There is no question that Ridley Scott is a visionary, a brilliant director capable of serving of startlingly beautiful images in his films, scenes that stay with you for the rest of your life. The performances in his films are usually very strong, though granted, there have been some failures along the way, but then again, who has not had a failure…no one.
When I think of the work of Scott, I remember the final moments of Alien (1979) with a terrified though resourceful Signourney Weaver goes to war with a near unstoppable force; the final moments of the life of Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) in Blade Runner (1982) before he dies, rain pouring down his face like tears; the two fugitives on the run through Death Valley commenting they have never been so awake in Thelma and Louise (1992); the brave and courageous Maximus fighting his last battle in Gladiator (2000); Roy and his manic tics while being hustled in Matchstick Men (2003); and so many other great moments.
When I heard he was directing Exodus – Gods and Kings (2014), a remake of sorts of The Ten Commandments (1956) I was genuinely excited, believing that if Spielberg was not going to do it, who better than Scott to direct such a film. The first night I screened Exodus – Gods and Kings (2014) I felt like I did after seeing The Godfather Part III (1990) for the first time, numb…numb with boredom, shock, grand disappointment. I thought of a way to erase the film from my mind, but it never worked. While it was massive on an epic scale, the art direction fine, there was not a single exciting moment in the film…not one. The burning bush was a drag, the plagues were a bore, the Exodus from Egypt was dreadful and the parting of the Red Sea was, well, hard to explain. Did the tide go out, or did someone flush a large toilet?? Christian Bale did a lot of staring into the desert as Moses, he was no leader of men, and Joel Edgerton looked awkward with the eye liner as his nemesis. It was just a bad movie…the kind that destroys careers. In short, the worst film he has ever made.
Looking back over his career Scott has made some brilliant films, beginning with his science fiction horror film Alien (1979) which he followed with what has become one of the greatest science fiction films ever made, the haunting Blade Runner (1982). A feast of brilliant design, mood, visuals and performance, the film is regarded as one of the great films of the eighties, one in which Scott has returned to many times to re-cut, and fix what the studio would not allow him to finish. His final cut is like a dark dream of the future, a masterpiece of cinema.
When he is on, when confident with his material he is among the best directors working in movies, at ease with the language of film, and brave enough to leave his actors to do their job, gently shaping them. Like all directors, when confident with his material and actors, he can do no wrong. When not, he flounders, badly, and the results are big messy films with no clear direction.
His best work, Alien (1979), Blade Runner (1982), Thelma and Louise (1992), Gladiator (2000), Black Hawk Down (2001), Matchstick Men (2003), and American Gangster (2007) are among the very best of their respective years, with Gladiator (2000) winning the Academy Award as Best Picture, which is not to say it was the years best film…it was not. Scott himself has three times been nominated by the Academy as Best Director, for his finest film in my opinion, Thelma and Louise (1991), Gladiator (2000) and Black Hawk Down (2001).
His weaker films, Legend (1986), Someone to Watch Over Me (1987), Black Rain (1988), 1492 (1992), GI Jane (1997), Kingdom of Heaven (2005) and Robin Hood (2010) fail for different reasons each, though nothing was as grand a folly as Exodus – Gods and Kings (2014) which was merely wretched. I must add that aside from the last film mentioned, the others are very watchable works, just not the level of art we expect from Scott.
Many in the industry believe that The Martian, due later this year could land Scott in the hunt for that elusive Oscar for Best Director, and could be his one of the best films. For once the trailer looks like it serves the film, giving audiences just enough of what the film is about to peak interest while previewing the performances, the story and the look of the picture. It looks intelligent, it feels smart, it gives the impression that the director was firing on all cylinders to make a film that will appeal to audiences because it is smart, not allowing the intelligence of the work to work as a detriment. Also, the feedback from the people who have seen the first 50 minutes of the film is excellent.
The plot explores what happens when a storm on Mars forces the manned mission to abort, though by accident, they leave one of their astronauts behind. Believing him to be dead, they are stunned when months later they receive a message from him making clear he has managed to find a way to stay alive. Knowing it will take them four years to get to him, he has had to find ways to remain alive, growing food, creating a way to contact NASA. In many ways it is a modern day Robinson Crusoe story, an actors showcase no doubt, though it feels possessed of an urgency that could elevate it to a thriller.
Matt Damon looks terrific in the movie in the few scenes we have seen, ready to dominate the film as Hanks did with Cast Away (2000), though the subplot of his rescue mission will give us other actors to watch. Jessica Chastain has quietly become one of the very finest actresses working in movies, and Jeff Daniels is always terrific. Of course a trailer does not a film make, as we have learned time and time again, but I have high hopes for this one, for Damon a gifted actor, Chastain, whom I adore, and Scott, who I have always admired. It is going to be a very good year at the Oscars with the films coming at us…cannot wait.