Make no mistake about it, Ridley Scott’s early, pre-2000s career is littered with enduring classics and hidden gems. Blade Runner, to this day, remains one of the greatest science fiction films ever made. Thelma and Louise remains an immensely enjoyable, girl power-fuelled joyride that holds up so well it’s perhaps more impactful now than it was at the time of release. And 1977’s The Duellists (Scott’s directorial debut) remains a well crafted and considered film.
To experience Ridley Scott as his peak though, we must travel all the way back to 1982. Following the release of Alien and Blade Runner in quick succession, Scott had not only established himself as one of Britain’s best filmmakers, he’d claimed his place as the premier director within the science fiction genre. Alien, quite rightly, is regarded as a masterpiece hybrid of sci-fi and horror. And Blade Runner, one of my favourite films, is without a doubt one of the greatest, pure science fiction movies ever conceived.
But let’s be honest here, Scott arguably hasn’t made a great or iconic film since 2000’s Gladiator. Since the release of his sword and sandal epic starring Russel Crowe, he’s made uninspired knock-offs, passable crime films, laughable wine films, he’s made a mockery of mythology, he’s bored us with his war effort, and to top it all off, he’s successfully, and rather humiliatingly, derailed the beloved Alien franchise.
Now I could go on all day discussing Scott’s litany of post-millennial failures, but there’s one film in his recent repertoire that stands out. 2015’s The Martian starring Matt Damon was hailed as Scott’s return to form. At the time of release, the film was met with 5-star reviews and prominent critics hailed it as a near-classic. Many, including the The American Film Institute, listed the film in their top 10 films of 2015, it was even nominated for a best picture Oscar for god’s sake!
But 4 years on, who can honestly say The Martian would get anywhere near the top 100 films of the last decade, let alone the top 10? Just to be clear, I’m not saying that The Martian is a bad film, it’s just rather bland and forgettable. Aside from Matt Damon staring into a camera and relaying character motivation in a rather lazy, expository fashion, I could barely remember a thing about it before my recent re-watch.
Following a second viewing of the film, I just can’t help but feel it is undeserving of all the praise it received upon release. Yes, there are strong elements to it, it’s visually impressive for example, but, as with all of Ridley Scott’s recent endeavours, there’s just something missing. I’d actually go as far as to say that it’s fairly workmanlike in its execution, long gone is the narrative refinement, visionary direction and craftsmanship that defined Scott’s biggest hits.
And this is endemic of post-2000 Ridley Scott, he now only seems capable of creating films that range from bad to inconsequential.
What is interesting about The Martian is that, broadly speaking, it sits in the same genre as Scott’s 2 greatest films. Although Alien and Blade Runner are vastly different, there is an undeniable thread that instantly identifies them as Ridley Scott movies. The Martian, on the other hand, is completely devoid of any directorial signature. On top of that, it’s not only vastly inferior to his 80s sci-fi classics, but it also pales in comparison to many of his more average post-turn of the century offerings. Can you honestly say that it’s better than Hannibal or Kingdom of Heaven for example?
Perhaps it’s the case that maintaining a string of top releases over several decades is something only achievable by a select few, the Martin Scorseses and Steven Spielbergs of the world are few and far between. Or perhaps Scott was always rather workmanlike in his craft, and his successful films were fortuitous exceptions to this. Of his 20-plus major cinema releases, only a handful are good, only a couple are exceptional, and the rest are, at best, average.
It’s clear that Ridley Scott has been coasting on the success of his early hits, churning out dreary Alien sequels and Gladiator-esque epics every few years. Looking at his upcoming projects, this compulsive sequelism and tiresome re-treading of paths already trodden isn’t set to end any time soon.
It would appear he’s planning to hammer the final nail into the coffin of the Alien franchise with a sure-to-be-terrible prequel film due for release sometime in the 2020s. And seemingly not satisfied with tarnishing Ellen Ripley’s legacy alone, with a sequel to 2000’s Gladiator penned for a 2021 release, even father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife Maximus Decimus Meridius is not safe from Ridley’s ruinous wrath.
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