Ridley Scott gave us Alien and Blade Runner… so how did we get to the cinematic disasters of Prometheus and Exodus?

Once upon a time, the name Ridley Scott was one of the most reliable, nigh-universal signifiers of a good movie you could get in Hollywood: If Sir Ridley was directing, you were virtually guaranteed to get a movie that was A.) Entertaining as hell but also B.) Smart, well-plotted and intellectually-satisfying. He redefined scifi/horror with Alien, set a visual/tonal template for decades of futurism with Blade Runner, deconstructed action tropes through a surprising feminist lens in Thelma & Louise and G.I. Jane and even singlehandedly revived the Swords n’ Sandals genre with Gladiator.

Even his box office misfires were worthwhile more often than not: The fantastical fairytale Legend was decades ahead of its time in bringing high-fantasy visuals to life, and while Kingdom of Heaven was a bit unwieldy in theaters, Scott’s drastically-expanded director’s cut of the film on DVD stands as one of the all-time great historical epics — as thrilling yet laudably evenhanded treatment of The Crusades as any filmmaker has ever attempted. And in the interim, he was ever capable of putting out solid middlebrow fare like the spirited Matchstick Men or the trendsetting Black Hawk Down.

Then… something seemed to change. Over what seemed like a fairly short period of time, Scott seemed to shift creative gears from films that pushed creative and artistic boundaries to journeyman-esque efforts that would’ve felt utterly disposable if not for the filmmaker’s still potent command of visual flourish.

In short, he started making very pretty but very bad movies — culminating (for now) with Exodus: Gods & Kings not only one of the most disappointing films of 2014 but very plausibly the worst film of Scott’s storied career. But before that came the bizarre, roundly-despised The Counselor, the dreadful Alien-prequel Prometheus, the dreary Robin Hood and the solid but oddly-forgettable Body of Lies. Sure, everyone goes through fallow periods creatively, but Scott seems to be in the midst of an artistic tail-spin that’s wholly uncharacteristic.

So what happened?

I’m hardly the only person writing about movies to ask this — “What’s up with Ridley?” is practically a way for film critics to identity eachother on the street at this point. Scott was, at one point, a “thinking man’s” blockbuster specialist a la Christopher Nolan, but his recent output has largely taken the form of ill-plotted filler marking time between visual setpieces that clearly held more directorial interest. Sure, some critics have opted to view this as having its own merits — so exciting to see an Elder Statesman filmmaker like Scott bordering on the impressionistic! — but I can’t necessarily go there most of the time. The Counselor certainly makes up for its incomprehensibility with its lurid baroque weirdness (in the film’s most famous sequence, Cameron Diaz’s femme fatale seduces Javier Bardem by having sex with the windshield of his car) …but it doesn’t make it any good.

Interestingly, the “slide” appears to roughly coincide with an increase in the frequency of work. Prior to Gladiator in 2000, Scott was averaging about one film every two years, occasionally with longer breaks in between. But ever since his Oscar-winning Roman actioner, he’s released roughly one film a year. Is there something to be said for taking one’s time? Possibly, though the films made in this period are largely pretty good up through Kingdom of Heaven in 2005.

It’s easy to cite 2010’s Robin Hood as the start of the slippage — what started out as a radical revisionist take on the legend actually reverted back into a more conventional outing once Scott joined the project and opted to offer up a re-skin of Gladiator interspaced with handsome action beats. But if one is being honest things are rarely that abrupt. 2006’s often-forgotten vineyard-melodrama A Good Year is a fairly lifeless if innocuous affair, and while 2007’s American Gangster feels like a near-masterpiece for much of its runtime, I’ve encountered few people who didn’t think its third act ran too long without much reason.

Prometheus, of course, is the point where mainstream audiences started to take notice of this — Scott’s return to the Alien franchise for a mythology-expanding prequel seemed like the surest thing in the history of sure things, after all. But the film is inert and silly, a showcase for FX and Scott’s ever-consistent visual dynamism and not much else. And now we have Exodus, a train-wreck of (pardon the pun) Biblical proportions that’s spent the entirety of its pre-release buildup getting hammered for whitewashing ancient Egyptian history and will likely spend its actual release getting similarly slapped around for being a bombastically bad movie that regards the story of Moses as a tale that needed a few more swordfights and whose main contribution to the popular culture will be adding a whole new set of bizarre affectations to the “Christian Bale overacting” routine of class clowns the world over.

How’d we get here?

…I hope you weren’t looking to me for an answer, because I certainly don’t know. Sometimes even the great ones run out of gas, simple as that. On the other hand, you never know exactly what’s happening behind the scenes or in the personal lives of artists that might affect their work in this way or that (Ridley’s brother and fellow director, Tony Scott, committed suicide in 2012.) My own hope, for whatever it’s worth, would be that the shocking terribleness of Exodus will be a kind of leveling-off moment, and maybe there are a few good Ridley Scott films yet to come.

…or he could just go ahead with that sequel to Prometheus. That could also happen.

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Bob Chipman
Bob Chipman is a critic and author.

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