Is it best when Ridley Scott is tethered to a well-constructed source? On the basis of his new Alien movie, Sean Wilson thinks this could well be the case…
There’s a lot to admire about Alien: Covenant, Ridley Scott’s gore-strewn return to the sci-fi horror franchise he kickstarted back in 1979. As a piece of visual, physical spectacle it’s extraordinary: visually elegant and sleek, never going in for cheap shocks but fully engaging us in an otherworldly atmosphere. It’s what we’ve come to expect from the world-builder responsible for the original Alien, Blade Runner, Gladiator and countless other handsome spectacles. As a piece of storytelling however, it’s an altogether different proposition, more on which momentarily.
Sadly it appears that Scott, who it goes without saying is one of cinema’s truly great visionaries, has past form in this area. In particular, the quality of Scott’s movies appears directly related to the source he’s working from. Broadly speaking, if he’s working from tightly wound, stand-alone material, the results are usually excellent.
Look at the evidence. Scott’s debut feature, The Duellists (still one of his greatest films), is an engrossing Napoleonic spectacle about two warring soldiers played by Keith Carradine and Harvey Keitel, one that crucially owes itself to a source: Joseph Conrad’s short story The Duel. The pre-defined parameters of this source mean that Scott is obligated to stick within them, not venturing off the reservation but sticking true to the characters and setting, although it is of course an expansion of the original text. Even so, its genetic makeup was in place before Scott came aboard.
Likewise sci-fi/noir Blade Runner, released in 1982 to middling notices and disappointing box office but which has formidably grown in stature over time. (It’s hardly surprising that only in 2017 are we getting a long-overdue sequel, directed by Denis Villeneuve.) Although the film deviates somewhat from Philip K. Dick’s original novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, the author’s themes of humanity vs machinery course through the neon-inflected, rain-drenched world of Scott’s movie, compelling him to anchor the visuals around the narrative, rather than vice versa. (Famously Harrison Ford didn’t think so when making it, but like the critics he’s warmed to the project over time.)
Then there’s Scott’s 2015 movie The Martian, one that was heralded as the director’s finest film in years following dull efforts like Robin Hood and the ambitious but misguided Prometheus. The real reason why the film works as well as it does is because, unlike those movies, Drew Goddard’s script is anchored to Andy Weir’s bestselling book, a novel that compresses its astronaut-stranded-on-Mars narrative into 400 pacy pages.
In adapting the book Scott is prevented from being able to spin the story into a torturous, world-building saga: in short, he has to get in, tell his story and get out again, as best he can in two and a bit hours. Once again, storytelling is complimented, not overtaken, by Scott’s visual prowess. The movie’s financial and critical success point towards the director’s success in this area – but the critical factor is that he’s reined in by someone else’s source.
Of course, playing devil’s advocate Alien features a completely original screenplay and it’s one of the best ever written. David Giler and Walter Hill’s blue-collar emphasis helps ground Scott’s remarkable visual compositions and H.R. Giger’s horrifying biomechanical designs, giving us a human focal point amidst all the horror.
Similarly, Thelma and Louise has an Oscar-winning original script from Callie Khouri that allows for, arguably, Scott’s warmest and most humane movie, in which Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis take to the road after shooting dead a rapist. (Interestingly, sections of Khouri’s script were significantly altered during filming, namely the tense reconciliation between Sarandon and Michael Madsen’s characters that was originally envisaged as a makeshift wedding ceremony, a sign that Scott is far from the actor-averse filmmaker he’s often painted as.)
However there are several cases where the opposite turns out to be true. The somewhat underrated Hannibal, visually glorious and luxuriantly Gothic as it is (Florence has rarely been lensed so ravishingly), is ultimately hamstrung because Scott can do very little with Thomas Harris’ inane source material. Indeed the film is put in the somewhat awkward position of having to modulate the story’s ludicrous excesses into, well, slightly less ludicrous ones (the movie death of child molester Mason Verger, played by Gary Oldman, sees him devoured by man-eating pigs, only slightly less luridly over-the-top than his asphyxiation by electric eel in the book). It’s silly grand Guignol dressed up in a stylish dinner jacket.
That brings us to the very contentious issue of the Alien prequel universe. Whereas the first movie was rigorously controlled, ruthlessly paced and refused to shy away from its B-movie origins (‘The Texas Chain Saw Massacre in space’ was the original pitch), by this stage Scott is able to demand much more creative sway over his projects. The end result in both Prometheus and Alien: Covenant is a messy attempt to prequelise one of the most beloved sci-fi franchises of all time, a byproduct of a director liberated by a bigger budget, more creative control and, crucially, the lack of strong source material bringing Scott’s excesses down to Earth. The mixture in both films of spiritual philosophy with monster movie gore is not an easy one.
In direct contrast to the compressed narrative of The Martian, with Alien: Covenant Scott is freed up by an original script (by Gladiator‘s John Logan and Dante Harper) that can pull in as many different directions as he likes. It’s a script free to mash-up elements of Prometheus and Alien whilst also ret-conning the events of the former to significantly change our understanding of the Xenomorph’s creation. Enthusiastic and gleeful as it is (Scott palpably relishes working within this realm), the movie ultimately makes no sense, allowing Scott to indulge his reputation as a visual craftsman but completely at the expense of a well-constructed narrative.
It goes without saying that Scott is, at heart, a craftsman and technician, one who learned his trade in advertising and who has translated that singular visual style into some of the most arresting movies ever made. Yet there remains a nagging suspicion that as a director, he’s at his best when marshalling a small army of people and physically constructing an entire world before our eyes. Should the underlying narrative fail to mesh with his technical specifications, then so be it – his reputation as a craftsman will be in no doubt but we, the audience, are the ones on the losing end, suffering through a haze of ill-focused storytelling that, while beautiful, fails to make one iota of sense.
Suffice it to say, when it comes to Alien: Covenant Scott’s role behind the camera is analogous to the increasingly Machiavellian android David, playing with scheming intensity by the ever-brilliant Michael Fassbender: both are mad scientists cooking up an extravagant, horrifying genetic stew that pilfers from the likes of Frankenstein and others, but without much thought for coherency or logic.
Sean Wilson is a writer, journalist and soundtrack enthusiast, and can be found on Twitter @Seano22.