On Feb. 28, 2012, a video entitled “TED Conference, 2023” appeared on the website for the eponymous American-Canadian nonprofit organization. The faked, futuristic presentation was the beginning of a viral campaign for Prometheus, Ridley Scott’s then-upcoming attempt at revitalizing the science fiction horrors of the Alien franchise with a high-minded prequel. But the video turned out to be a weird premonition in itself.
Written by Prometheus co-writer Damon Lindelof and directed by Ridley’s son Luke Scott, the video starred Guy Pearce as a younger version of his character Peter Weyland, the ostensible antagonist of the film, delivering a defiant speech to a massive audience packed into Wembley Stadium, with floating cameras and real-time reactions scrolling across a massive projection screen. Prior to Prometheus, Weyland was the previously unseen (and long-deceased) founder of Weyland Industries, which would eventually become the unscrupulous mega-corporation Weyland-Yutani (aka “The Company”) first glimpsed in the original 1979 Alien. But in “TED Conference, 2023,” Weyland is alive and well, a 32-year-old tech mogul and veritable titan of industry at the apex of his combined wealth, youth, and power with clear thoughts on the future.
“Prometheus takes place in the future, but it’s a movie about ideas, and I just felt like it would be really cool to have one of the characters from the movie give a TED Talk,” Lindelof said in a Q&A interview published on TED’s blog alongside the Peter Weyland video. “Obviously, since the movie is set in the distant future, it would have to be a little more contemporary. But wouldn’t it be cool if it was a TED talk from a decade in the future? And what is a TED Talk going to look like in 10 years? And what would this guy have to say?”
Peter Weyland’s TED Talk is just one example of how the inexorable march of time has eclipsed the wildest prognostications of speculative fiction. In 2023, the most interesting thing about the video, though, is not its thematic or narrative relationship to Prometheus, but how it stands as an inadvertent time capsule of a moment in our collective culture when tech CEOs were, as a whole, held in a much higher regard.
To say that 2012 was a different time than 2023 feels tantamount to saying the moon is a different place than the Earth. The first Black president of the United States was reelected; disasters and crises both natural and manmade, such as Hurricane Sandy and the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, rocked the nation; and The Avengers became one of the highest-grossing films in history — a record that would be eclipsed multiple times by Marvel itself over the next decade.
The most pertinent milestone of that year though, as it relates to the Prometheus TED Talk video, is the ascendant popularity of Elon Musk, who debuted on Forbes’ list of the world’s billionaires in March 2012 with a net worth of approximately $2 billion. In the late aughts to early 2010s, Musk was the golden boy of Silicon Valley, the “cool” billionaire who loved video games and Rick and Morty and inspired Robert Downey Jr.’s portrayal of Tony Stark in 2008’s Iron Man. He was the man who wanted to take humanity to Mars by 2021, and the subject of innumerable glowing profiles and op-eds penned by the likes of Esquire, Bloomberg, The Wall Street Journal, and more proselytizing the “triumph of his will” and his status as tech’s most eligible bachelor.
In 2023, Elon Musk is Silicon Valley’s wealthiest pariah, a man who was booed onstage at a comedy show and subsequently took to his bully pulpit atop the social media platform he purchased to crowdsource his self-esteem, stating, “Technically, it was 90% cheers & 10% boos.” A man suspected to be one of the inspirations behind Edward Norton’s character in Rian Johnson’s 2022 murder mystery Glass Onion, a peacocking tech billionaire with delusions of grandeur (and a possible penchant for murder). A man who posts cringe-inducing dad memes and dogwhistle conspiracy theories when he’s not busy banning and ducking from journalists, boosting his own tweets, or livestreaming fart noises at 2 a.m.
In 2012, Damon Lindelof imagined a character who was one of the world’s wealthiest and most powerful men, a billionaire several times over who, in the then-futuristic year of 2023, emerged from a self-imposed three-year media blackout to rapturous applause before proceeding to wax obtusely about Greek mythology, the history of human technology, and the folly of institutional regulation. In the reality of 2023, we’re at the point where we’re practically begging one of the world’s richest men to please log off and shut the fuck up.
Musk, as my colleague Susana Polo would put it, is a man who “wants to do whatever he wants, and, crucially […] wants to be adored for being the guy who can do whatever he wants.” Both he and the fictional Peter Weyland share that much in common. As revealed in the final act of Prometheus, Peter Weyland funded Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway’s (Logan Marshall-Green) expedition to the distant moon of LV-223 so that he could beg the Engineers — the advanced alien species believed to have created humanity and the Xenomorphs — for a cure for death so that he could live forever. No spoilers, but… Well, you can guess how well that plan turned out.
History (speculative or otherwise) aside, the Prometheus viral marketing campaign remains a fascinating touchstone of sci-fi popular culture and Hollywood ephemera, with the campaign’s most audacious element being the Peter Weyland TED Talk. It’s more than worth revisiting, if not to put into stark relief the ways in which our collective culture’s depiction of tech CEOs has or has not evolved, then just to see Guy Pearce hamming it up as Weyland in all his vainglorious glory.
Prometheus is available to stream on Hulu.