Inevitably Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood, which I went to see last night, was Gladiator crossed with Kingdom of Heaven – but with the embarrassing mistake of Orlando Bloom dead-headed. Though actually I found myself missing Bloom’s lightweight charms. Robin Hood is even more boring and pretentious than both of Scott’s ponderous epics combined (which is an achievement of sorts). Except that is for the entertainment provided by Russell Crowe’s idea of a northern English accent – a mixture of Harry Enfield Scouse and Brad Pitt Irish, with some Kiwi mumbling thrown in.
Much worse than Robin Hood though is the news that Ridley Scott is going back to the future by making not one but two 3D prequels for his masterpiece Alien. The prequels will make scads of money of course, but almost certainly at the cost of making you think you didn’t like the original very much after all.
It needs to be said: Ridley Scott can’t make great or even particularly good movies any more. Mostly because almost no one can. We live in an age when movies don’t really matter any more. There’s nothing sacred about widescreen when everyone has one in their front room, and a widescreen HD camcorder in the bedroom. Which is of course why Hollywood as a whole wants to go back to the future and convince us that we need to see movies in souped-up 1950s 3D.
In a sense, Scott dramatises this sorry development more poignantly than any other contemporary director, because, as this appreciation (below) published in 2005 shows, his films used to matter more than most – literally inventing an epoch that we’ve yet to properly escape from. The 1980s.
And also because his films helped bring about that world in which pretty much all films are forgotten before we’ve even seen them.
Men at Arms
First he predicted our dark and soulless future in ‘Alien’ and ‘Blade Runner’. Then he opened our eyes to a new, softer kind of man and a harder kind of woman. Now Ridley Scott has turned his attention to the Middle East with a film set during the Crusades. But if his work has always been prophetic, says Mark Simpson, what is he trying to tell us this time?
(Independent on Sunday, 24 April 2005)
Generally speaking, I’m not terribly interested in film directors. At least, not living ones. I don’t rush out to see so-and-so’s latest; I watch films that have nice trailers (and am usually as disappointed as everyone else). But the British director Ridley Scott, whose new Crusades epic The Kingdom of Heaven is out next month, is different. I usually make a point of seeing all of his films, even the unwatchable ones like 1492: Conquest of Paradise and GI Jane. Why? Because Scott’s films don’t only tell us about the world we live in today. They are that world.
It may be a sign of the degradation of our culture, or it could just be my brain, but amongst other terrifying things about our future, Ridley Scott’s first blockbuster Alien (1979) seems to predict reality TV: a bunch of people sealed off from the world, a sense of being watched, a Hobbesian battle for survival in which only one person comes out alive, and very bad table manners. When I re-watched the film recently I noticed that the spherical room where the ship’s giant computer (called “Mother”) is consulted even looks like the Big Brother diary room.
Like reality TV, the purpose of Alien seems to have been to put humans in an inhuman environment and find out what being human was really all about. There is a great deal in Alien that proved eerily prophetic. What’s striking about the film now is how it hasn’t aged; the vacuum of space has preserved it perfectly, which is rather more than can be said for the legion of non-Scott directed sequels. Perhaps this is because Alien invented the 1980s – a decade that none of us has actually escaped. And Ridley Scott, who was born in 1937 and grew up in Teeside, was perhaps more than anyone its visual architect.
In Alien the world of scary opportunity beckoning from the other side of the 1970s is apparent. The crew bicker over shares and bonuses, and in fact they only investigate the distress beacon and seal their doom because a clause in their contract means The Company will rescind their share entitlement if they don’t. It’s every man and woman for themselves. In the same year as a champion of the free market emerged as the victor at the British polls, the sole survivor of the Darwinian struggle unleashed on the Nostromo turns out to be a tough, bossy iron lady (though without the handbag or the hairdo). The female of the species, Scott seems to be telling us, is more deadly than the male.
Consider also that crewmate Kane, played by John Hurt, is orally raped by a face-hugging organism with testicle-shaped lungs, impregnating him with the monster that kills him gruesomely and then goes on to massacre his crewmates. All this, years before Aids, the great terror of the 1980s, had even been named. Kane, it turns out, not Gaetan Dugas, was patient zero.
Like Aids itself, the symbolism of Alien (designed by Ron Cobb and H R Giger) went very deep. Part of the reason why it is such an extraordinarily arousing film is that it’s horribly Freudian. The entrances to the alien spacecraft are giant vaginas. The hatches in the ventilation shaft are clenching steel sphincters. And then there’s the creature itself, with its huge penis-shaped head and phallic-jackhammer tongue that drips with a threading, translucent fluid as it unsheathes before penetrating its victims.
For many years before he started to make films Scott had worked as a director of adverts. And advertising knows about Freud and about desire – in particular, that our desire is actually something that stalks us. Advertising of course tells us to say yes to desire, because in doing so we are saying yes to advertising, which then uses us in its own sweet way. Alien gives us a glimpse of what an “id” world fuelled by consumerism, competition and appetite might look like. That world has arrived. The eggs in the hold of the alien vessel contained the future. Or, at least, embryonic reality TV contestants.
But perhaps the most prophetic part of Alien is its bleakly beautiful look. Every detail is closely controlled by former art-director Scott (who also shot around 80 per cent of the movie himself: “My performance,” he once said of his films, “is everything you see on the screen”) and his trademark high-contrast background and low-lit foreground makes everything seem desirable. Even the Nostromo’s dazzlingly complicated self-destruct mechanism becomes something you feel your home is really missing.
“Its structural perfection is matched by its hostility,” the Science Officer (Ian Holm) famously says about the creature in Alien – something that could be said of several of the lead characters in Scott’s other famous films: the replicant rebel Batty in Blade Runner, Lt. Jordan O’Neil in GI Jane, Maximus in Gladiator. Scott’s early interests in the Nietzschean superman are put on display in the shop window here, helping to make Alien so much more than just “Jaws in space”.
Blade Runner (1982), set “early in the 21st century”, is almost a kind of sequel to Alien. (It was based on Philip K Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?; as with almost all of his films, Scott is not credited as a writer on Blade Runner.) It shows a chaotic, isolated, cool and cold world of surfaces that could have produced the Nostromo. In this world of signs, people have become artefacts. Replicants. And the famously “layered” technique Scott used to create a believable future actually helped to bring that world about – then trademarked it: almost every major sci-fi film since makes reference to it. We may not have flying cars yet, but the globalised, mediated, soulless, virtual world it portrays is here right now.
Perhaps the most prophetic scene has turned out to be the one in which replicant “retirer” Deckhard (Harrison Ford) explores a photograph via a computer, going around corners and examining reflections in mirrors to catch a glimpse of a sleeping, partially dressed woman.
Even in the pre-digital age of the 1980s, film, advertising and music were fast replacing human memory. The fake memories implanted in the Blade Runner replicants to make them think they’re human are like the fake memories implanted in us all by pop culture – and Ridley Scott films. Perhaps the film’s greatest achievement is the way it manages to evoke a sense of ersatz nostalgia. The simulacrum of being human.
We now live in a world where so many memories are being manufactured in so many different formats and media that we really don’t have enough room for them. Like today’s ads and pop music, films are designed to be forgotten before you’ve even finished watching them to make room for the next implant. Blade Runner, seen next to something inconsequential like Minority Report, would be much too rich a diet for today’s audiences.
Scott did such a good job of imagining what the 1980s would look like that, after Blade Runner, the 1980s had no further use for him. The film was a critical and commercial failure when it was released (though now it regularly makes lists of the top 10 best films and has earned millions in video/DVD sales). Scott’s next three films, Legend (1985), Someone to Watch Over Me (1987) and Black Rain (1989), were hardly noticed. It was not until Thelma & Louise in 1991 that he hit paydirt again.
Despite or perhaps because of its ostensibly serious subject-matter – two women on the lam after shooting dead a rapist before consummating a suicide pact – Thelma & Louise is something of a hen-party movie, complete with a baby Chippendale in the form of a young, lithe Brad Pitt in his first major role as the hitch-hiking cowboy who gives Geena Davis a night of six-packed passion and then steals Susan Sarandon’s life savings. For much of the previous decade, ads had been addressing women with the codes of gay soft-core pornography, reprogramming them to treat men as commodities and pursue their desires – and associate feminine freedom with consumption. Even more appropriate then that Thelma & Louise should take the form of an ironic rehash of that notoriously male homoerotic genre, the buddy movie.
Pitt appears here as an early sighting of a simulacrum of masculinity that is now dominant, a pleasingly-made hospitality replicant known as the metrosexual (though Pitt is a particularly annoying example: I found myself agreeing with Harvey Keitel whose character in the film complained: “This guy is beginning to irritate me” – and this was just Pitt’s first big movie…). Interestingly, Scott’s brother and business partner Tony, who also has a background in advertising (and pop promos), made the film Top Gun (1986), which lit the afterburners for Tom Cruise’s career by portraying military life as a gay porn shoot.
With Thelma & Louise Scott succeeded in setting the tone for the Nineties, but once again his success undid him: his other Nineties movies Conquest of Paradise (1992), White Squall (1996), and GI Jane (1997) met with muted responses. GI Jane (alias Ripley – played by Demi Moore – Joins the Army) is a fictional tale about a woman who tries to complete an elite, all-male, hellish training course; it is not so much a feminist film as another example of Scott’s Nietzschean tendencies: the Will to Power. The sadistic DI asks at the end of every new torment, “Are you ready for the next evolution?” Clearly audiences were not. (Though even as I write it has been announced that a woman is taking the Parachute Battalion training course.) The most memorable moment in the film, where Demi tells the DI who has threatened to rape her to “suck my dick”, is a self-conscious reference to Thelma & Louise, where the rapist’s use of the line prompts Louise to shoot him. But by this time audiences probably thought Scott was quoting Madonna.
Perhaps the failure of GI Jane persuaded Scott that, after three decades of unprecedented change, what people wanted was nostalgia. Maybe he himself, now in his sixties, was tired of the changes that he had helped to bring about. Gladiator (2000), was Scott’s first hit since Thelma & Louise, and the first sword-and-sandals epic for nearly 40 years (spawning several others, none of which repeated its critical or commercial success). It seems to reject the brave new androgynous world and retreat to more reassuring, manly sentiments. A very well-made film to be sure, but it’s difficult though not to feel like you’re being sold something dodgy – like one of the fake photographs/memories in Blade Runner. It’s rather like Scott’s most famous and memorable UK ad: the boy on his bicycle on cobbled streets to the strains of Dvorak selling us tasteless, industrially-made bread as something timeless and authentic (it even seems to use the same golden filters).
Like noble, self-sacrificing Maximus’s (Russell Crowe) vision of being reunited with his family as he lies dying in the Colosseum, Gladiator is a sepia-tinted reverie of masculinity, selling back to us what capitalism has already alienated us from. It is, however, a spectacularly convincing world.
Maximus’s nemesis, Emperor Commodus (Joachim Phoenix), is selfish, cruel, unmanly, perverted, posturing – in other words, representative of the contemporary world. Wittingly or not, Gladiator provided the ideological-sentimental palette for Bush’s successful election campaign in 2000 against the “corrupt’ and “immoral” Clinton legacy. (Bush turned out to have much in common with Commodus’ populist posturing in the Colosseum: such as his Op Gun moment on a US Navy aircraft carrier – a photo opportunity that referenced Tony Scott’s classic Eighties flyboy movie.)
Gladiator has other portents in its entrails. The famous opening of the film, the awesome, flaming forest battle sequence – “at my word, unleash hell” – seems to have anticipated, or prompted, the “shock and awe” opening to Bush’s own blockbuster, Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Scott has mentioned in interviews several times that he very nearly joined the Royal Marines after attending art college but was persuaded to go back into education by his father, an officer in the Army. Black Hawk Down (2002), based on the events in Mogadishu in 1993 when two US Army helicopters were downed and in the ensuing fire fights 19 American soldiers died, seems to be Scott’s paean to his lost/alternative world of male camaraderie and esprit de corps.
Black Hawk Down isn’t just Scott’s lost world, however, but ours too. Cynicism is everywhere. Talking about civilians who think soldiers are drunk on war, a grunt in the film complains: “They don’t understand. They don’t know it’s all about the man next to you. That’s all there is.” This fraternal love is very physical – so physical that it’s beyond sex; a point underlined by a scene in which a soldier has to root around in his wounded buddy’s pelvis for his severed femoral artery in a (fruitless) attempt to stop him bleeding to death.
It’s a harrowing, brutalising and moving film, and quite possibly Scott’s best for two decades, certainly a far more realistic movie than, say, Pearl Harbor – or Top Gun.
But the gory glory of war is precisely what gives Black Hawk Down its glamour. It seems that its gorgeously shot (again that golden filter) heroic realism, and the almost pornographic detail of the SFX mutilations, may have helped prepare the American public for the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Originally slated for a 2002 release it was rushed out a few weeks after 9/11. American audiences, reeling from the civilian casualties at the World Trade Center, and understandably looking for someone to punish, must have been relieved to see American men who were actually trained for battle in the firing line instead. Mogadishu may have been a disaster, but Black Hawk Down turned it into America’s Rorke’s Drift. In other words, another memory implant. (Ironically, given what was to happen in Iraq, some critics attacked the film at the time because it seemed just one long, shocking, confusing, endless battle.)
Maybe Scott regretted the way Black Hawk Down was interpreted. Or maybe he calculates that a contemporary Hollywood film set during the Crusades needs to portray Western intentions in the best possible light. Whatever the answer, his new epic Kingdom of Heaven goes so far out of its way to show war as a terrible last resort, to emphasise respect for Islam and to advance tolerance in the “multicultural” world of the medieval Middle East, that the whole thing gets lost in the woolly undergrowth. The Blairite preachiness of the film and its patronising cod-history leaves you longing for a bloodthirsty massacre. Whatever happened to Scott’s Nietzschean/Darwinian tendencies? Whatever happened to all those alien eggs? Surely one must have survived? How did we end up, 26 years later, with this Care Bear of a Crusades movie?
One of the major problems is that the film’s star, Orlando Bloom – who plays an orphaned blacksmith who becomes a great swordsman and defender of Jerusalem – is too much of a modern pleasing simulacrum of masculinity for us to believe in as a hero. But then, that is the nature of the world that Scott made for us. Whatever the reception for Kingdom of Heaven, it is clear that, for Scott, historical epics are the new science fiction – his escape shuttle from the eternal Eighties.
Now that the future has arrived, and has proved inevitably to be something of a disappointment, the past is the place to colonise. And it is the science of CGI which makes that fiction possible. Scott may not have joined the military, but he has become a general, even if most of his men are virtual ghosts.
The memory implant he has given us with Kingdom of Heaven is, like his earliest movies, a visually stunning and entrancing world. It may be a manufactured memory designed to make living in the present, uncertain world more possible and peaceful – to help us sleep more soundly, like an android dreaming of electric sheep. But even if it were twice the picture it is, then it would still, in this digital, Blade Runner-lite world, be just as disposable as all the other implants out there.
Copyright Mark Simpson 2012
This essay is collected in ‘Metrosexy: A 21st Century Self-Love Story‘