Peel the Onion | Duds, Gems, and Masterworks: A Selection of Films from Ridley Scott (Part I)
Only a handful of movie directors can lay claim to the "greatest living director" badge. At 84, Sir Ridley Scott is one of them. Since 1977, he has established himself as a meticulous master technician whose films have left us scenes, characters, and stories that have enriched the world of cinema as much as they have burrowed into our collective consciousness.
Scott's technical brilliance has allowed him to genre-hop classics with ease, from sweaty Roman gladiators to philosophical androids and Russian doll-mouthed aliens. And just when you think he's past his prime, he shows up with another prestige blockbuster like 2021's The Last Duel (read our in-depth review here), proving once again how this master continues to produce at the highest levels.
Bound by themes of power, honor, and glory, Scott's films have rarely circumnavigated indie territory, finding their place instead as multi-million dollar major studio productions. Coming from advertising and making his feature debut at 40, Scott as director, has always understood the power of cinema, wowing us with his eye for milieu and world-building.
Curiously though, when discussing the finest directors of all time, Scott's name is rarely mentioned. His is not the self-contained worlds of John Carpenter's '80s horror classics or Wes Anderson's twee indie adventures. Nor is he an artists' artist like Terrence Malick, who has made far fewer films than most but with a remarkably high level of consistency. Scott, on the other hand, has been anything but consistent.
One thing about directors with longevity as Scott is that they never sit still. They're always burning away at something, delivering, for better or for worse. As English film critic Mark Kermode has pointed out, Scott is not the best at picking scripts; that for every well-scripted classic, we may get two or more technically brilliant but uninspired mutes. For example, 1991's "Thelma & Louise" put Scott back on the map after a string of duds, which followed more of the same until 2000's "Gladiator."
So on the back of a return to form with The Last Duel, perhaps it's time to reexamine Scott's massive oeuvre to determine the classics from the duds, unearthing the rare gems that people may have missed or judged too harshly.
The Duds (Overrated)
The Martian (2015)
The Martian was one of those movies that covered critics in jizz before the public was coerced into raving about it because of the stickiness. The Martian is one of the most boring Scott films ever if not one of the most boring films ever made. Is this really the same genius who helmed Alien? It's like the knee-jerk reaction to The Martian was Scott + Space = Evident Scott Space Classic. No.
Starring Matt Damon as the quote-unquote martian, super combo all-American genius Astronaut-Botanist Mark Watney is left for dead by his stupid crew on, yep, Mars because of The Martian™. Watney survives not just a frightful storm but impalation by an antenna! Oh, dear! After some much-needed never-giving up against all odds HLYWD soda pop, neo-Martian G.I. Watney emerges and has to exist on an uninhabitable planet. Using only his guile, sciencey brain, and leftover bits and bobs, he not only survives but lol THRIVES.
As his stupid crew um and ah about saving him with all the moral platitudes of a group bleed in front of a therapist (there's also a geopolitical subplot involving The CNSA, China's space agency), The Martian slows down to a lifeless nub folding in on the weight of its symbolic self-importance and obvious nod to a tiresome American dream.
Alien: Covenant (2017)
No, just no. Please, Sir Ridley, what the hell are you doing? Alien: Covenant is a really, really, lousy movie that almost singlehandedly desecrates the legendary Alien franchise in less than half a viewing. Covenant promised to be an exciting continuation of the mystery of Prometheus's alluring engineer race. Instead, Scott, an elder statesman with buckets of influence and experience, vengefully undermines the story thread not only by killing off the engineers unceremoniously but also making a random "monster movie" that completely ignores Prometheus's well-laid appeal.
This hamfisted turn – a reaction to internet comments deriding Prometheus – says much about artist insecurity even at the highest echelons. We wanted more of the wonder of Prometheus, which, while flawed, was ambitiously grand and thought-provoking. Instead, we got overboiled cabbage and one of the biggest wastes of narrative potential ever. Even the brief sequence showing the Engineer civilization is incredibly underwhelming; a superior alien race that created man and can interstellar travel like bosses, yet when faced against their own biological weapon, crumble like Jenga bricks in a summer breeze. There's more, right?
As he would refer himself, J.B. Browne is a half "foreign devil" living with anxiety relieved by purchase. HK-born Writer/Musician/Tinkerer.
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