Ridley Scott’s Stainless Style: Prometheus and that FSLC Retrospective

06/11/2012 2:22 PM |

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The best that can be said about Prometheus is that it feels godless. The barren alien landscapes and antiseptic, linear spaceship feel appropriately forsaken. For his first 3D feature, Ridley Scott, a good, old fashioned exoticist with a flare for the rococo, has paradoxically, largely made a movie of relatively stark, stately compositions—grand, but not annoying. After a decade or so in which Scott’s pleasingly populated, steady frames were marred by an unsettling, dated use of telephoto zooms and lateral tracking shots (Kingdom of Heaven, Body of Lies), the images are finally allowed to remain stable, and are pleasingly spatially coherent.

Unfortunately, the comparative visual austerity also a mark of a self-importance which, while hypnotic in Scott’s first three features, The Duellists, Alien, and Blade Runner, is compounded by his work’s frustrating for po-faced, literal desire for plodding significance—a problem that has made Scott unfashionable among auteurists or anyone but fanboys and fans of Vanity Fair. Prometheus rather delusionally believes that it’s not a prequel to an Alien, so much so that it takes one of the the trademarks of fanboy cinema, the giggly sequel reference (yes, you do see the alien), typically placed as the after credits bonus, and treat it like it’s a dramatic scene, rather than the debased videogame extra that is. The new film is an inversion of the forebearer: whereas Alien used gothic design to mystify a straightforward story, this one’s streamlined production is clogged by an overabundance of plot devices, plot reversals, everything and anything related to plot.

It’s a jumble, and coming on the heels of Film Society of Lincoln Center’s two-week retrospective, the film seems symptomatic of Scott’s gifts and weaknesses, as both filmmaker and packager of polished entertainment (which isn’t easy). Like most of Scott’s work over the past decade, it’s impeccably cast (by Scott-vet Avy Kaufman), without giving that cast much to do. Noomi Rapace and Michael Fassbender are fine, but I was far more amused by Katie Dickie (Red Road, Game of Thrones), carrying over her Glasgow accent that lets you know she’s a goner. Like so many of his flops in Scott’s hit-and-miss career (Kingdom of Heaven, 1492), the movie is weighed down by a bland political correctness and pondering of big ideas.

On the other hand, Scott’s best movies—Alien, Blade Runner, Thelma & Louise, Hannibal—are pleasurable because they achieve a pop romanticism. The movies appeal to simple, vulgar embarrassing emotions and desires—and act upon them with just enough obvious elegance to suggest something more sophisticated and somewhat ineffable. Ridley might be British, but like his brother Tony Scott (who has become a critical cause-celebre in the last decade), he understands vulgarity—just in a completely different way.

Thelma and Louise aren’t antiheros; they’re just heroes, and that simplicity is kind of amazing. It’s a product more of Scott’s gloss than Callie Khouri’s Oscar-winning script. In and of itself, it seems like the kind of variation-on-a-genre that could have become any kind of conventional microbudget feature. It’s only effective because it received the high-gloss treatment. The late-film scene of role reversal, when the flaky Geena Davis character asserts her independence after Susan Sarandon’s last phone call with Harvey Keitel, is grandiose, and somewhat fascistic. “Something’s crossed over in me… and I can’t go back, “ Davis says.

Now, this scene is completely overblown, but the manipulation completely works. The movie only asks for you to accept the pop romanticism: look at cinematographer Adrian Biddle’s elegant Southwest twilight and Hans Zimmer’s “stirring” score, and you do. The movie is savvy because it doesn’t try to get its its feminist manifesto to be accepted as social realism. Instead, it makes it sexy, and appeals to baser pop pleasures of projection and sexiness. Thelma is a Hollywood movie. And beyond considering the importance of representation, its importance is that it makes feminism pop.

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Alternately, Scott doesn’t disassociate a gruff masculinity from glamour. Harrison Ford’s seduction of Sean Young in Blade Runner (1982) is practically a rape scene. He pushes her against the window out to a damp city street (this is a movie that’s always prodding, “did you see the light? You know, the light… through the shutters?”), and asks her to “tell me that you love me.” She’s disheveled in fab black eyeliner, there’s that damn light through the shutters, and it’s sexy and tragic and scary enough to make me think, that scene with Rutger Hauer and the doves aside, that this movie is as sexily dystopic and smart as I thought it was back in fifth grade. The scene questions feeling, the need to approximate feeling, and the ease with which it might be approximated. It’s a scene that’s more despairing than anything else.

There are two scenes in Prometheus that achieve the kind of cruel commercial perversity of Blade Runner: Noomi Rapace’s self-induced C-section and a scene in which Charlize Theron toasts the lover of a main character—with a flamethrower. By piggybacking on Prometheus‘s release, the FLSC retrospective seemed to suggest, or hope, that it would provide evidence for Scott as an auteur. Instead, David Thomson’s assessment of Scott, one of his most perceptive entries in The Biographical Dictionary of Film, seems as true as ever: “He is as blithe and versatile as Michael Curtiz, who has always made hokum look as good as quality.” Scott is a talented entertainer, who can create work that’s hypnotic (his first three films), or ludicrously shameless (G.I. Jane). It’s just too bad he’s stuck consistently to the middlebrow.