Prometheus is a good example of ‘Global Hollywood’ and its release in 2012 points to several aspects of how Hollywood is coping with the evolving global film ecology. The film is a prequel of sorts to the Alien franchise which began in 1979 with three further instalments (and two more related to the Predator franchise) over the next thirty years.
The production cost an estimated $130-140 million to produce and a great deal to market ($60 million if the 50% of production cost rule applies). Only a Hollywood studio could afford that kind of money. It was produced by three companies, two American and one British for the studio major 20th Century Fox. Producer-director Ridley Scott is British, the scriptwriters are American. The principal technical credits are for Europeans who are all US residents (Polish cinematographer, Italian film editor, German music composer). There are thirteen speaking parts in the film and these are played by five English, two Scottish, one South-African, one Irish-German, one Australian, one Swedish-Spanish and two American actors. Having said that, all the principals are known to American film and television audiences. As if to add to the confusion, the art director Arthur Max is an American who has worked mostly in the UK. The film was shot mainly on Pinewood sets in the UK and on location in Iceland, Scotland and Spain. The extensive visual effects work was carried out in the UK, US, Australia and New Zealand.
Trying to assign ‘nationality’ to a film like Prometheus is clearly pointless. IMDB currently describes it as a ‘US’ production. That must be wrong. If anything it is a British production using international talent and facilities, all of which are paid for with American money (though of course that money probably comes ultimately from a variety of sources).
Prometheus is a ‘tentpole’ release by 20th Century Fox, a News Corporation company. Its release strategy follows that of Avengers Assemble (or whatever it is called internationally!) in releasing to the ‘International’ market a week before the ‘domestic’ North American release. I haven’t yet seen a convincing argument as to why this development has taken place. We know that ‘international’ is now twice the size of ‘domestic’ but that doesn’t explain why it necessarily comes first. In the UK, Prometheus opened on 1,019 screens with 73% of box office coming from 3D presentations (UK multiplexes are now almost completely converted to digital projection). Given that the opening date coincided with the Jubilee celebrations this was perhaps an odd decision. On the other hand, it was also a school holiday (it’s a ’15’ release) and the weather in the UK has been terrible – which is always good for the box office. I expect a healthy total for the full week following a weekend screen average of $10,000 (though the inflated cost of 3D presentations disguises the admissions numbers). The film opens in the US today.
But what about the film as a narrative? It deals with a mission at the end of the 21st century to find an alien civilisation which may have visited the Earth 3,000 years ago – as seen on cave paintings. (This idea is loosely drawn from The Chariot of the Gods, the 1968 book by Erich von Däniken.) The ship’s crew find the remains of an alien base, which at first appears derelict, but then . . . etc.
I confess that I’m not a Ridley Scott fan. His films are brilliantly ‘visualised’ and always contain exciting sequences – but most of the time they are also confused and messy in their storytelling. On a few occasions Scott has had a decent script and a strong cast and the film is a standout – I give you Thelma and Louise and Alien. (I still can’t forgive the scriptwriters for what they did to Phil K. Dick’s work in Blade Runner.) Unfortunately, I have to agree with what I think is the majority verdict on this, his latest film. Prometheus looks great, the cast is terrific and the script is pretty ropey. (I watched a 2D version.)
Noomi Rapace and Michael Fassbender are terrific, Idris Elba and Charlize Theron have less to do but certainly have a presence and with supporting cast as strong as Kate Dickie, Sean Harris, Timothy Spall and Benedict Wong there shouldn’t really be a problem (the casting and the theme of the film are very reminiscent of Danny Boyle’s underrated Sunshine).
There will no doubt be a sequel (i.e. at least one more prequel to Alien) but I hope that more work goes on the script. I’ll just mention one irritating script element. At the beginning of the film a credit tells us that the ‘Prometheus’ has a crew of 17 – yet only 10 of the crew have lines of dialogue. In a confined space like the ship, doesn’t it seem lazy to have nearly half the crew as simple, mute spear carriers?
I think in the end that this ‘global film’ isn’t in fact ‘global’ enough. It will be interesting to see how it fares at the box office outside Europe and North America. An English-speaking audience will hear its ‘Britishness’ in the dialogue but that will be lost in dubbing. In the first week, Prometheus was released in 15 territories and entered the international chart at No 3. It failed to beat Men In Black 3 (in 90 territories) and Snow White and the Huntsman (in 45 territories). The comparison with Snow White is significant. That film was in its second week in some territories but its screen average was still higher than that of Prometheus. The grittier, more ‘realist’ end of science fiction is not such a global attraction as comedy and romance/fantasy.
Many territories will see the film as simply ‘American’. On the other hand, there is not a specifically American ideological feel about the story – though it does have a ‘creationist’ discourse which I assume will resonate more in the US than it does over here. It’s worth remembering that the original Alien was written by Dan O’Bannon (co-creator of one of my favourite science fiction films Dark Star (1974)) during the counter-culture years in Southern California – indeed, Wikipedia suggests that the Alien script was developed from Dark Star. I don’t know if that influenced the sense of corporate exploitation of space with its truculent crew but the Alien films seem quite different in ideological terms to the Star Trek franchise (which has always felt like an odd combination of progressive, liberal ideas married to an American military ethos).
It’s going to be interesting to see how feminist film studies approaches this ‘re-boot’ of the Alien franchise. And I’m particularly looking forward to the analysis of Noomi Rapace as Elizabeth Shaw v. Sigourney Weaver as Ripley, triangulated with Noomi as Lisbeth Salander. I suspect that Ms Rapace is here to stay. She looks and sounds different – and she is an outstanding acting talent.
Last year I enjoyed watching some of Audrey Hepburn’s early films collected in a DVD box-set. The only drawback was that Roman Holiday was not included. Now I’ve finally managed to see it I realise that it is an important production in relation to the concept of global film – as well as an extremely entertaining film.
Audrey Hepburn’s first Hollywood film (for which she won an Academy Award) was directed by the legendary William Wyler shooting wholly in Rome. The story by Dalton Trumbo (working incognito as he was blacklisted at the time by HUAC as one of the Hollywood Ten) is very simple. Princess Ann (Hepburn) is a young royal from an unnamed European country visiting Rome on a European tour. Bored by her engagements and desperate to experience the nightlife of Rome she ‘escapes’ from her Embassy but only after she has been given a strong sedative. Falling asleep on a city pavement she is rescued by an American journalist (Gregory Peck) who takes her to his apartment. When he realises who she is, the journalist plots to make some money from an exclusive interview but the Princess is unaware of his plans and simply wants to have fun in Rome. They have a day of adventures – but what will be the outcome? Around the time that the film was released in the US in September 1953, Princess Margaret (younger sister of the recently crowned Elizabeth II in the UK) was in the news when her affair with Group Captain Peter Townsend became the focus for public discussion. How much Trumbo drew on this ‘real’ story, I don’t know, but it probably helped sell the film.
The major studios began to produce films in the UK very early and Paramount had a studio in London in the early 1920s. In the 1930s various small studios in the UK made ‘quota quickies’ on behalf of the Hollywood majors. There were also working relationships between the Hollywood majors and mainland European producers in the same period but it wasn’t until the Americans arrived in Rome in 1953 and founded ‘Hollywood on the Tiber‘ that the modern concept of ‘Global Hollywood’ began to take shape. When William Wyler set up the production of Roman Holiday he was able to use the resources of Cinecitta – then one of the best studios in Europe – and also to shoot in local palaces and on the streets of Rome. In some of the extras on the DVD a Paramount executive claims this was the first film to be shot on location in Rome in this way and even the film writer/scholar Molly Haskell (who should know better) claims that the shoot pre-dates and predicts the Nouvelle Vague. Of course it does, the films of Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio de Sica amongst others had been made in this way since 1944 and indeed Ingrid Bergman had left Hollywood and begged for a part in a Rossellini film after seeing Roma, citta aperta (1945) in a screening in America. The main difference between Wyler’s film and neo-realist classics such as Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D is that Wyler had two big stars and a fully functioning studio machine behind him.
In some ways, Trumbo’s script suggests neo-realism in its simplicity and lack of contrivance. But perhaps the major similarity is in the beautiful cinematography. Wyler hired two veteran European cinematographers. Franz Planer had thirty years experience and had worked for Max Ophuls in Europe and Hollywood. Henri Alekan had shot Beauty and the Beast for Jean Cocteau in 1946 and had also worked in Britain. Between them they created fantastic deep focus compositions as Ann scampers through the backstreets after leaving the Embassy – nighttime cinematography with deep black shadows in film noir style followed by sunlit scenes of joyful abandon in the second half of the film. It really is a visual treat throughout.
Gregory Peck is excellent in the film but Audrey steals the show. This was her first Hollywood film, but she had already appeared on Broadway and in British films, including Thorold Dickinson’s Secret People. The Anglo-Dutch Hepburn had an aristocratic background in Holland and she had been a dancer and a photographic model in the UK before becoming known for her films. This background meant that Princess Ann was the perfect role for her but it is her sheer personality and winning smile that drives the film along. Wyler was a great filmmaker but I can’t remember any of his other films being so much fun. Roman Holiday hasn’t dated in any way and it’s not difficult to understand why Audrey Hepburn is still as popular as she ever was (perhaps more so). But what makes the film work most of all is that it seems to follow the neo-realist idea that the story emerges from the characters and locations and is not imposed on them as in so many subsequent American films.