Prometheus: The Question of Transmedia Storytelling



I've been getting a craving to watch Prometheus and Alien: Covenant again and it got me thinking about my experiences watching Prometheus when it first came into cinemas. Prometheus was one of those films that was never going to get the acceptance that it was yearning for.  As a prequel (well, depending on who you speak to in the production) to Ridley Scott's beloved Alien, the film was always going to be on the back foot when it came to critical responses and audience reception.


The film itself is not that bad, and I remember really enjoying it at the cinema. I was shocked though at the backlash it received in the days and weeks after. The biggest issue people seemed to have with the film was that it raised too many questions that didn't get answered. Why was David trying to kill everyone? Why was Guy Pearce dressed up in prosthetic makeup to play an older man? Why are the engineers trying to kill us? Then there were the questions regarding the world and the film's place in the Alien timeline. Is this the planet that they visit in the 1979 film? Audiences were drawing their own conclusions and then finding the filmmakers coming forward with their own answers. It created confusion and frustration and Alien fans were left scratching their heads.


What's interesting about this film though, is that a lot of the information that fans were crying out for was provided through other media. The reason why Guy Pearce was disguised as an elderly man for such a minor role at the end of the film is that he actually played a larger role in the story. As part of the marketing for the film, Guy Pearce plays a younger version of the same character presenting a fictional TED talk about space exploration. We learn a lot about his character and his motivations in this brief but pivotal scene and in his appearance in the sequel, Alien: Covenant.



Then there are the video blogs that the protagonist Elizabeth Shaw leaves for Pearce's Peter Weyland, telling him about her research and her proposal to find the engineers. Again, this provides a lot of subtle information that the main film skips over. Finally, we have the website for the film. This was a typical movie website dressed up to appear as the official Weyland Industries website aimed at recruiting crew members for the adventure. The website was loaded with information about the planet and other planets that had been explored in the past. It had information which contextualised Prometheus within the wider Alien universe, for the more astute observer and, had it been made more public, would have answered a lot of the questions that viewers had. 


But that's the problem. You can't expect audiences to do their homework before going to see a film. There's nothing wrong with providing additional information that can enhance the experience for the viewer, but you can't punish them either by leaving them confused and scratching their heads, just because they weren't aware of these other sources.


As a fan of the series, I was naturally aware of these transmedia storytelling vehicles and it enriched the story for me. I understood why David was the way he was. I understood the character of Weyland better. I understood the company and the planet they were exploring as well. I still had questions, sure, but I don't feel I was left as puzzled by the film as others were.

I wonder would the film have been better received by critics and fans alike if that information had been made available to them or included in the film itself.  Even Alien: Covenant used this technique as well. I like when filmmakers use this, but they need to strike a balance between providing information to the viewers and alienating (pun definitely intended!) audiences at the same time.

(Image copyright: 20th Century Fox)