On Prometheus and Viral Videos

(USA, 124 min.)
Dir. Ridley Scott, Writ. Jon Spaiht and Damon Lindelof.
Starring: Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Charlize Theron, Idris Elba, Logan Marshall-Green, Guy Pearce.
The name Prometheus comes from Greek mythology. Prometheus, whose name means “forethinker,” played a crucial role in the crafting of the human race. The gist of his story is that it didn’t work out. It is thus an odd but appropriate irony that Prometheus honours its namesake. The god of forethought might have helped this blockbuster, since the elements of advance buzz and anticipation might be the film’s main downfall.

Prometheus announced itself as the cinematic event of 2012 early on. The Mayans’ anticipation of the apocalypse gave little cause for worry when early footage suggested that multiplexes would soon house what looked to be the blockbuster of the ages. Few films inspire as much chatter as Prometheus did before its release, or even during its run, as Twitter remains a flurry with all sorts of buzz. The team behind project Prometheus certainly achieved its goal of getting the film noticed; however, Prometheus is arguably the victim of its own overhype.

During the months of expectation, excitement built when the film released a rare “trailer preview” that advertised the impending release of the film’s first full-length advertisement. There ended up being three trailers for the film’s trailer, all three of which built eagerness of the Prometheus preview by announcing the return of Ridley Scott to science fiction. The tactic worked. Millions tuned in on the day of the trailer’s release and virtually everyone agreed that the trailer delivered.

Shortly thereafter, though, the online campaign went into overdrive. In addition to the usual behind-the-scenes featurettes, TV-spots, and clips, Project Prometheus launched a series of viral videos. They are, admittedly, quite intriguing. Take this one called “The Quiet Eye” that introduces Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (played by Noomi Rapace from the Swedish Girl with the Dragon Tattoo):

“The Quiet Eye” hints at all sorts of advances in cinematic fare. Big ideas, strong characterization, and impressive visuals are all on display. It also looks like Rapace has the goods to continue her reign as an international sensation.

Then Prometheus unleashed another viral video called “Happy Birthday David.” It’s great as a stand-alone film. It introduces Michael Fassbender’s cyborg character David 8, and it hints at another great performance from the star. It also boasts many of the big ideas and impressive visuals promised by “The Quiet Eye.” Take a look:

Although the David 8 viral video is rather good, its debut saw the winds change for Prometheus. The tone of excitement shifted a little. When David says that he is a being who might perform tasks that humans find “dangerous or unethical,” moviegoers encountered a mix of foreshadowing and “spoiler alerts.” Overall, though, the Prometheus campaign started to adopt a sense of malaise. Then things quieted down, and excitement resumed when the full-length trailer became a staple on the big screen during the coming attractions at other films.

A lot of work went into the Prometheus campaign. It succeeded, and its $50 million dollar opening – the biggest ever for an R-rated film – offers legitimate proof. If the box office take looks sound, though, might the film itself fare differently as a result of all the hype?

One could rightly say that Prometheus simply can’t live up to its own hysteria. It’s a good film to be sure, but it’s hardly the ground-breaking, mind-blowing event for which the teasers teased. Had the film been released Million Dollar Baby style (aka without nary a word, aside from some positive reviews unveiled at the final hour) the film might deservedly be called the second-coming of Ridley Scott. 
The director of Alien fame certainly makes good in his mounting of the project. Prometheus is, by all regards, an awesome spectacle of visual innovation. The effects are outstanding and the art direction/production design might offer some of the best sci-fi sets since 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The problem with Prometheus is that virtually every year sees a new special effects extravaganza. To wit: Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Hugo in 2011, Inception in 2010, Avatar in 2009, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button in 2008 and so on. What makes some of these films rise above others is that their visuals are not all that is special about the film. Prometheus, for all its grandeur in sight and sound, leaves much to be desired in story and script. It is a decent space odyssey, but it feels more like an extension of Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull than a distant relative of the Alien franchise. (I am aware that the films are no longer connected explicitly, but Prometheus offers too many parallels to the Alien tetralogy to discount the films as complementary.)

The journey begins when Dr. Shaw and her partner, Dr. Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green), make a brilliant discovery in a cave in Scotland, which looks like a bunch of intercuts to the footage captured by Werner Herzog in Cave of Forgotten Dreams. The cave painting, Dr. Shaw suggests, is an invitation for earthlings to connect with higher beings in a galaxy far, far away. The expedition continues two years later when Drs. Shaw and Holloway form part of the team aboard Prometheus. The ship is led by Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), a frigid captain who says little of the goals of the mission. Vickers is aided by her cyborg David (Fassbender, uncannily and enjoyably robotic), who, as the previews foretold, is willing to do things that humans will not.

Prometheus lands on the planet that Dr. Shaw believes hosts the engineers of human existence. For all the PhD’s in the room, however, there seem to be few signs of common sense amongst the scientists who explore the unknown territory. The team embarks on a tour of the unchartered terrain without as much as a quick reconnaissance, which leads to some quick discoveries and action. Some things unfold too conveniently in Prometheus and the rule of extra characters leads to some mild predictability (especially once the characters split up). Some events are oddly dropped from the consciousness of other characters, too, such as one nerve-rattling scene that ends with Dr. Shaw running around the spaceship drenched in her own blood, sweat, and amniotic fluid, yet she fails to raise an eyebrow from anyone on board.
In spite of some a strong premise and some great thrills, Prometheus ultimately collapses under its own narrative sprawl. There are too many characters that converge into a traffic jam for development in the film’s messy final act, especially Guy Pearce’s latex-laden seeker. Vickers, on the other hand, offers little more than a red herring despite Theron’s best efforts. Rapace, however, gives a dynamite performance as the gutsy Dr. Shaw and offers one of the stronger cinematic heroines since Ellen Ripley.

With the echoes of Ripley, though, one can’t help but feel how little the film as a whole meets the early promise of a return to Alien-level cinema. Prometheus offers plenty musings and ideas on life “out there,” but it essentially falls into the common science/faith dichotomy that is the staple of science fiction and, consequently, it offers nothing new. Prometheus hardly compares to Alien in the action/horror department, nor does it even snuff up to, say, Contact, for thoughtful sci-fi. It’s all good, but there’s only minor payoff, which is disappointing because Prometheus has been climbing such a high peak for months.

As many an Oscar fan knows, early hype can be a deadly contagion. After all, as David says, "Big things have small beginnings." Perhaps Prometheus works best as a lesson that film buffs should spend less time on the internet and more time outside. We spend enough time in darkened cinemas as it is.

Rating: ★★★½ (out of ★★★★★)  

Prometheus is currently playing in wide release.