Since making us cover our eyes and drop our jaws with 1979's "Alien," Ridley Scott has had a remarkably diverse career, even by the standards of established directors with broad appetites.
He's taken us into a world of political intrigue and bloody jousting ("Gladiator"). He's gone militaristic ("Black Hawk Down"), medieval ("Robin Hood" and "Kingdom of Heaven"), Japanese ("Black Rain") and undercover ("American Gangster"). He even tried the reborn wine guy in France ("A Good Year," even if it wasn't that for him).
Some of these adventuresome meanderings have been compelling ("Thelma & Louise"). Some have been less so ("G.I. Jane").
But the success of "Prometheus" this past weekend suggests something many Scott fans have suspected all along. Maybe all we really want from the director is to watch him do what he announced himself as good at from the start: explore a mysterious and troubled spacecraft far above the Earth, deep into the future.
"Prometheus" scored $50 million in its opening weekend, good enough for a strong second-place finish to "Madagascar 3" (and, it should be noted, garnering a better per-screen average). As my colleague Amy Kaufman pointed out, the Fox release was Scott's second-best opening ever (after 2001's "Hannibal"). The results hark back to "Alien," which is not only a similarly effects-driven movie with spiritual and scientific themes, but Scott's highest-grossing movie ever when adjusted for inflation.
More than just ticket sales, "Prometheus" earned Scott some of his best (if also polarized) reviews in a long time — and certainly some of his sharpest fan interest. Love or hate the movie, it's a conversation piece in a way a Scott film hasn't been in years.
The irony in the debate about whether the plot details the Michael Fassbender- and Noomi Rapace-starring "Prometheus" amounted to an "Alien" prequel — a battle waged with gusto by fans (and denied with gusto by Scott and the studio) — is that in the most important way, the movie did connect to the 1979 classic. Scott wasn't just revisiting science-fiction territory, he was using special-effects tools and the mysteries about the future to pose questions about the present.
From a box-office standpoint, the answer to the headline question is a resounding yes — few directors have done so many different things only to find success disproportionately in one realm.
From the perspective of Scott's — and our — interests, the answer is less evident, but, I'd argue, still clear. Yeah, we can hear all the comments already. Filmmakers should follow their heart and their story, challenging themselves with the new. Scott's done the sci-fi thing again now; he should move on.
Sure, some of the best directors — Danny Boyle, Ang Lee — never come close to repeating themselves. But even the most libertarian, let-directors-do-their-thing type might sing a different tune with Scott. The Brit has a particular gift for looking far off and seeing something that resides within ("Blade Runner," though set on this Earth, operates on this principle too.) Why doesn't he use it more often?
A filmmaker who keeps making the same movie or tries to reclaim past glories with endless spins on the same genre (see under: latter-day Tim Burton) is indeed boring. But staying within a genre doesn't mean you can't also reinvent that genre or yourself (see under: Guillermo del Toro). The world's most successful auteur, in fact, sees the one-genre approach not as a prison but the culmination of a lifetime's search (see under: James Cameron evacuating all other projects to concentrate on "Avatar" sequels).
Scott may well listen to the voices that tell him to go period Rome or rural France. He's already preparing to direct "The Counselor," a legal drama with a drug-trafficking twist, and may make a sojourn to biblical Egypt afterward. But it's becoming harder to argue that he shouldn't just concentrate on booking return trips to outer space.
— Steven Zeitchik
Photo: Michael Fassbender and Noomi Rapace in "Prometheus." Credit: 20th Century Fox