I wish I could have written this column before the stupefyingly miscalculated Prometheus had put so many Scott apologists on their back foot, because to strike at the man’s oeuvre now seems a bit exploitative, or even sadistic. Still, such is the integrity of my mission that I don’t mind kicking a man while he’s down so long as it helps ensure that he’ll stay there, for here I do God’s work.
The general ambiance of directorial competence which encircles Ridley Scott like Pig Pen’s miasma of filth is baffling. Even a cursory survey of his CV betrays a menagerie of filmic mishaps that seem like they could only have been conceived of as a prank. “Hey, wouldn’t it be funny to see Michael Douglas headbutt a Yakuza?” Scott’s films oscillate with almost mechanical rigor between the pompous, the cloying, and the politically insipid. Picking up chronologically right after Blade Runner (which we’ll get to in a moment) we’re off to an easy start as no one thinks that Legend, Someone to Watch Over Me, or the abovementioned and unintentionally hilarious Black Rain are good movies.
Thelma & Louise takes a little more convincing for some, who have it somehow in their memory that the first 125 minutes of this 130 minute film aren’t an estuary of banal, toadying sludge which ooze shabby, sinusoidal little wish fulfillment waters across our eyes until, at last, the final sequence arrives and both our titular characters and the film itself take a plunge into something which feels like an actual emotion.
With 1492: Conquest of Paradise, Scott inaugurates his custom of making comically grandiose, almost Falstaffian, historical epics with the aplomb of a morbidly obese teenager nose-diving his motorcycle into a lake. Take pause to appreciate how remote the possibility should have been to truthfully be able to say that Gérard Depardieu’s recent debasement (in which he cravenly embraced the journalist-slaying, mafioso thug lord of Russia so as to secure a tax shelter for his movie money) is merely the second most humiliating thing he’s done in his life.
I’ll breeze past, no pun intended, (cloying) White Squall and (politically insipid) G. I. Jane because, again, their inadequacies are neither controversial nor are they so extreme as to merit our attention, but Gladiator is another story. Like 1492, Gladiator is a film with a glowering self-seriousness completely out of proportion with its penny-ante plot and, especially, the way in which it cynically doesn’t even attempt anything more than the most incidental and attenuated patina of historical verisimilitude. This despite his explicit and stated claim that it would be the most historically accurate depiction of Rome in film history. His historical adviser quit during production, so Jupiter help us if it is.
The superfluous Hannibal is kept afloat, barely, by excellent performances, but Scott’s rendition of this world lacks Demme’s original, gloomy claustrophobic smarts, so the gruesome bits don’t read to us as bleak ossifications of twisted minds, so much as they read as jokes in very poor taste. When Ray Liotta is fed his own brain, to his drugged-up delight, one doesn’t know whether to laugh out of scorn or to simply leave the theater as one would leave a party upon discovering that the host plays only Bon Jovi music.
Black Hawk Down manages, out of willful ignorance, to be offensive to both Somalis and our armed forces, which I suppose is some exotic species of achievement. Matchstick Men might actually be the best of the lot, thanks to Nicolas Cage’s irrepressible comic genius, but it’s still not what one would call a good movie. Kingdom of Heaven has all the historical erratum of Gladiator except it’s even more ponderous and the action scenes are this time completely without characterization instead of just mostly without it. A Good Year, an atrociously sentimental love-story chamber piece, has the emotional credibility of a sociopath miming his way through a long-distance relationship. American Gangster: American Garbage. Body of Lies, another puerile effort disguised as political commentary, which plumbs the depths of the War on Terror with all the penetrative power of a Ritz cracker. Robin Hood is that rare breed of historical epic which is neither historical nor epic and, finally, Prometheus gave us a revealing if predictable window into Scott’s psyche. There’s a much derided scene, just for example, when a professional biologist encountering alien life for the first time in human history buoyantly takes off his protective clothing and gets his face right next to it, you know, just to, like, see it better and stuff. That this is Scott’s idea of what it means to be professionally curious perhaps explains why he exhibits so little of that trait himself in his art.
Finally, Blade Runner. A stunning, atmospheric, adaptation of one of the great classics of science fiction. Its eerie, smoky, noirish, neon-lit beauty is only hamstrung by the fact that it’s completely emotionally hollow. The traditional defense of this charge is that this was intentional. Everybody’s glass-eyed performance and monotone delivery lend a feeling of alienation to the proceedings which reinforce the film’s themes of dehumanization and otherness. I can only go so far as to agree that Scott may have done something right in this regard completely by accident, except that it’s hard to ignore the more pejorative interpretations of Blade Runner’s bloodlessness (even, or perhaps especially, when it’s at its bloodiest) in the context of his soulless body of work to date.
Still, I’ll give the old man Alien. That’s a pretty good one. Aliens is better though.