Closure: Ridley Scott

Today marks the introduction in a new kind of special retrospective article I’m going to try out which I’m calling “Closure.”  Unlike the “Crash Course” posts I’ve been doing that are intended to act as introductions and kick starts to certain cinematic topics, these are meant to close out various lifelong pursuits once and for all.  More than likely this will focus on certain auteur’s filmographies, situations where I’ve already seen the lion’s share of a director’s work but just need that extra nudge in order to finish things off and watch the last handful of films I haven’t seen from them.  Of course most of these are going to be filmmakers who are alive and working, so there’s some possibility I’ll just fall behind later as the continue making films, but at least I’ll be caught up in the first place.  For my first “closure” article I’ll be looking at the work of a filmmaker who has been something of a white whale for me for a while: Ridley Scott.  I still like Scott a lot but when I was a teenager he may well have been in my all-time top five directors and I sought out a ton of his work including some lesser works like Black Rain and White Squall but there were certain films like 1492: Conquest of Paradise (which I did finally see two years ago when it showed up on CBS All Access, not good) that were going to be unavailable to me so gaps remained and then later in his career he made some stuff that seemed skippable and my interest waned.  But looking at what remains, there are only five Ridley Scott movies I haven’t seen: one from the 80s, one from the 2000s, and three from the 2010s, and it seems like a good time to just finish this out.

Someone to Watch Over Me (1987)

In 1982, Ridley Scott cashed in his clout from making Alien in order to make his masterpiece Blade Runner, a film that’s now considered a classic but underperformed with audiences.  Scott still impressed people enough with that movie to get 1985’s Legend greenlit, and that didn’t really succeed either critically or financially so it’s pretty clear that by 1987 he needed to maybe scale down his ambition and make a “normal” movie and the result was a film starring Tom Berenger and Mimi Rogers called Someone to Watch Over Me.  You don’t really hear much about the movie these days, and for good reason, because it’s quite forgettable.  The film is about a police officer tasked with acting as a bodyguard for a socialite who has witnessed a crime and starts to fall for her.  This, of course, is basically the same plot as 1985’s Witness except without the Amish angle and without most of everything else that made that movie good and interesting.  The one difference here is that the cop is married and his bodyguarding antics bring him to the edge of infidelity, which maybe could have been the germ of something interesting but it never really goes anywhere and there isn’t that much chemistry between Tom Berenger (who does not aquit himself as a leading man here) and Mimi Rogers.  Directorially, Ridley Scott is a bit out of his element here, he sets some scenes at New York landmarks like the Guggenheim Museum but otherwise isn’t able to turn this into a spectacle like his previous films and isn’t able to transcend the film’s uninteresting script.  These days we lament that every movie coming out of Hollywood is seemingly trying to be an epic tentpole, and yeah that’s not ideal, but it’s worth remembering that the previous system used to involve pumping out a lot of uninspired movies like this that were just hoping that some star chemistry would bring them to life and when they didn’t the results were total nothingburgers like this.

** out of Five

A Good Year (2006)

A Good Year feels like a strange aberration in Ridley Scott’s career in that its mostly devoid of the big production values that tended to define his career, especially in this post-Gladiator period.  A romantic comedy about an investor deciding what to do with a vineyard he inherited from a dececed uncle certainly isn’t a project that screams “Scott Free Productions.”  On the other hand there was a certain logic to it: Scott had scored a solid critical success with the small scale conman film Matchstick Men three years earlier and it was starting to look like he’d make a habit of making similarly small movies in between his epics and he had an obvious report with Russell Crowe that he wanted to revisit with this breezy little project.  Unfortunately this is no Matchstick Men.  So, there’s this formula that exists in Hollywood movies where people with busy urban lives wind up through circumstances traveling to small towns (often their hometowns) and dislike it at first but slowly come to see the charms in the slower rural life and decides to settle down there with some local they find themselves romancing.  It’s the formula of Hallmark movies and I hate it.  Firstly because it’s trite and predictable but also because it’s implicitly insulting to the wide swaths of people who choose to live in cities.  Also the movies have a strong whiff of hypocrisy; the people making them plainly don’t actually believe in leaving behind fast moving urban careers (as evidenced by the fact that they’re making a Hollywood movie) but are just adopting this bullshit to pander to middle America.  However, at the very least most of those movies have the common sense to be set in actual middle America, this movie on the other hand has the gall to apply that formula to a character who has the luxury of inheriting a vineyard estate in the South of France.

Yeah, I’m not normally much of a class warrior but this thing kind of did have me wanting to find a guillotine.  It’s probably for the best that this got made in 2006 because you probably couldn’t make a movie that’s this blasé about lives of luxury two years later after the 2008 economic crisis. Indeed, later in his career Scott would in fact become a lot more critical about what wealth does to people but here he’s just pushing this very out of touch story about someone trying to decide whether to trade one life of luxury for another one with minimal real consequences involved in making one choice or another.  Beyond that this is a pretty good example of why they normally don’t hire people like Ridley Scott to make lightweight romcoms.  The extra skill he brings behind the camera kind of subconiously make you expect something better to be on the screen than the formulaic nothing you’re getting.  The actors certainly try their best to make the material work.  Crowe does a decent job of making his character an arrogant asshole without making him completely unlikable and both Marion Cotillard and Abbie Cornish are charming and attractive in their roles but they can’t overcome the script’s shortcomings.  After this thing came and went Scott maybe overlearned the lessons of this and probably leaned too much in the other direction towards making nothing but dour large scale movies and wouldn’t try to make something that’s even a little bit light and comedic again until The Martian almost a decade later.

** out of Five

The Counselor (2013)

Of the five Ridley Scott movies I’m looking at to clear up his filmography this is definitely the one that had me the most intrigued.  In addition to being directed by Scott the sported an all star cast including Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt, Penélope Cruz, Javier Bardem, and Cameron Diaz, and perhaps most intriguingly the film had an original screenplay written by the Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Cormac McCarthy, whose No Country for Old Men and The Road had been brought to the screen around the same time with great success.  Rarely has a film looked so promising on paper to just die an ignoble death upon release.  The film was defended by some critics but was by and large dismissed, earning just a 34% on Rotten Tomatoes and mostly bombed at the domestic box office (though it did do a little better internationally, saving it from being a complete boondoggle).  I came close to seeing it back in 2013 out of sheer curiosity but I was busy at the time and on a budget and ultimately opted not to and never really caught up to it until now.

In some ways Ridley Scott made sense as a person to direct this somewhat opaque and literary take on the drug trade.  He’d long been rumored as a potential helmer of an adaptation of McCarthy’s most acclaimed novel “Blood Meridian” and in general he’s considered a top talent and he’s one of only a few auteurs on his level that generally don’t write their own screenplays.  However, in a lot of ways he was actually an odd choice for this project.  Scott is, if nothing else a very straightforward filmmaker whose films tend to be a bit surface level.  Occasionally he’ll make something like Blade Runner that is a little more interested in subtext but normally what you see is what you get from him, so he isn’t necessarily the most obvious choice to be parsing something that’s sparse and literary in the way that McCarthy’s prose often is.  Scott certainly lives up to his end on a technical level; the film is beautifully shot by Dariusz Wolski and has some moments of violence that are pretty striking and memorable.  There are also some fairly opulent sets here, and you can kind of see the roots of some of his more recent movies about the dangers of opulence like House of Gucci here.  However, this screenplay is quite the headscratcher.

On a surface level this story feels like some fairly insubstantial crime hokum, which would of course also arguable be the case with No Country for Old Men, but the Coen Brothers were much more of a position to make that story work cinematically and bring its themes to the surface.  Here we don’t really have an intermediate writer to make McCarthy’s style work more cinematically, nor do we have a director who’s inclined to really challenge the writing or recontexualize it, so this is very much McCarthy’s world and it’s kind of up to you to find meaning in it… and I can’t say I was able to do that.  I can’t exactly dismiss the film, it looks good and it’s just generally interesting that it exists, but I don’t know that there’s much of anything in the way of a profound message at its center beyond some fairly obvious points about greed and human nature, and it’s in this kind of odd place where it’s too weird to be conventionally entertaining but not weird enough to feel like some kind of gonzo romp.  Just kind of a missed opportunity all around.  Had McCarthy stuck to what he was good at (writing novels) and just left it to someone like Paul Thomas Anderson to adapt said novel we would have been on to something, instead we have… this.

*** out of Five

Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014)

Ridley Scott has at times been called the Cecil B. DeMille of his times, perhaps rather superficially, because he’s basically the only director left standing who could be said to specialize in making period epics with “a cast of thousands” (even if that cast of thousands are conjured by computers these days).  Slightly less superficially he may have earned this comparison because he’s a commercial Hollywood filmmaker whose style is very much defined by his sense of production, particularly large and elaborate sets, which are present even when he’s making non-period epics like Alien, Blade Runner, Black Hawk Down, or The Martian and is even present when making things like House of Gucci that are filled with mansions and scenery.  This comparison can, however, be taken far too literally.  This was the blunder that Scott himself seemed to make when he agreed to make Exodus: Gods and Kings, a take on the biblical Exodus story, which was famously brought to the screen by DeMille both in the silent era and again at the tail end of his career with the 1956 blockbuster The Ten Commandments and it’s pretty much impossible not to compare this version to that one and the comparison kind of puts into relief how different Scott actually is from DeMille and how different the idea of an “epic” is today.

It’s no secret that Hollywood is obsessed with franchises and remakes, much to the chagrin of film buffs like me who thinks certain Hollywood classics are sacred and shouldn’t be touched.  Thing is, if I’m being honest I realize that the public does not share my reverence for movies like Clash of the Titans, The Day the Earth Stood Still, or The Poseidon Adventure and will happily take in a new version with “better” special effects but I’m not sure the same can be said for The Ten Commandments, one of the most widely seen “old” movies thanks to the annual broadcasts it still gets to this day on network television around Easter/Passover season.  So this had a lot to live up to, especially given just how long this story has cinematically been synonymous with the very idea of “special effects spectacle” and truth be told I don’t think there was any possible way for anyone to ever turn this story into an eye-popping spectacle in the way that other movie was to audiences in 1956.  This is kind of where the DeMille comparison becomes a problem for Scott as, however epic his movies are, he hasn’t truly shown audiences anything they haven’t seen before since 1982… in reality the moniker probably fits someone like James Cameron, who’s always been on the cutting edge of effects and setting box office records, a little bit better.  Beyond that though, Ridley Scott’s movies tend to be a bit darker more down to earth and more R-rated (or hard PG-13 rated) than DeMille’s movies ever were.  In the case of something like Gladiator or The Last Duel that’s a big plus, it makes the genre more relevant to modern audiences but I think I can safely say it’s probably not the right approach to bible stories.

Exodus: Gods and Kings was originally envisioned as… well I’m not exactly sure what the vision was.  On some level Scott seemed to view this as a more down to Earth and historical version of the bible story but… well, it’s kind of impossible to do a historical version of the Exodus story because there’s basically no historical record to back up the Moses story at all.  There’s literally more secular evidence of Noah’s flood than there is of Jewish slaves in Egypt.  Scott at one point discussed looking for “natural causes for the miracles, including drainage from a tsunami for the parting of the Red Sea” and star Christian Bale was at one point thinking that Moses was “likely schizophrenic” to explain his visions.  So I guess they were planning to make a borderline atheistic Moses story… which on some level is something that I should appreciate as a secular person who isn’t in the market for bible movies, but I’m pretty obviously not the target audience for one.  The final movie is much less ambiguous about the divine intervention in the story and the “Tsunami drainage” idea doesn’t make the final film, but that mindset is still present and the whole movie feels like something of a cynical compromise between religion and secular tone that will basically please no one.

But really, the movie’s ultimate downfall isn’t its tone or approach to religion; it’s its uninspired screenplay and frankly lifeless direction.  The film does very little to make the political dynamics of Egypt’s supposed slave economy interesting and the film’s characters feel like uninteresting archetypes.  Bale isn’t doing one of his signature transformations and the supporting cast isn’t doing much either.  The film was criticized at the time for casting white actors in middle eastern roles, which seemed a little weird to me at the time given the long history of Hollywood stars playing bible characters, but seeing a shaved head Joel Edgerton in an Egyptian pharaoh getup I was kind of swayed to think that casting was misguided.  The film does kind of come alive during the plague scenes and during the red sea parting at the end, making it rather obvious what interested Scott in the production and what didn’t, but if all you’re going to bring to a project is well rendered disaster scenes then you might as well hand off the project to Roland Emmerich.  And this also brings up the fact that, in 2010s these effects scenes are just never going to be as impressive to audiences as they were in the 50s so unless you have a very novel take on it this material just isn’t going to be the same kind of spectacle as it once was and it’s probably a mistake to invite the comparison.

** out of Five

All the Money in the World (2017)

I think it’s a near certainly that the ultimate thing the 2017 film All the Money in the World will be remembered for is the rush reshoots it had to make at the last minute to replace Kevin Spacey with a (more age appropriate) Christopher Plumber after abuse allegations came out about Spacey.  That’s certainly a fascinating bit of trivia, and while watching the film you can’t help but try and spot which of Plumber’s scenes were shot on a green screen, but there is a movie beyond that story and I do want to try to see if it works on its own merits.  The short answer is that it kind of does but there’s probably a reason people talk more about its behind the scenes drama than the actual movie.  The film is about the 1973 kidnapping of John Paul Getty III, a teenage heir to the Getty Oil fortune, while traveling in Italy.  Family patriarch J. Paul Getty famously initially refused to pay the ransom, reasoning that doing so would put a target on the rest of his family.  The film is primarily told from the perspective of the kidnapped boy’s mother (played by Michelle Williams) and a former CIA agent on J. Paul Getty sr.’s payroll (played by Mark Wahlberg) who is trying to track down the kidnappers and negotiate the release.  The film does not really play particularly well as a thriller, as this dilemma takes place over such a long time and Scott doesn’t really go too far out of his way to put Getty III in a lot of real danger.  So, this is more of a procedural about the negotiation and tracking process, which is hampered a bit by Whalberg, who is not great a playing characters who are supposed to seem… intelligent.  And then of course the film is meant to be something of a study of the senior J. Paul Getty’s lifestyle and greed, which is probably the film’s most interesting element but it doesn’t take up a ton of the film’s actual runtime.  Ultimately the movie’s just kind of average; not a terribly deep exploration of wealth and class, but a decent rundown of the true story at its center.

*** out of Five

In Conclusion

And with that, I can now say that I’ve seen every one of Ridley Scott’s movies… for now anyway.  Scott is of course still alive and working so keeping up with his work will be a continuing process for the forseeable future, in fact he as a Napoleon movie in the pipe right now with Joaquin Phoenix and Vanessa Kirby which will probably be coming next year or maybe 2024 and with how prolific Scott is I imagine he’s got something else lined up after that.  The five movies I watched for this were… not great, that’s kind of in the nature of the assignment as the last movies I haven’t seen from a filmmaker have usually been put off for a reason, but I think I got some insights into Scott just the same.


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