TRAILER MIX: A New Press Play Column

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by R. Kurt Osenlund
March 20, 2012 2:00 PM
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These days, movie-trailer creation is largely a lost art, reduced to an easily-pegged formula akin to the one that gives us the John Carters of the world. But trailers and teasers remain key components of the way we consume cinema, and the rarity of true art among them makes it all the more necessary to scrutinize what these brief glimpses do—or don't do—to distinguish themselves. Trailer Mix will take a close look at a different film trailer every week, pointing out the highs and lows of its form and function. The shoddy will be skewered, the middling will be chewed over, and, hopefully, the transcendent will be praised.

            The latest U.S. trailer for Prometheus debuted on Saturday; however, as expected, it couldn't trump what's already been unfurled to promote this cryptic prequel to the Alien films. Though tonally similar to its ultra-savvy predecessors (a teaser and a TED Talk clip), the new clip seems comparatively diluted and compromised, inching, with every beat of its subbed-in, synth-rock soundtrack, toward convention that's otherwise been bucked.

            If you’re on the hunt for the finest trailers of recent years, your path will surely lead you to those that offer little narrative, splicing together scored imagery with minimal exposition (consider the previews for Little Children and Garden State). The initial, superior peek at Prometheus was cut from this cloth, and yet its impact was enhanced tenfold, for rarely have a popular film ad's briskly-edited shots been so stirringly evocative. Ridley Scott, the film’s director, promised that Prometheus would boast some Alien DNA, but more than mere strands showed up in the first teaser, and through glimpses of the original movie's iconography, legions of devotees were artfully enticed while newbies were roped in by a handsome enigma.

            Static appropriately opens this one-minute collage of ambiguity, but there's near-instant familiarity too: A spacecraft drifting into the frame is a signature shot of the Alien saga, and before one can even process that thought, the title starts materializing in telling, bone-fragment pieces. In tandem, dread and excitement are superbly mounted here, as what fans know and what they don't combine in pulse-thumping glimpses.

            The monolithic face (the movie's flagship image) remains unexplained, but this clip is otherwise flooded with elements first unveiled in 1979, including the horseshoe ship the Nostromo crew investigates, the telescope-like “Space Jockey” apparatus that's yielded decades of scratched heads, and of course, the nest-like tunnels and egg lair. That these visuals hold up, and fuse seamlessly with CG effects to be projected in 3D, is a testament to the enduring power of H.R. Giger's concept art and the original film's production design. In line with industry trends, Prometheus is partly driven by nostalgia, but there's an ageless aesthetic purity on display, made thrilling by its connection to franchise mysteries.

            It's not often that a film series can look to past breadcrumbs for whole new threads of plot. And if the aforementioned flashes aren't implication enough for how deep the movie goes into the Alien rabbit hole, look no further than the faux TED Talk clip that recently went viral, featuring a title-illuminating speech from Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce), the voracious bigwig behind Weyland Industries, which first sent Ripley and company off to LV-426. Weyland waxes egotistical about playing god, and without being explicit, peels back scads of narrative layers (shot independently of the film itself, the allusion-heavy scene serves as connective tissue between storylines). All the while, he stands in an arena that has the teaser's same throwback polish, the grayed vision of a commercial, screen-riddled space evoking Scott's Blade Runner.

            The newest trailer is another tool with which to sell Scott's return to sci-fi mastery, but with lack of novelty and diminished panache, it's missing its forebears' deft balance of new and old, which beckons while it bewilders. What the first clips offered, in stylish, first-rate fashion, was something both recognizable and very alien.

R. Kurt Osenlund is the Managing Editor of Slant Magazine's The House Next Door, as well as a film critic & contributor for Slant, South Philly Review, Film Experience, Cineaste, Fandor, ICON, and many other publications.

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