Gladiator, a blockbuster-budgeted behemoth about ancient Rome, begins with a lyrical closeup of a man’s hand rippling through the wheat in a sun-dappled field. Yes, this has the look of director Ridley Scott, in that exciting/maddening way of his: it’s an image that could come from a tone poem, or from a TV commercial. Scott has always had both sides to his directorial personality, which I think is why I have a hard time referring to Alien and Blade Runner as classics (having never gotten over the thud of disappointment I felt on their opening days). In fact, for a highly regarded filmmaker, Scott has an awful lot to answer for, including G.I. Jane, 1492, and that horned fantasy Legend.
35 years after the original Blade Runner changed the landscape of big screen science fiction, Blade Runner 2049 (2017) dared build on the dystopian portrait of the ecologically devastated urban imaged on screen by director Ridley Scott and his team of designers and artists. Just as in the original, this film is as much about the texture of the world on screen as it is the story of the Replicants (artificially manufactured humans created as slave labor) decades after Deckard first strolled the mean streets of L.A.
Ryan Gosling is K, the Blade Runner of this story, a next generation Replicant whose job it is to “retire” the last of the old models, the ones created with a more flexible will that led to rebellion. His new assignment unearths artifacts that leads directly back to the story of Deckard (Harrison Ford) and Rachel (Sean Young) and the legend of a Replicant child, a messiah myth for the Replicant underclass not unlike the Christian virgin birth: the first non-virgin birth of a race genetically designed in a lab. It’s a story that Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), the techno-industrialist who took over the collapsed Tyrell Corporation, will do anything to bury and he sends his own Replicant enforcer, Luv (Dutch actress Sylvia Hoeks), to eradicate the evidence.
This is science fiction spectacle and futuristic detective story as art movie tone poem, a conspiracy thriller with flying cars, blaster handguns, and big brawling fights that defies the breathless pace of the action genre.
You may recall Prometheus with both awe and astonishment, a film with astounding moments of beauty and horror and brilliance bumping up against stupidity and sloppiness and half-baked ideas. Alien: Covenant (2017), the second film in the Alien prequel series, takes place a decade after the events of Prometheus (2012) and continues writing the xenomorph origin story with a new cast of potential hosts (a colony ship with a population on ice waiting to wake on a new world) put through a plot that borrows elements from both Prometheus and the original films. It’s a smarter film, and if it never quite matches the conceptual and visual genius of Prometheus at its best, neither does it slip into the foolishness of its worst moments.
This is the sixth official film (we’re ignoring the Alien vs. Predator films) in what is becoming a galaxy-spanning franchise, the second film in the prequel story, and the third directed by Ridley Scott, director of the original film. It opens with the skeleton crew awakening early, just as it did in Scott’s original Alien, and sending a search party down to a nearby planet sending out a distress signal, which this time is a verdant world teaming with plant life but, eerily, no animals or insects or birds. What it does have are the insidious spores of Prometheus (also directed by Scott) which colonize the unlikely humans as hosts for this alien life form, and a lone humanoid living in the ruins of a dead civilization: David (Michael Fassbender), the android of Prometheus who walks the wasteland like a rogue prophet and makes contact with the human team.
The movie begins with a hurricane on Mars, a life-threatening debris storm, and a spaceship that might not be able to lift off in the chaos. And that’s the easy part. After the rocket finally blasts from the surface, an astronaut—presumed dead—is left behind on the Red Planet, and he’s got to figure out how to stay alive by himself until a very improbable rescue mission could pick him up. That will take many, many months, if it happens at all. So The Martianis a problem-solving movie: How will castaway Mark Watney (Matt Damon) figure out the fundamental problems of food, shelter, and communication? The movie doesn’t waste much time worrying about issues of loneliness; after we’ve spent time with Watney, who has a complete lack of introspection and neurosis, it’s no wonder.
The gulf between Moses movies can be measured in beards. For The Ten Commandments (1956), Charlton Heston unrolled a splendid carpet of chin-hair; for the latest incarnation, Christian Bale offers realistic, scraggly whiskers that might belong to the third apostle from the right in any average biblical epic. Exodus: Gods and Kings prefers angst over showmanship, and the picture suffers accordingly.
Surely the film’s director, Ridley Scott, has been waiting all his life to get a crack at the florid yarn-spinning of the Old Testament.
In his screenplay for The Counselor, Cormac McCarthy leaves out the stuff that usually supplies the pleasure in a crime film: the planning, the suspense, conventional scenes of reward and resolution. And there’s only one car chase.
This approach has potential; the author of All the Pretty Horses and No Country for Old Men is one of America’s best living writers, a brilliant stylist whose vision of the world brings us through different visions of hell.
In The Counselor, by stripping away those pleasures, McCarthy mostly leaves the hell.
Ridley Scott has taken pains to explain that Prometheus (Fox) is not a prequel to Alien, but a film that comes from the same DNA. That’s a bit disingenuous, considering how meticulously (and often very cleverly) it sets up the building blocks of Alien, but his pointed use of the term DNA is telling. It opens with a very different answer to Genesis, where Earth is seeded with alien genetic material, and then jumps ahead a few billion years to follow a crew of scientists (including Noomi Rapace) retracing an ancient trail through the stars left behind by the ancients.
Mirroring Alien, we have a colorful crew (this time mostly scientists), a corporate directive (monitored by Charlize Theron), and an android (Michael Fassbender, superb) on the bridge charged with completing that directive, but otherwise this is far from the gothic monster movie of the 1979 original. At its most ambitious, Prometheus plants suggestions of the extraterrestrial origins of life on Earth, a Godlike race sowing genetic seeds across galaxy, and even an Old Testament-like sense of retribution, or at the very least a feeling of failure that calls for a reboot.
With all this happening, I’m left with a nagging question: How can Ridley Scott have such a sophisticated visual intelligence, creating screen worlds engineered in such detail as to suggest entire cultures behind the designs and technology, and then fill those worlds with characters who are supposed to be scientists yet act like kids in a playroom? Seriously, the reason these supposedly top scientists of the late 21st century keep yelling “Don’t touch anything” to each other is because otherwise they’ll fingerpaint their way through the most important scientific discoveries since the mapping of the human genome.
The script fails to match its ambition, but at least give it credit for big ideas, unexpected conceptual turns, and a dense and dramatic visual experience. “Prometheus” hints at something bigger, more cosmic and philosophically daring, than what the characters actually manage to grapple with on screen. And for all its failures in the realm of human behavior, the cosmic mystery behind the story is enigmatic and remains so to the end. In leaving us with mysteries, it offers something far more satisfying than a reductive answer. It leaves us with possibilities.
[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]
As a horror movie, Alienis appropriately concerned with collective nightmares (being chased and caught; the monster is below us, now above us; someone we know is, in fact, not human), and lustfully derivative of the genre’s white-middle-class fears that give rise to the nightmares (loss of order, familiarity, and domination; community goes to hell). But the film has something more, at least in the first half: a developing narrative with an exclusive, integral logic of its own, built on ostensible collisions in logical flow. In other words, in its auspicious beginnings, Alienreminds one of more expressly surreal films. The difference is that Alienhas an intentionally simple storyline derived from consistency in character types and motivations, including all nonhumans, machines, distant organizations, and the dead.