted on screen by prolonged exposure to the warmth and silliness of family life. That impassive robotic face is now finally human: the skin is creased and crumpled, the gnashers uneven. Those of us who saw him on Top of the Pops in the late 1970s and early 1980s will have been both thrilled and chilled by his sneering poise: he looked like a forgotten member of Kraftwerk who was peeved that the rest of the group had gone off on tour without him. It’s delightful to contrast that memory with the scenes here of Numan grumbling about his wife’s navigational eccentricities as he sits at the wheel of a Winnebago, or confessing that he is creeped-out by his ornate new home with its trap-doors and its hidden passageways.

The property seems like an unforced metaphor for how other people might feel about his unfathomable mind, though the film also has a lot of fun showing the sorts of domestic woes that don’t go away just because you’re rich and famous. At one point, Gemma is on her hands and knees scrubbing cat pee out of the curtains in their new abode – cue a perfectly-timed shot of the guilty party peering disdainfully at the camera. In another scene, Gemma points at a dog turd in the garden. “There’s a whole Kit-Kat in his poo,” she says matter-of-factly as Numan looks on, entirely unperturbed.

At the start of the film, as he hauls bales of hay awkwardly around his farm, Numan comes across like one of the Replicants from Blade Runner – his mannerisms seem learned or programmed rather than felt. The magic of Steve Read and Rob Alexander’s documentary lies in its ability to coax the human being reluctantly out from behind the stiffness, the neuroses. The singer describes himself as “anti-social” and puts it down to “that Asperger’s thing”.

Indeed, it seems his condition accounted for much of the apparent remoteness that hardened into a persona in the early days of his career. It’s easy also to forget what a pup he was: just 21 when “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” reached number 1 in the charts in 1979. And fame terrified him. He talks movingly here of confining himself back then to a single room, converted into a self-contained bedsit, in his vast house, where he would retreat each night to watch Monty Python and the Holy Grail while eating chips. In his front room was a blow-up dinghy. “It actually made a comfortable sofa,” he says.

The ostensible focus of the film is the making and release of the new album after six years in which Numan struggled with depression and emotional paralysis while his money ran out. And it’s true that the final 20 minutes or so plays like the sort of extended promo for new product that smacks of a DVD extra. But the picture has enough honesty in its portrait of Numan’s marriage to earn its documentary stripes. Gemma is not only the singer’s wife: she also happens to be his one-time superfan, prone to dashing into his garden to have her picture taken in front of his house. You can’t help thinking it was behaviour like that which sent him running for his bedsit. Asked about her ambitions by the school careers advisor, she replied that she didn’t need to get a job: she was going to marry Gary Numan. (At this point, the couple had never met.)

What’s touching is that she is still his superfan – her adoration has survived the years of stress and desperation, the numerous and traumatic failed pregnancies that preceded IVF treatment, not to mention the conversion of pop idolatry into the everyday, the humdrum. Gemma might come out with the sort of clangers that the makers of This Is Spinal Tap would have thrown out for implausible dumbness. (“There’s an ‘i’ in ‘team,’” she insists, before recalibrating: “In my team.”) But she’s no fool. When the hard drive containing crucial backing tracks for Numan’s new album is damaged in transit, it’s Gemma to the rescue with the soldering iron. “Now cool it down,” she says. “Really cool it down. Put it in the fridge.” Gary Numan taking advice on the art of refrigeration – how cool is that?

Gary Numan: Android in La La Land is on release from tomorrow

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.