Prometheus, Hype, and the Weight of Expectations

(Last chance. The latter half of this essay does get very spoilery.)

Film fans live in a wonderful, paradoxical, and challenging time. We can obtain information with absolute ease, and enjoy worldwide connectivity wrought by the Internet and facilitated by countless and varied resources, from social networking tools—such as Twitter and Facebook—to online film outlets for both news and criticism from a vast array of minds. The effect is such that cineastes today are theoretically better informed and more aware of what goes on in the film world than ever before; we know about productions that won’t receive a marketing campaign for years into the future, we know who’s being cast, when filming starts, where a film is being shot, upon what it’s being shot, and more. If even ten years ago we could have looked into the future and seen where we’d be today, I think everyone one of us would have turned green with envy.

Undoubtedly, film fans have it easy today. But in some ways, that access to news, scoops, whispers, and rumors represents too much of a good thing. Actually, scratch that. There’s no such thing as too much information, I think; a more cogent idea is that we perhaps consume too much information. It’s free, it’s available in a pinch, and it’s omnipresent. The same story printed on one web-based hub of cinema geek enthusiasm invariably shows up on the next one, and the one after that. With no checks and balances in place to limit our consumption (and there very much should not be any), the amount of material we can absorb in a single day is endless.

Taken at face value, that’s a positive, but like anything else we ingest and process, it’s important to carefully measure our intake of the web-based noise we’re so attached to— whether it’s interpretation and analysis or bombast and hyperbole. Look, I love a big frosty cone or bowl of ice cream as much as anyone else*, but if I ate it every day, I’d weigh five hundred pounds. And if I read every single morsel of delectable gossip and rumor-mongering, fun as that stuff can be, I’d probably come to hate going to the movies. And who among us wants that kind of fate?

I’m writing all of this down as a reaction to the hand-wringing that’s followed the early word on Prometheus, the much-anticipated prequel (or is it?) to Sir Ridley Scott’s 1979 science-fiction-horror classic, Alien. As advanced reviews and responses come in from all around the web– for example, Empire’s infamous 3-star review or Devin Faraci’s “lower your expectations” warning Tweet reader reaction to the critical feedback suggests nothing short of catastrophic expectation failure.

For any other film, maybe this wouldn’t be a big deal. Nobody, for example, seems to give a damn when critics and film writers get harsh on a Battleship or a Snow White and the Huntsman. But Prometheus is, well, Prometheus. It’s Ridley Scott. It’s connected to Alien**. And it’s also enjoyed all the benefits of some fantastic trailers and a huge, incredibly effective viral marketing campaign. Go back to the beginning of this essay, and think about the massive satisfaction quotient that Prometheus has to meet, then combine that with the disappointing first reviews; as you do, you start to get a picture of the film’s fate.

I won’t mince words: I liked Prometheus. A lot***. I feel like that needs to be established in order to cast the rest of this piece in a more charitable light, because while I like it, I think it’s flawed, and moreover I think it’s a movie that’s almost doomed to fall far, far short of where people (read: fans) anticipate it to. The culprit behind Prometheus‘ downfall– which I admit yet remains only a possibility– should be fairly obvious given that you’ve been reading up this point: it’s the hype.

And I think that manifests itself in several ways. However, I’m very much a man interested in honesty and fairness, and I think it’s pretty much correct to posit that Prometheus by its very nature has too much to live up to, and therefore would likely be seen as a disappointment to many regardless of its hype level. Think about the pedigree. Alien is a “best” on two levels, a film that stands out as one of the greatest works of Scott’s career and also maintains its position even today as one of the strongest science-fiction/horror films ever made. Given the height of quality Prometheus must be able to stand next to– though no one should expect a director to out-pinnacle one of his pinnacles– it’s quite apparent that it’s already starting off on the back foot from the outset. But if Prometheus sprang from the minds of Scott and Lindelof already several sizes too large for its britches, then that aforementioned hype can only exacerbate that characteristic.

With all that said, if there’s one thing I’m certainly not attempting to argue with this essay, it’s that Prometheus is a perfect film. That would be a lie. There are missteps, several in fact, but none more grievous and detrimental to the rest of the film as the flat-out lie that is Peter Weyland’s death. That we learn he’s alive and on board the ship should serve as little surprise; the hologram stinks of red herring, and the medical device Shaw uses to extract the alien beast from her belly is inexplicably calibrated for males only. When the reveal is made, there should be no doubt that one of Lost‘s co-creators helped write the movie’s script; the moment receives poor telegraphing and plays terribly.

Apart from that, there are minor slip-ups here and there but the ultimate point is that Prometheus, stronger qualities aside, is flawed. But it’s flawed on its own merits and not in the face of being unlike and unable to equal Alien. If Prometheus does not live up to the hype, then that’s arguably a failing on behalf of the film, but then again nobody forces us to watch the trailers or the viral spots or the TV ads; we watch because we want to experience part of the finished product now. We watch because we’re curious and excited. All of that is fairly natural, but devouring excess hype material for a movie steeped in cinematic iconography as much as Prometheus does a disservice to us, the viewers, and to the movie itself. Is Prometheus a scuffed and marred film? Absolutely, but only on its own terms.

None of this is to suggest that the unfavorable reactions to Prometheus all fall in the same camp. Indeed, there are plenty of reviews bearing valid criticisms against it, even if I disagree with them. More than anything, what I’m producing here is a plea to take Prometheus and observe it for what it is rather than what expectations dictate it should be. If you already have an idea of what the film looks like built up in your mind– erase it. If you’re anticipating placing Prometheus on your top ten of the year already– don’t. Could the movie end up matching what you have in your head, and could it tickle you so much it deserves a “best of” nod in your esteem? Sure. But let Prometheus earn its accolades or disappoint without the interference of outside influences****.

*Actually, that’s a huge lie. Nobody likes ice cream more than me.
**I’m really loathe to call it a straight-up prequel. It is, but that nomenclature does it a disservice. Read my review for more.
***See above.
****And while I’m speaking to Prometheus in particular, this sort of thinking should be applied more broadly as well. Let films stand on their own two feet without letting early perception warp them. Last night, for example, I saw Brave, and while it wasn’t anything like I’d expected it to be, that’s okay; I still enjoyed it immensely because I actively stopped myself from structuring an idea of what the film would be in my mind.

16 thoughts on “Prometheus, Hype, and the Weight of Expectations

  1. I have to disagree with you on this review Andy. I went in to the movie with little build up about the hype, and I really didn’t put together the connection to alien till after I was about 20 minutes into the movie. The movie itself was riddled with plot holes and the whole story seemed to be a fabrication to do whatever necessary to get to the point… That it was a prequel to alien. Theron’s character bugged me the most, while she had a position of power she was a catalyst for things while not ever affecting the movie in anyway. She was ignored consistently, even though she was supposed to be the big kahuna on the ship. I have a lot more complaints… a lot… much more than I care to type, but this link pretty much sums up how I feel about the movie.

    • Spoilery. Beware!

      I think Theron’s character is done a disservice based on the way Weyland is handled in the film. But I also think Weyland’s character represents the film’s biggest flaw. There’s literally no reason for him to be a ghost who appears magically in the last act when the script demands it; by doing so, the film undermines itself thematically and knocks its narrative off-course too. In a movie about creation and the act of creating and why we create, Weyland– Vickers’ biological dad and David’s “father”– seems to be the key to answering the big questions that Prometheus cannot reasonably answer on its own. I truly, truly hated the way he was handled.

      I don’t mind her being ignored by the crew so much; that’s almost tradition. Who ever listens to the company bigwig in movies like this? But I think she’s short-changed by virtue of a) the poorly telegraphed Weyland reveal, and b) the “duh” nature of her relationship with Weyland.

      As for the “plot holes” brought up in that piece of anti-criticism….most of them aren’t plot holes. David being active every day for 2 years isn’t a plot hole. The scientists taking off their helmets isn’t a plot hole. There are plenty of bad script decisions made in Prometheus that prevent it from being great, but that guy has no clue what he’s talking about.

      I think most of the vitriol for Prometheus has to do with lack of explanation of its big mysteries. Which I get. But I also think we can answer a lot of the questions on our own without forcing it. Add to that the fact that it held me for 2 hours without any of the flaws being obvious until after, and I think you’ve got a solid movie. It just doesn’t necessarily hold up well to all criticism afterwards.

  2. I appreciate what you’re after here, I really do, but I think it’s also just about as unrealistic as you liking ice cream more than me. I’m obviously speaking personally, but a statement like this one, “If you already have an idea of what the film looks like built up in your mind– erase it,” means that I would essentially have to do a blackout of most every film I were to hypothetically end up seeing. No trailers, no casting news, no knowledge of the director, no posters, no nothing. I (and I presume the collective “we”) piece together a film in our heads bit-by-bit as we gather information over the course of weeks and months and even years. You’re basically pleading that we cease to have expectations for films, and that will plainly never happen.

    That said, we can do our best to be cognizant of those expectations and to temper them when needed, and that’s what you might want from us more. I can (try to) get on board with that sentiment.

    • That’s it, Dylan. Ice cream appreciation contest. You. Me. A big bowl of Sundae deliciousness. Two spoons. Two men enter. One man gets an upset stomach.

      What I’m arguing for isn’t a blackout so much, though I think in the case of a film like Prometheus— which is in a unique position for its hype and for its pedigree, as no other film in 2012 matches it in either category save for maybe The Hobbit— it’s certainly beneficial to black oneself out as much as possible. I don’t think the problem necessarily is about gathering information but rather what we do with that information; if you only treat it as data, that’s one thing, but if you let it piece together the film in your head before you even see it, I think that’s a problem.

      I’m advocating distancing ourselves from expectations and from hype of any sort. It’s possible to consume the trailers for films without buying into the hype, but it’s very, very hard. I think ultimately it’s much easier to just temper expectations, but I think one can do that by divorcing themselves from the hype. If that makes any sense.

  3. Andew you did this film a great service talking about the hype. In my review I mention it in passing but address some of the pitfalls specifically. I too liked the movie a lot and I too eschewed all the trailer, teaser, spoiler hype and had a much better experience because of it. When I saw the original 33 years ago in the theater, there was NO hype, nothing but rumor and it created a movie revelation for that exact reason.

    With all that said and factoring in the films faults I still call this a great film. It’s just too bad it couldnt be the masterpiece it deserved to be.

    • It’s very, very good, but yeah– I think its flaws hold it back. And I think its flaws are all script-level (for the most part; the zombie attack is really just odd in execution). That said, I still hold Scott 50% accountable for that; he holds primary authorship here. He had the script in front of him four different times, and it still came out a mess in the end. Lindelof and Spaight bear responsibility too (and in fact I’m 100% confident that the Weyland thing is his contribution), but it really does come back to Scott.

      At least he’s such a good filmmaker that he can overcome the flaws of the script, but I would have preferred they not be there in the first place.

  4. I don’t really get exposed to hype, given that most movie advertisement still seems to take place on television and I just don’t watch TV. I saw the trailer at the beginning of The Avengers, and that’s it.

    And I think I’m doing it right! It’s so nice going into movies knowing largely nothing about them.

    But re: Prometheus, I find it interesting how there seem to be two camps – those who found the movie pretty flawed (mainly due to script, as you mentioned) and still ended up enjoying the movie a lot, and those like myself who just couldn’t stay immersed in the experience due to the myriad script flaws. Latter category certainly seems to be the minority on this movie.

    I see reviews like the one on AV Club (“visuals awesome, movie gets downright silly and unbelievable toward the end…. B+”), and I honestly get kinda jealous – I wish stuff like that didn’t ruin the experience for me so hard 😦

    • First, thanks for stopping in, Svj. Feel free to come in more often. You’re a good sort to chat with.

      Second, I think you’re doing it right, too. Avoiding hype is always the way to go. Of course, sometimes hype doesn’t really change how we view films one way or another (I ate up everything related to Kick-Ass before that film’s release and dug it like the dickens), but that doesn’t mean we should go out of our way to consume it.

      Frankly, I feel bad for the people for whom the flaws in Prometheus were insurmountable. For me, the biggest jolting bit of stupidity in the film– the third-act Weyland reveal– is the most jarring point of the entire picture, followed closely by Vickers’ demise, which is, honestly, just dumb given how Shaw avoid the same fate so easily. But those for me were really the only times I felt distracted from the experience of watching the movie myself.

      I think it’s easy to look past stupidity in the face of great ambition and great filmmaking/visual storytelling; the other thing is that really, much of what the film’s detractors are complaining about are either nitpicks or anti-criticisms of little to no value. I think Prometheus has several large Achilles’ heels rather than a collection of tiny ones, but I don’t get the impression that many of its critics feel the same way. And honestly, on places like CHUD, I feel way out-numbered by those critics. You’d think Scott went and made his own Phantom Menace or something.

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  6. I sort of see where your coming from but on the other hand no one told them they had to create an awesome viral campaign and crank up the hype machine. That was a choice they made, to raise expectations and hopefully from their standpoint more cash.
    That being said what I did not expect was that the assembled crew would be the Mchale’s navy of outer space. Seems like lazy script writing, to constantly move the plot along by having your characters make asanine decisions. Especially, considering how intellectual the film is trying to be.

    • But someone somewhere did tell Prometheus‘ ad men to turn on the hype machine. Cash is the ultimate motivator. If we don’t have a really good reason to tune into the hype machine, then they have a great reason to keep it churning in the first place– as you say, to raise expectations and revenue.

      I don’t disagree about how lazy the script is; I’m surprised Scott let it pass four drafting stages as it did and still came out with something as flawed as the copy that provides the film with its structure and bones.

  7. While the script certainly isn’t without a few notable flaws, the biggest flaw is the editing of the actual film.

    If you were to go back and watch the earlier trailers, there is a scene depicting Weyland and his guards exiting an elevator and shooting at the mutated geologist as they escape while he attacks. There is a shot of Shaw backing the all terrain vehicle over the mutant guy also. In the film released to theaters, the security guys are still shooting at the mutant, but the door behind them that had shown Weyland and the crew leaving the Prometheus is now, thanks to cgi magic, just a closed door. The vehicle still runs over the mutant, but it’s never clear who’s driving it, or for that matter where the vehicle goes afterwards (*you see it drive out of the hangar and then…you never see those characters or the vehicle again!). It would’ve made this sequence much more tense if Weylands life was at stake, instead, mutant guy just shows up and gets killed within a minute or two (*the attack sequence was longer originally also). The same guards shooting at the mutant miraculously appear in two places at once as they are the same ones attending to Weyland in his chambers when Shaw discovers him.

    As well, there are shots of the engineer and Shaw facing off in the lifepod that were cut, as were scenes showing the engineer being injured during the Prometheus/ Juggernaut collision sequence.

    Aside from this major re-tooling of the third reel, there are definitely major pieces of exposition and character development left out as well (scenes of younger Weyland on a yacht were filmed, but not used).

    Also left on the editing room floor was the presence of two additional, ancient looking engineers during the ‘sacrifice’ sequence at the beginning of the film.

    Another major alteration involves the black liquid and it’s ultimate purpose. The initial idea for the black liquid was to turn humans into aliens – this is shown in the “Art of” book currently available. Geologist guy was supposed to return to the ship looking like a half human/half alien (*and by ‘alien’ I mean *the* alien we all know and recognize from the other films). This was allegedly deemed “too obvious” by Damon Lidelof and was completely changed.

    Predictably, the home video release will have the original cut of the film which was 2 hours 19 minutes. Including all of the excised material may not make the script any better, but it will serve to fill in some much needed character development, improve the pacing and hopefully make the story a bit more sensible and thus, enjoyable.

    • There may be a great deal of material on the cutting room floor, but as none of us has seen it, it’s not really accurate to blame the film’s problems on what wound up being edited out. Some of that footage may have just worsened Prometheus‘ glaring issues, for all you or I know. Alternately it may have helped, but there’s nothing– I guarantee– that makes the film’s most idiotic elements palatable. The Weyland reveal is terrible no matter what, etc.

      Not that the film doesn’t have editing issues. But I think they’re small potatoes compared to the writing.

      As for the information about the “Art Of” book– well, this is my frustration with sources outside of the film. I don’t know if that’s something that the studio really wants to be touting, because it would have worked much better than the Rage Zombie that made it into the final film.

  8. I completely agree with you that Prometheus was another victim of an unfairly high amount of hype. That being said, I feel like the amount of hype raised by the movie wasn’t in any way unintentional, and in that way I fault the people behind Prometheus for setting the bar for themselves higher than they could reach.

    The ambition of the premise was admirable, but it fell apart under weak characters, unimpressive “twists” (I thought the “I’m your father” reveal was the weakest of them all) and an incredibly frustrating amount of unanswered questions

    On a different note, I just started my own movie review blog and would love some advice from any of you more experienced bloggers on how I can improve my viewership 🙂

    • I think Scott should have avoided beating around the bush and been honest about what this film was. But I think that no matter what he did after Alien was brought up, people were still going to hype this up in their heads too much.

      Advice on increasing your viewership, eh? Well, you’re taking the first step right here by getting active on other people’s blogs. That’s how I got started myself– talk to other bloggers via comment sections and make myself recognizable that way. Networking is vital!

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