The James Clayton Column: Prometheus, and the need for surprise
James calls for more mystery when it comes to new releases and celebrates the films that have held back their surprises...
Prometheus has landed. The long-awaited day of delivery is upon us and finally we can all go to the cinema and savour the sci-fi motion picture event we’ve been waiting for. The Alien series has come full circle and on LV-223, once more under the direction of Sir Ridley Scott and this is a moment so exhilarating it rivals the explosive intensity of a chestburster episode.
The excitement around Prometheus has been amplified by the hype and pre-release marketing and altogether the result has been that this flick has racked up a reputation as probably the most hotly anticipated movie ever. As each new exclusive promo image has surfaced, as each alternate trailer has crept onto screens and as other tantalising gimmicks like special TED talks presented by characters have been released, the euphoria has grown.
I think it’s fair to say that even those who are slightly ambivalent or not as interested in the Alien saga or sci-fi cinema have been swept up in the build up to Prometheus which now looms large as a blockbuster season must-see. For the geeks who’ve been collectively soiling themselves over shots of the Space Jockey and the prospect of Ridley Scott’s return to a genre he left behind after Blade Runner, this is a major event.
It’s such a major milestone that I organised my summer travels around the release date to make sure I could catch Prometheus on opening day. I’m just one individual example among many and chances are by the time you read this I’ll have already watched the film and will be running wild in the streets (actually, probably just the internet) exclaiming just how utterly awesome it was.
I’ll only be doing that, however, if Prometheus delivers the goods and adequately accounts for all the hype and hopes we’ve placed on it. I don’t expect it to disappoint but there are obviously dangers that you can build something up only for it to let you down. I’m also concerned about the amount and nature of pre-release promotional material we experience and Prometheus has been a particularly interesting case to observe.
Prior to its actual arrival we’ve been eating up all the new information like junkies jonesing for an Alien fix but have simultaneously actively expressed doubts what’s being pushed on us. People have been enjoying the anticipation but consciously questioning whether the amount of publicity has been good for them with all the potential for spoilers and the generation of excessive expectations.
Even though I’ve had a lot of fun freaking out about Prometheus, I maintain that cold immersion is the ideal way to experience a movie and The Cabin in the Woods and Submarine stand out as two recent examples that re-affirm my belief that prior ignorance makes for the perfect cinema experience.
Furthermore, in stark contrast to the all the increasingly detail-heavy blockbuster teaser reels and the Prometheus fuss, I found the recent first trailer for Paul Thomas Andersen’s The Master extremely refreshing. It gives away nothing but enigmas and in two minutes of context-free images and uncanny sound effects manages to paralyse the audience under a pile of question marks. What’s Joaquin Phoenix doing on the beach? Who is the man interrogating him in that pokey little office? What’s the deal with his apparent absent-mindedness and blasé devil-may-care apathy? The Master? Huh? What?
It’s a jarring juxtaposition to all the explicit advance info we’ve got about Prometheus and I’m not expecting to see any TED talks on The Master in coming months before it makes its way into theatres. This film has an appealing sense of mystery about it - at least for now - and that uncertainty and nebulousness provides a pleasant change in the middle of summer blockbuster season.
In this overwhelming information age we’re living in, such hints of the esoteric and obscure are sweet indeed. There are no secrets anymore and even secretive people - S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, for example - whose secrets have secrets don’t get to be secretive because The Avengers trailer was quite revealing.
James Bond is a spy operating in a clandestine world of espionage yet already confidential elements of Skyfall are coming out into the open far in advance of its release. At this rate, plot-twists of the following 007 flick will have been unveiled and thoroughly analysed before principal photography has started.
It’s hopeless to nostalgically yearn for bygone times when the movieworld had more mystique and you also can’t just turn the internet off, shut up the blogosphere and ban all advertising and distracting hype surrounding new releases. Nevertheless, I do think we can swing the pendulum back a bit and put in place some measures to preserve an essential sense of alluring mystery.
We can work to cultivate a culture that celebrates surreptitiousness for film similar to that of TV. Viewers get very intense and actively propagate a ‘no spoilers please’ policy in public spaces for hit shows like Doctor Who and Mad Men. Movies, on the other hand, currently appear to exist on a plane where ‘as much information as possible, please’ is pushed by the powers-that-be as standard, but what if that standard is skewed and damages our relationship to the actual entertainment? At this point I’d say it’s important to look to the small screen or skim back through film history to rebalance the picture.
My conviction is backed up by the case of The Cabin in the Woods which flourished thanks to word-of-mouth buzz mainly built on how crucial it was to see the film before its secrets were blown. I can think of many other movies - Psycho, The Empire Strikes Back and The Usual Suspects as a select few - that have gained cult status for similar reasons.
The unacknowledged truth is that audiences enjoy surprises, plot twists and the unexpected more than the comfort zone of knowing everything about the experience they’re about to enter into. It’s a truth that J.J. Abrams and M. Night Shyamalan have profited off repeatedly and the success of cryptic viral campaigns for, say, Cloverfield and The Dark Knight shows you don’t need to spoonfeed lots of explicit information to the masses to get them on board.
It’d be nice if moviemakers, marketers and the media celebrated the abstruse more often. I hope post-Prometheus, acts of film industry feng shui occur and that wayward pendulum is balanced. Film industry feng shui, by the way, is an ancient Chinese secret and sometimes secrets are a good thing.
James Clayton is a mystery wrapped in an enigma held in a MacGuffin coveted by ninjas employed by a shadowy secret organisation from an unknown planet. You can see all his links here or follow him on Twitter.
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