You may recall Prometheus with both awe and astonishment, a film with astounding moments of beauty and horror and brilliance bumping up against stupidity and sloppiness and half-baked ideas. Alien: Covenant (2017), the second film in the Alien prequel series, takes place a decade after the events of Prometheus (2012) and continues writing the xenomorph origin story with a new cast of potential hosts (a colony ship with a population on ice waiting to wake on a new world) put through a plot that borrows elements from both Prometheus and the original films. It’s a smarter film, and if it never quite matches the conceptual and visual genius of Prometheus at its best, neither does it slip into the foolishness of its worst moments.
This is the sixth official film (we’re ignoring the Alien vs. Predator films) in what is becoming a galaxy-spanning franchise, the second film in the prequel story, and the third directed by Ridley Scott, director of the original film. It opens with the skeleton crew awakening early, just as it did in Scott’s original Alien, and sending a search party down to a nearby planet sending out a distress signal, which this time is a verdant world teaming with plant life but, eerily, no animals or insects or birds. What it does have are the insidious spores of Prometheus (also directed by Scott) which colonize the unlikely humans as hosts for this alien life form, and a lone humanoid living in the ruins of a dead civilization: David (Michael Fassbender), the android of Prometheus who walks the wasteland like a rogue prophet and makes contact with the human team.
Ridley Scott has taken pains to explain that Prometheus (Fox) is not a prequel to Alien, but a film that comes from the same DNA. That’s a bit disingenuous, considering how meticulously (and often very cleverly) it sets up the building blocks of Alien, but his pointed use of the term DNA is telling. It opens with a very different answer to Genesis, where Earth is seeded with alien genetic material, and then jumps ahead a few billion years to follow a crew of scientists (including Noomi Rapace) retracing an ancient trail through the stars left behind by the ancients.
Mirroring Alien, we have a colorful crew (this time mostly scientists), a corporate directive (monitored by Charlize Theron), and an android (Michael Fassbender, superb) on the bridge charged with completing that directive, but otherwise this is far from the gothic monster movie of the 1979 original. At its most ambitious, Prometheus plants suggestions of the extraterrestrial origins of life on Earth, a Godlike race sowing genetic seeds across galaxy, and even an Old Testament-like sense of retribution, or at the very least a feeling of failure that calls for a reboot.
With all this happening, I’m left with a nagging question: How can Ridley Scott have such a sophisticated visual intelligence, creating screen worlds engineered in such detail as to suggest entire cultures behind the designs and technology, and then fill those worlds with characters who are supposed to be scientists yet act like kids in a playroom? Seriously, the reason these supposedly top scientists of the late 21st century keep yelling “Don’t touch anything” to each other is because otherwise they’ll fingerpaint their way through the most important scientific discoveries since the mapping of the human genome.
The script fails to match its ambition, but at least give it credit for big ideas, unexpected conceptual turns, and a dense and dramatic visual experience. “Prometheus” hints at something bigger, more cosmic and philosophically daring, than what the characters actually manage to grapple with on screen. And for all its failures in the realm of human behavior, the cosmic mystery behind the story is enigmatic and remains so to the end. In leaving us with mysteries, it offers something far more satisfying than a reductive answer. It leaves us with possibilities.
“The duelist demands satisfaction. Honor for him is an appetite.”
The Duellists, the feature directorial debut by Ridley Scott, plays on Turner Classic Movies on Saturday, November 7. Adapted from a short story by Joseph Conrad and starring Keith Carradine and Harvey Keitel as army officers in Napoleonic France bound together in a series of duels that have long lost any sense of meaning or honor (if indeed there ever was any), it’s a gorgeous debut and still one of his best films. I recently contributed an essay on the film to the TCM website on the film.
While The Duellists is Ridley Scott’s first feature, he had over twenty years experience behind the camera in short form filmmaking. He made his debut with the student film Boy and Bicycle in 1965 and went on to direct episodic television and form his own commercial production company with his brother, Tony Scott. By 1977 he had, by his own rough count, “made about 2,000 commercials” and was eager to make the leap into features. Having already seen a handful of feature projects collapse, he turned to stories in the public domain and found this story by Conrad, a sketch that was inspired by a true story. With a budget of under $1 million (tiny for a period piece, even by 1977 standards), Scott put his production acumen to work to suggest a scope he couldn’t actually show on screen and created an astoundingly lush, visually sumptuous canvas. Interiors are bathed in the golden light of candlelight and nostalgia, like a period painting in motion, while exteriors are wrapped in fog and mist. “People don’t realize how overcast can help,” Scott explained in an interview years later. “That’s why films shot in England, Ireland or Scotland look so beautiful. It’s raining all the time.”
With no budget to build sets, Scott shot The Duellists completely on location in France, England and the Scottish Highlands. He scouted existing structures for his sets and turned countrysides into verdant visions of the past as viewed through the haze of idealization. With no budget for an army of extras, battle scenes were suggested in isolated details — a few men in uniform seen from the inside of an officer’s tent in the field, a dead soldier frozen in the winter of Napoleon’s failed Russian campaign — and street scenes carefully blocked to show mere slivers of the city where a few extras could stand in for the bustling crowds. New York Times critic Vincent Canby praised it as a film of “almost indescribable beauty, of landscapes at dawn, of over-crowded, murky interiors, of underlit hallways and brilliantly sunlit gardens.”
[Originally published as part of the “MSN Cadillac” series.]
Blade Runner, Ridley Scott’s visionary reworking of Philip K. Dick’s novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” was a box-office flop. Maybe it was too dark for a public flying away on the fantasy of E.T. in the summer of 1982, or too downbeat for audiences looking for a Harrison Ford adventure romp.
Regardless, the film came and went from cinema screens, but it wouldn’t go away. It returned for midnight screenings and campus showings. It became a cult film, rediscovered on VHS and embraced by new fans. It colonized in the imaginations of writers, directors and die-hard fans of science fiction.
It’s been branded a “flawed masterpiece.” I won’t argue with that assessment, but what makes Blade Runner the greatest film of modern science fiction cinema is how the “masterpiece” side of the equation overwhelms how it may be “flawed.”