Ridley Scott’s place in the filmmaking canon, plus a few more Prometheus thoughts

by Sonny Bunch on June 12, 2012

Prometheus thoughts first:

  • As expected, audiences were somewhat disappointed with Prometheus as shown by the “B” from Cinemascore and the fact that the box office dropped 25 percent from Friday to Saturday. Word of mouth was obviously not that great.
  • Again, I’ll be very interested to see what kind of drop off there is weekend-to-weekend. With average word of mouth and the weak competition for the action-adventure set next weekend, a drop of 40 percent or so would be about average. I’m guessing we’ll see closer to a 60, 65 percent drop, the sign of a movie that isn’t getting great word of mouth.
  • There are two ways you can handle the huge, giant, gaping plot holes. You can fill in the blanks with what would generously be called a “deep reading” of very tiny signposts from the filmmakers or you can mercilessly shred the film for having so many GD blanks. I think the latter is a more fulfilling tack.
  • UPDATE: Topless Robot has a great Q and A explaining just how remarkably stupid every character in this film is.

Okay, done with that (for now). Let’s move on to a slightly more difficult issue: How do we handle Sir Ridley’s place in the filmmaking canon? Certainly we couldn’t fit him in Andrew Sarris’ pantheon—he’s too uneven and lacks thematic or visual unity throughout his career. But how close to the pantheon is he?

The most important point in Scott’s favor is that when he makes a great film he makes a great film. You could credibly make the argument that Scott has created an all-time-top-five movie in four separate genres, a versatility equaled by no other filmmaker off the top of my head.* Those four films, and their genres:

  1. Alien (1979)—A tightly paced, utterly terrifying little horror film that deftly combines intense claustrophobia with disturbing body horror. A masterpiece of set design, Alien was an interesting outlier in the golden age of American horror films. Jason Zinoman’s Shock Value covers the picture in-depth, if you’re interested in reading more on its place in film history or its production.
  2. Blade Runner (1982)—Widely considered one of the best and most important science fiction films of all time, Blade Runner was butchered by the studio on its initial release only to find second life in later years and multiple director’s cuts. Blade Runner gets right what Prometheus gets so wrong: You don’t have to provide audiences with all the answers, but you do have to actually articulate a question. Another brilliant act of world-creation, the dingy streets of future-Los Angeles seem to have a life of their own and that life lends added weight to the philosophical questions bandied about by the replicants pursued by Harrison Ford’s Deckard.
  3. Gladiator (2000)—This best picture-winning film breathed new life into the moribund sword-and-sandal genre by staging incredible set pieces and imbuing its central characters with enough pathos to keep audiences emotionally attached to the action on the screen. A great film that cemented Russell Crowe’s spot on the A-List and launched Joaquin Phoenix’s troubled career, Gladiator holds up nicely.
  4. Black Hawk Down (2001)—I know this choice will be slightly controversial, but Black Hawk Down is an absolute tour-de-force that gives martial combat an immediacy present in virtually no other war film (Saving Private Ryan‘s first half-hour excluded). This film has its detractors—we don’t get to know most of the troops on anything more than a superficial level and the hyperkinetic action sequences essentially strips them of what superficial identities they do have—but any weakness in character development is overwhelmed by the brilliant, blood-pumping combat set pieces. Black Hawk Down affects me in a deeply emotional, primal way that is almost discomforting. And that’s how I know it’s a brilliant flick.

That’s four amazing, A+ pictures, but they’re spread out over 35 years. In-between the brilliance there are literally decades of mediocrity—and no small amount of terribleness. G.I. Jane, 1492, Kingdom of Heaven, Robin Hood, A Good Year…ugh. I enjoy most of the mediocrities—Thelma and Louise, Hannibal, American Gangster, Body of Lies, etc.—but I’m perfectly willing to admit that they’re flawed, perhaps even deeply so, in their own individual ways.

And this is why it’s so hard to deal with Sir Ridley’s body of work. It’s so up-and-down, so erratic that it’s hard to consider him a great director. But he’s made enough great movies—truly great, inspiring feats of filmmaking—that it’s hard not to consider him a great director. He’s the perfect example of why the auteur theory is often inadequate as a guideline or operating framework. Each Ridley Scott film has to be taken on its own merits. Odds are, you’ll end up with a dud. But if he pulls a little magic out of his bag of tricks, hang on—you’re in for one hell of a ride.

*Kubrick would probably make the cut, though it would kind of depend on how you categorize A Clockwork Orange. Spielberg might make the cut too, assuming we include “Holocaust Film” as a genre unto itself.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Will June 12, 2012 at 11:35 am

Admittedly, Gladiator is a fun movie. But you can see kernels of Scott’s later infatuation with jamming anachronistic “big think” messages into what should be straight-up period pieces. All that bullshit about liberty and saving the republic pretty clearly presages the problems in Kingdom of Heaven (religious tolerance!) and Robin Hood (Magna Carta!).

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Sonny Bunch June 12, 2012 at 11:38 am

Oh, Gladiator is a debacle, historical-accuracy wise. I mean, the whole “restoration of the Republic” thing alone…

True story: I took a Roman history course in college and we had an exam with a bonus question that read something like “For 2 extra points, list ten historically inaccurate portions of Gladiator.” Easiest two points I ever earned.

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Vic Matus June 12, 2012 at 1:10 pm

I’m betting “Prometheus,” which I have yet to see, is better than “Madagascar 3,” which I did see over the weekend. You want to talk plot holes? On the other hand, my son can now sing a song called “Afro Circus.”

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Mark June 12, 2012 at 2:16 pm

I never really think of Ridley Scott as being an auteur, perhaps because his style isn’t really that distinctive. I’ve always thought of him as a really great craftsman, but for example, Prometheus fails because of script problems. Not technically his area, but I think that’s why his filmography is so uneven…

In terms of directors making great genre films, Kubrick definitely came to mind for me: Film Noir (The Killing), Science Fiction (2001), Horror (The Shining), and whatever you consider Dr. Strangelove (war? black comedy? satire?). I think most of his films tend to be different genres, even when exploring the same themes, and while some films can be debated, all of them are at least high quality if not classics… The only duplication of genres I see is war, with Paths of Glory and Full Metal Jacket, both pretty well regarded…

Spielberg is another good call. I think Tarantino could get there eventually (I think he’s already cleared the crime and war genres, with an interesting though not top-of-the-genre attempt at horror and a Western that looks pretty awesome on the way). The Coen Brothers might qualify, but they may only hit 3 genres (though its really difficult to define some of their movies).

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RobThom June 18, 2012 at 9:29 am

Those last 2 sucked.
The greatest films Scott made were his first 3.

But even by BR his difficulty at maintaining a narrative, and his bad fit into the hollywood system proper can be seen in retrospect.

But those 3 films are more than a lot of popular directors have ever achieved in their careers.
Those 3 are better then anything Cameron did IMO.
Although that is a matter of taste.
(Cameron is great at spectacular mediocrity IMO).

Lucas made 3 good films (Graffiti, SW, ESB).
He’s probably behind Lucas and before Cameron for quality of achievements.

And they’re all behind Kubrick.

Ridley was just a product of his time.
Like Lucas was, like the Jimi was, and that Ridley is gone with that era.

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