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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.