Next Friday, Prometheus opens, and it promises to be this summer's big sci-fi film. The ad campaign has been incredibly effective, and the movie features a great cast, including Charlize Theron and Michael Fassbender. But one of the movie's other main selling points is precisely the reason I'm worried about it. Prometheus is directed by Ridley Scott.
Scott, who's going to be 75 in November, is revered by cinephiles, though he started out in commercials, a field that many serious film lovers disdain. (Call it the "Michael Bay effect.") But even his commercials are admired—specifically, his Apple Macintosh spot from the 1984 Super Bowl, which is heavily parodied and referenced to this day:
And he was responsible for the original Alien, which was great, but it came out in 1979. That was the middle of a fantastic one-two-three punch, starting with The Duellists and finishing with Blade Runner, in 1982.
But since then, he hasn't made very many great films—and definitely none in a while. Sure, there's Thelma & Louise, Gladiator, and Black Hawk Down, but none of those came out in the past decade.
Nevertheless, his reputation has kept growing—he was knighted in 2003—even as his output has become spottier and spottier. Matchstick Men featured one of Nicolas Cage's few decent-ish recent-ish performances but was predictable; American Gangster was solidly made but not compelling, an award-seeking prestige picture that felt momentous without having actual heft. Then there were the straight-up duds like A Good Year, Body of Lies, and Robin Hood. His greatest cinematic achievement in the last 10 years wasn't anything he directed but, rather, his work as a producer of the terrific Western The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.
Great filmmakers all go through rough patches. But Scott's rough patches have joined together into a continuous rough surface. No sooner was he through that Duellists-Alien-Blade Runner trio than he released Legend, which critics praised for visual panache while lamenting how dramatically threadbare it was. In the years since, Legend has become a seminal Scott film, in that it set the tone for his later misfires. Here was the work of a master craftsman who knew how to envision a world, yet couldn't make the small stuff—like, say, the characters—resonate. It was put together with an incredibly sophisticated visual palette, forcing the viewer to begrudgingly respect the enterprise but not to love it.
The man who made Blade Runner must have it in him to pull together large themes, glorious production design, and an engaging story into one coherent package. So even when he doesn't, his fans are willing to meet him halfway.
It's an understandable impulse. Especially as younger event filmmakers have emerged, embracing hyperbolic cutting and bigger explosions, there's something reassuringly intelligent, controlled, and classical about Scott's films. You could never accuse him of dumbing down his movies for the audience. (The one notable exception—being forced to put in a silly voice-over and happy ending in Blade Runner—he's since fixed in a director's cut.)
But it's his intelligence that gets him into trouble. Too often, he mistakes thematic audacity for storytelling. Kingdom of Heaven could have been a deeper, more thought-provoking epic than Gladiator, but it was too busy trying to comment on the foolishness of religious wars to achieve excitement or insight. Scott is willing to take on big subjects: the limits of contemporary American empire (Black Hawk Down), the discovery of the New World (1492: Conquest of Paradise), and sexism in the military (G.I. Jane). But the grand themes don't lead to anything profound. Black Hawk Down may be about the tragedy of entering a war zone overconfident and unprepared, but you walk away wowed by its technical achievement, not dwelling on its message.
Critics want to applaud ambition, where most movie makers play it safe. And Scott is nothing if not ambitious. (That's why his change-of-pace romantic comedy A Good Year felt so weird. As Nathan Lee wrote at the time, "Scott can do mayhem, dystopia, and the rampaging alien ... with the best of them, but the breezy touch is not his forte.") But it's hard to think of a director who's been given more credit for striving to make great films without actually making that many.
Which brings us back to Prometheus. Here's what Scott said about the film a couple years ago:
"The film will be really tough, really nasty," he notes. "It's the dark side of the moon. We are talking about gods and engineers. Engineers of space. And were the aliens designed as a form of biological warfare? Or biology that would go in and clean up a planet?"
Another director would just want to make a kick-ass Alien prequel, cash the check, and be done with it. Scott, to his credit, is always thinking deeper than that, and it's a habit I wish more blockbuster filmmakers would adopt. But it's a long road from ambition to execution, and Ridley Scott often doesn't make it—more often than I think his most ardent supporters will admit.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.