Prometheus might be a little too mysterious

It’s hard to care about something when you don’t know what it is

Sometimes writing Reel Talk isn’t easy. The goal of this column is to discuss the pop cultural significance of films being given a wide release on any given weekend. That means avoiding qualitative judgments as much as possible and discussing why a movie matters. Or doesn’t.

That’s easy if a movie is starring an actor who oozes awesomeness — like say Channing Tatum — or is directed by a guy whose films have gotten progressively worse for almost two decades like Tim Burton.

But this week isn’t one of those times.

Since it was announced that Ridley Scott would be returning to the science fiction genre where he first made his mark with Alien the details of what he was working on have been wrapped in secrecy. Was Prometheus a prequel to Alien ? Did the story exist within the same universe as Ripley’s adventures?

Until very recently we didn’t know. And in my mind that doesn’t make any sense.

It’s been a tough couple years for science fiction and 2012 has been a particularly rough ride. While Prometheus might not share much in terms of tone with Battleship or John Carter they’ve been the two other wide releases that have featured aliens. They’ve both been historic flops.

The big selling point for Prometheus is its connection to the Alien universe. No it’s not a prequel but it takes place in the same physical universe. The first two Alien films are among the greatest science fiction films of all time (and there’s a compelling argument that they actually are the two greatest science fiction films of all time). Why hide from that?

Since J.J. Abrams explained his “magic box” theory during a TED talk in 2008 it’s become more and more common for Hollywood to try and keep all of a film’s details under wraps. Studios tease audiences with brief glimpses of a movie’s big set pieces but reveal very little else. They rely on speculation online to fuel interest in their films and this is supposed to be especially effective with genre films where fans tend to be easier to whip into a frenzy.

And look I’m sure that works with movies like The Dark Knight Rises where the quality of Christopher Nolan’s first two Batman films was so good that the third film in the trilogy was guaranteed to be a hit. But does the Alien franchise still have that same cultural currency 26 years after James Cameron’s Aliens was released?

The marketing campaign has been so focused on being hip and teasing us — a fake TED talk popped up online; an extended video of Michael Fassbender’s robot character opening his eyes; online previews of upcoming theatrical trailers — that it may have missed the point entirely. I don’t even know what I’m supposed to be getting excited for.

That’s probably a lot more frustrating to a guy who’s got to come up with something interesting to write about Prometheus than it is for anyone else but in a Hollywood landscape where big-budget sci-fi is increasingly rare it’s also a little worrisome. So many of modern Hollywood’s most interesting directors come from science fiction backgrounds it would be a shame if the studios stopped funding them.

I’m sure we’ll get more films like Abrams’ Star Trek where the outer space setting is merely an excuse to stage dumbed down action set pieces but I worry that we’ll see higher concept science fiction fade from the big screen entirely if films like Prometheus flop.

And look I’m not suggesting that marketers needed to divulge every little detail. But revealing a few plot points here and there wouldn’t have hurt. Why not sell the fact that this movie stars Charlize Theron Idris Elba (where’s the boy String?) and Michael freaking Fassbender? That’s a cast that would probably even get the Us Weekly crowd into the theatre.

Instead we were left guessing about what Prometheus was supposed to be about. And unfortunately I think a lot of people were left guessing why the hell they should even care.