With his most celebrated films – Blade Runner, Alien, Thelma & Louise, Gladiator – director Ridley Scott has liked his canvases large and his stories epic. Even that female buddy flick ended on a mid-air freeze-frame over a precipice, as if he couldn’t bear to let his heroines come back down to earth. These are all sizable films, significant in themselves and their influence. However, works that are grand can still lack grandeur, and Scott’s canon suffers when compared to the best of other big-canvas specialists – lacking the intellectual rigour of Kubrick, the painterly sweep of Lean, the technological bravado of Cameron. In his latest, Prometheus, the gods are defied but that trend isn’t: There’s definite mastery here, but it’s hardly a masterpiece.
Certainly, there’s no mistaking the epic note at the outset, and Scott sustains it beautifully through the first third of the movie. The initial sequences are an expansion and reversal of that iconic tableau from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, when the prehistoric bone morphs into an orbiting spaceship. Here, The opening shot travels across a landscape of rugged splendour before isolating a hovering saucer-shaped craft.
Then the reversal sees a team of earthbound archaeologists burrowing into ancient caves to discover eerie similarities in the primitive drawings – each one replicates an identical pattern, a depiction of a distant solar system that perhaps gave birth to us. So this is an origins story and thus a prequel – not only to humankind but, since it loosely picks up some of the same plot threads, of Alien too.
Consequently, the crew of the Prometheus, a corporate-sponsored aggregation of astronauts and deep thinkers, sets forth to live up to its name – heading out on a galactic quest to gain crucial knowledge and, no doubt, pay a vast price for the privilege. We watch them awakening from their period of prolonged “stasis” – Charlize Theron in her dainties, Noomi Rapace ditto, plus various other geologists and flyboys. The exception is David who, having no need of the big sleep, has spent his time more constructively – watching Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, dying his hair Peter O’Toole blonde, and practising to put some inflection into his vocal monotone. Yep, David is a robot. Thanks to Michael Fassbender, David is also a robot who steals the whole picture, but more about that later.
As the voyagers land and disembark to explore a pyramidal structure protruding from the topography, Scott’s large canvas continues to offer large rewards. There’s a majestic thrill and a real suspense to these scenes – after all, hanging in the balance is nothing less than the identity of our creator. Indeed, for once, science and religion are united in a shared vision – on this expedition, Darwin could comfortably hold hands with the Pope. What’s more, when David deploys his superior brainpower to activate a hologram in the pyramid’s recesses, the universe unfolds in gorgeous 3-D – it’s a pleasure dome of rare delight and the frame pops with Kubrickian magic. Here’s where Fassbender particularly shines, serving up the epiphany with delicate perfection. His robot can feel no fear but, apparently, he’s not immune to blue-eyed wonder – neither are we.
Unfortunately, this is the movie, and Scott, at their zenith. When alien words are found inscribed on the structure’s interior, the language is meant to be arcane but, instead, it plays like the writing on the wall, with the signs of trouble easy to read. Suddenly, the script loses that carefully wrought mystery and plunges into slimy confusion. Enter the octapussy critters, followed by the action equivalent of old Prometheus getting his liver plucked out. Bodies implode, heads get decapitated, and the unfortunate Noomi finds herself impregnated with something that’s “not exactly a traditional fetus” – her behemoth-in-the-oven dilemma gives rise to a self-performed C-section that earns an A for risibility.
The dialogue slides down the same overwrought slope (“Sometimes to create we must destroy”), dragging along the plot towards a climax that makes up in obscurity what it lacks in punch. At this late stage, the canvas seems to shrink and what felt major turns minor, leaving Prometheus to a sadly familiar fate – chained to a rock of its creators’ own making.
Ridley Scott’s Top Troika
Only his second feature, this is sci-fi horror at its tightest – the plot taut, the mood dark, and the setting evocatively confined. It also introduced a preoccupation that Scott would expand in Thelma &; Louise: the strong yet vulnerable female heroine.
Blade Runner (1982)
The considered pacing divided audiences initially, but since then this dystopian film (especially the subsequent director’s cut) has attracted a mass following to become Scott’s most admired work – an exemplar of cyberpunk mated to classic noir.
Set-dressed to the IX’s, his Oscar-winning Gladiator revived the “sword and sandal” genre. The spectacle may have owed an obvious debt to Kubrick’s Spartacus, yet the cultural influence proved immediate – it was the favourite, much-discussed flick of Tony Soprano and the boys.