Ridley Scott on the set of The Martian

(Welcome to The Unpopular Opinion, a series where a writer goes to the defense of a much-maligned film or sets their sights on a movie seemingly beloved by all. In this edition: Ridley Scott has only made two good movies…and the reason why they’re good explains the rest of his weaker filmography.)

Sir Ridley Scott’s 40-year career is marked as much by its successes as it is by his chameleonic willingness to jump from genre to genre on an almost annual basis. This year alone, Scott has directed the grim sci-fi film Alien: Covenant and is following it up in December with All the Money in the World, a true-story crime drama about kidnappers trying to extort industrialist J. Paul Getty. His past films include the nihilistic thriller The Counselor, the light dramedy A Good Year, the con caper Matchstick Men, the sci-fi adventure The Martian, and on and on and on.

But the films that loom largest over Scott’s career are two of his earliest: Alien and Blade Runner, the latter of which received a long-awaited sequel last week in the form of Blade Runner 2049. Considering that both Alien and Blade Runner have gotten second lives of sorts in 2017, I feel compelled to come clean to my fellow cinephiles: for me, these are the only good Ridley Scott movies.

Alien Covenant 1

A Beautiful But Cold Filmmaker

Yes, I know, I’ve almost certainly lost you already. I can hear you, talking back to your smartphone or your laptop: “What about Gladiator? What about Black Hawk Down? What about Black Rain?” (Okay, maybe there aren’t many people asking about that last one.) Scott has worked with some of the best actors in the industry, from Matt Damon to Denzel Washington to Javier Bardem to Geena Davis to Anthony Hopkins. And his willingness to move within various genres might suggest that he’s flexible enough as a director to bring some kind of stylistic flourishes into disparate types of stories.

In general, it’s to Scott’s credit that he can jump from movies like Thelma & Louise to Hannibal, and manage to not disrupt the storytelling with some unavoidably auteuristic presence. Here’s the unfortunate flip side: Scott’s filmmaking style, at least until the last few years, has marked him as something closer to a journeyman instead of an auteur. Prometheus and Alien: Covenant suggest that he does have an auteurist streak outside of the flashy visuals present in his works. In those Alien prequels, he leans on a bleak critique of humanity via the android character David (Michael Fassbender), who is fascinated by humankind inasmuch as he can perform experiments on unwilling participants to presumably push them towards a new stage of evolution.

I would not argue that Ridley Scott’s films, aside from the aforementioned two pillars of modern science-fiction filmmaking, are truly awful. But for me, they primarily fall flat because they lack emotion. In this respect, it makes perfect sense that Scott seems to ally himself with David in Prometheus and Covenant, as opposed to the human characters fending off early versions of the Xenomorphs as well as the nefarious android.

Both Prometheus and Covenant could have chosen to document the gradual arc of a cold and unfeeling robot that learns to embrace and understand humanity, or one that attempts to grasp the meaning of human life and, in failing, chooses to spurn his creators. Considering that David, in both films, is essentially trying to eradicate humans through his experiments without much in the way of understanding how we tick, that’s clearly not the case. Cold or not, David’s charismatic presence is keenly felt in both of Scott’s good films. The films Scott directed between the original Blade Runner and those Alien prequels have an absence of such charisma, making it so they rely heavily on atmosphere and mood, often at the expense of fully fleshed out screenplays and performances.

Thelma and Louise pic

A Distinct Lack of Emotion

Of his other movies, the one that I come closest to liking is Thelma & Louise, primarily because it’s fortunate enough to have such expressive performers like Davis, Susan Sarandon, Brad Pitt, and Harvey Keitel. The movie has at least one iconic image, possibly the most memorable outside of anything in Alien and Blade Runner among Scott’s filmography: the eponymous friends driving off a cliff in a convertible, choosing death over being caught by the cops for the antics preceding the finale.

This choice, a feminine take on Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid but vastly more heartbreaking, is striking enough, and both Davis and Sarandon are quite good in the film. What they bring to the film, what brings it very close to working on the whole, is exactly what is lacking from so many of Scott’s films: emotion. But two lead performers, as wonderful as they are, aren’t enough to save the overall film.

And so it goes with so many of Scott’s films. He’s able to construct visually striking tableaux, whether it’s the battles in Gladiator, the wartime chaos in Black Hawk Down, or the nihilistic miasma of Prometheus, but does so at a remove. Even in the films where characters ostensibly have an emotional core and arc, like the Best Picture-winning Gladiator, I always find myself unable to connect to whatever’s happening on screen. (Even if this is a specific problem with me and Scott, the frequency to which it occurs with so many of his films suggests a consistency to his work, if nothing else.)

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