Is Twentieth Century Fox actually starting to care about the quality and ambition of its movies? First Matthew Vaughn is allowed to make a period X-Men movie with a strong script and an excellent cast. Then Rise of the Planet of the Apes is allowed to be a sophisticated and worthy film rather than a shameless prequel. And now Prometheus will be rated R if it has to be, despite the increased revenue that a PG-13 rating would bring.
This is quite a turnaround for a studio that almost destroyed the X-Men franchise. Fox apparently took forever to make a deal for a third film with director Bryan Singer despite the second outgrossing the first. Their dithering drove him to Warner Bros to make Superman Returns. Fox then rushed the anticlimactic The Last Stand into production with anonymous director Brett Ratner and scuppered the grand, operatic potential of a final installment to that trilogy. It then micromanaged the woefully titled X-Men Origins: Wolverine and put a terrible script into production.
Not content with undermining one Marvel franchise, Fox also sabotaged the valuable Fantastic Four property with two bland, forgettable films from another anonymous director (Tim Story) that lacked the joy and wonder of the comics. They also gave Daredevil to the unproven Mark Steven Johnson, a huge fan who nonetheless revealed himself to be utterly tone deaf to what could make the character work on screen.
And that’s just the superhero films. Let’s not forget them disrespecting the legacy of the Alien series by greenlighting the shameful Alien vs Predator films. Or Alex Proyas refusing to ever work for Fox again after being micromanaged on I, Robot.
For these impulsive, shortsighted mistakes and many others, Fox has a reputation among film fans and the industry as being hostile to creatives. The bottom line appears to matter more, and they see little correlation between a creatively satisfying film and box office gross.
But perhaps that is now changing. Despite the infamous Tom Rothman remaining in charge of the studio, Fox is taking more chances and allowing creatives more power. Perhaps the rewards they reaped from giving James Cameron free rein with Avatar has prompted some soul-searching.
That a film set in the Alien universe (Prometheus) can be released without the Alien branding anywhere in the marketing is a mark of a studio willing to take the hard road. Not only that, Tom Rothman is willing for this high-budget blockbuster to be rated R if need be, even though director Ridley Scott has publicly stated that he will support whatever decision Fox makes because he understands the business implications (America’s R is roughly equivalent to Australia’s MA, and PG-13 to M).
To viewers, this naturally makes sense. The intensity of the Alien films is crucial to their power and appeal. An R rating doesn’t necessarily mean the film will be gorier. A film can earn a higher rating just for being a terrifying experience rather than for what is seen. So Rothman’s promise does not mean that Prometheus‘s gore will not be compromised, but rather its power.
None of that would necessarily have mattered to the old Fox though. Granted, talking of an old and new Fox may be premature and simplistic, but the company is nonetheless behaving atypically. They have also continued to postpone production on sequel The Wolverine due to location difficulties rather than rush the thing into cinemas at any cost. Hell, they even snagged an auteur like Darren Aronofsky to direct before family matters forced him to bow out (Walk the Line‘s James Mangold is now helming).
Prometheus seems risky in a number of ways. It’s an adult science fiction horror set in a universe more or less untouched for fifteen years (bar those AvP films). That alone sets it apart from much of Fox’s more broadly appealing output. But removing the Alien branding and embracing the R rating adds additional risks that the company doesn’t strictly have to take.
What has changed within the Fox halls? Will it continue? I’m dying to know, but what ultimately matters is the films themselves. If Prometheus delivers and Fox continues to respect their properties and produce challenging films from them, then we all benefit. Sure, the reliance on existing franchises continues and remains its own problem, but the prospect that not every Fox blockbuster will be a forgettable mess is still a victory.