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'Prometheus' and Defying the R-Rated Blockbuster Odds

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Jun 06, 2012 | 6:22am EDT

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ALTWhile the mystery behind man's creation is the question that burns at the heart of this week's sci-fi epic Prometheus, the movie's own birth can be traced fairly definitively. Director Ridley Scott had long been mulling over prequelizing his seminal, 1979 space horror Alien, bringing on artists and writer Jon Spaihts half a decade to go to develop a story. But it all finally came together when LOST vet Damon Lindelof came on board to polish the screenplay into Prometheus — a sci-fi in the vein of Alien that stands alone with heady, big picture concepts and terrifying creature mayhem. Touting that combination, it was a no-brainer that Fox would move ahead with the film and let the creative team run wild with their seed of a cinematic idea.

But even with a pedigree comprised of Hollywood's upper echelon — a standard continued to be set by the top-notch cast of Michael Fassbender, Charlize Theron, and Noomi RapacePrometheus is still a risk for the studio. Committing to the hard R-rating the material desperately calls for, Fox boldly steps out this weekend into an arena where few have found blockbuster-sized success. The R rating presents a formidable challenge for a movie, limiting their audience to the 18 and up crowd, a majority who are not the target demographic when it comes to theatrical experiences — especially during the summer. A few days ago, The Avengers became the third highest-grossing movie of all time, thanks to its transcendent ability to become a four-quadrant movie. The kids who frequent the air-conditioned safehavens of movie theaters during the summer trekked out for repeat viewings of the comic book action flick; adults who grew up with the comics finally had an event film; and those who couldn't care less about a group of caped crusaders punching aliens in the faces were dragged along by their excited friends. With an R rating, Prometheus already narrows the field of vision.

Despite the restrictive nature of the MPAA's adult branding, R-rated movies can triumph at the box office. 2012 has seen two films branded with R cross the $100 million mark: the raunchy comedy 21 Jump Street and Denzel Washington's Safe House. 2011 even saw an R-rated movie blow past $200 million, with The Hangover Part II grossing $254.5 million in the states alone. The biggest hurdle for Prometheus may be its sci-fi roots — while R-rated comedies thrive, they naturally appeal to a broader audience and, in general, cost significantly less than a special effects-driven spectacle. The cost of producing Prometheus is anyone's guess, but it's safe to assume that as a summer movie, it has to make summer movie numbers — which, these days, is upwards of $200 million. Very few R-rated, sci-fi movies have been able to cross that event horizon, with 2003's Matrix Reloaded ($281 million) being the most recent. Only two other movies fit as apt comparisons: 1991's Terminator 2: Judgment Day ($204.8 million) and (a bit of a stretch) the 2007's comic book adaptation 300 ($210.6 million). Even franchise revivals that stir up nostalgia don't muster up much business. 2003's Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines bowed out at $150.4 million.

The factor that could help Prometheus mission into the great box office unknown is the ship's captain: Ridley Scott. The auteur director has made a career out of R-rated films targeted directly at mature moviegoers. Scott has made five movies in his career that have made over $100 million, four of which were rated R: Gladiator ($187.7 million), Hannibal ($165.1 million), American Gangster ($130.2 million), and Black Hawk Down ($108.6 million). Back when the director was in the genre business, with entries like Alien, Blade Runner and Legend, movies weren't raking in the amounts of money they do today. His return to summer-friendly could provide Prometheus with the draw to overcome the R rating curse, making the film Scott's career best.

Scott, Lindelof and the rest of the Prometheus crew had few bumps in making of their film. There were assumptions that Fox would take the safe road, trim down the movie's violence and secure a PG-13 rating suitable for the masses. Instead, they stuck with the unfiltered imagination of Scott and Co. Will the risk pay off? The movie has already made over $40 million worldwide before its descent into American box offices and that success could easily translate stateside. A mega-hit with an R-rating is a rarity, but as evidenced, it may be a void audiences are clamoring to have filled.

Follow Matt Patches on Twitter @misterpatches

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