Ridley Scott

Alien: Covenant

13/05/17

Prometheus was one of the biggest cinematic disappointments of recent years. After several underwhelming Alien sequels, fans of the series were eagerly anticipating Ridley Scott’s return to the world that he originated in 1979, but what we actually got was some distance away from that premise – perhaps a few steps too far. So Covenant is very much Scott’s attempts to make amends for that misstep and to some degree, he’s been successful in his ambitions – even if too much of the film riffs on earlier ideas. Oddly, this one feels closer to James Cameron’s brilliant second instalment, Aliens – which Scott still feels was arranged ‘behind his back.’

This film is set ten years after Prometheus and the colony ship Covenant is making its way towards a new planet where the passengers hope to start a whole new world. While the crew are deep in hyper sleep, the day-to-day running of the ship is left to ‘synthetic’ Walter (Michael Fassbender). But an unexpected incident means that the crew are woken seven years too early and, even worse there are a couple of fatalities – including the Captain, the husband of Daniels (Katherine Waterston). The new captain, Oram (Billy Crudup) isn’t exactly relishing the idea of getting back into those unreliable pods, so when the crew happen upon an inexplicable signal issuing from what appears to be a nearby habitable planet, he feels it’s worth going in to investigate…

Sound familiar? Well, yes, very. Pretty soon an advance party are making a landing on the planet and realising that it really isn’t a safe place to try and make a new home – and Walter meets an earlier model of himself, David, who has been surviving alone on the planet since the events of Prometheus. But can the advance party make it back to their spaceship alive?

Ridley Scott’s films are nearly always good to look at and he manages to crank up enough tension to keep you on the edge of your seat through much of this. The planet locations are beautifully set up, Waterstone steps gamely into Ellen Ripley’s boots and there are enough chest-bursters, face-huggers and Xenomorphs to keep the fans happy. There’s also an interesting trope set up between caring, artful David and his cooler, less compassionate successor, Walter. I’m delighted to see that the project has finally gone back to the designs of creature-creator H.R. Giger for its look. But there remains the conviction that we’re simply revisiting territory that has already been well and truly trodden flat. The news that Scott is planning to expand the Alien universe with another three films does not exactly fill me with excitement. He’s done what he should have done last time out. Surely now, he should let this idea rest and move on with his many other projects. After all, at 79, who knows how many more he will achieve?

For my money, Alien: Covenant would make a decent swan song for the franchise. Leave it, Ridley. Step away from the franchise. There’s nothing new to see here.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

The Martian

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27/09/15

With The Martian, Ridley Scott takes us back into outer space. Given that his previous excursion in that direction was the much anticipated, but decidedly underwhelming Prometheus, there are many out there who didn’t have great hopes for this movie. Happily, their fears are unfounded, because this is the best Ridley Scott movie in a very long time.

Based on Andy Weir’s recent bestseller, it’s the story of Astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) who during a manned mission to Mars is caught up in a violent storm and knocked for six by a flying projectile. After a desperate search for him, his fellow crew members, led by Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) come to the assumption that he must be dead and make a hasty exit in the direction of earth. But Watney isn’t dead. He wakes up several hours later with a nasty wound to his stomach and the awful realisation that he is totally alone on a planet that is millions of miles away from home. When the people at NASA finally learn of his situation, the decision is taken not to inform the other members of his crew of his plight for fear they will ‘lose concentration’ on their journey home. Watney is, to put it mildly, in a bit of a pickle. It will be four years before a rescue mission can me mounted and he only has enough food for around a month. If he’s to survive, he will have to (to use his own words) ‘Science the shit out of this.’

What follows is a fascinating and captivating couple of hours as Watney works out a complex plan to stay alive, starting with the idea of growing potatoes planted in the packaged human waste from the expedition’s toilet. Meanwhile, there’s an even more serious problem. The only music available to listen to is Lewis’s collection of disco hits circa 1980 – he may go stark raving mad before help arrives.

Damon is always an appealing performer and he’s perfect for the wisecracking, plucky Mark Watney. You’re rooting for him from the word ‘go,’ and as his position becomes ever more precarious, you feel every setback as keenly as he does. As the story moves on and his crew mates finally learn of his situation, proceedings metamorphose into a complex rescue mission, which results in an absolutely nail biting climax. What’s more, there are all the tropes we’ve come to expect from Ridley Scott – magnificent cinematography (with Wadi Rum in Jordan standing in for Mars), a fabulous soundtrack utilising the delights of Abba and vintage David Bowie, plus the absolute conviction that no matter how far fetched the story becomes, its backed up by a wealth of detail, enough to convince you that this really could happen. It’s ironic that I’m reviewing this film on the very day that NASA will announce a ‘major discovery on Mars.’ I appreciate that Scott always puts aside a huge budget for publicity, but that may be going too far!

Scott, by the way, is pressing on with his production of Prometheus Two, so he isn’t quite giving up on outer space just yet. But The Martian is definitely a keeper. Watch it on the big screen and yes, for once, it’s actually worth booking for the 3D showing, because those vast, alien landscapes really are out of this world.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

Blade Runner: The Director’s Cut

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09/04/15

Thirty three years ago, as a raw recruit with Piccadilly Radio, I was sent to review Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. The film was far from perfect (a Chandleresque voiceover by Harrison Ford, one of the chief offenders) but nevertheless, it blew me away. I couldn’t remember seeing a more credible vision of the future. Since then, Scott has revisited the film several times, trimming it, tuning it, reworking certain scenes with new technology as it became available. This version, originally released in 1992, now receives another showing on the big screen and if ever there was a film that deserved to be viewed that way, this is the one. Scott’s dystopic vision of Los Angeles in 2019 is a twelve course feast for the senses – a world dominated by acid rain, Japanese technology and endless adverts for Coca Cola. The visual effects are quite extraordinary (all the more so when you consider that this was before the days of CGI), but they don’t dominate proceedings, while Vangelis’s pulsing electronic score makes a perfect marriage with the onscreen action.

Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is a Blade Runner, a man charged with the tricky task of hunting down and eliminating rogue Replicants (incredibly realistic androids, generally used as workers on off-world colonies.) Four particularly resourceful Replicants led by Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) are hiding out in Los Angeles and Deckard is recruited by his old boss to hunt them down. Visiting the Tyrell Corporation, who manufacture the replicants, he meets Rachael (Sean Young) an intelligent young woman who it seems, might not be quite as human as she appears…

In futuristic movies, it’s always fascinating to see how many unlikely predictions are made. In 2019, apparently, Deckard is still reading old fashioned newspapers and loading printed snapshots into what looks like a CD deck (though he can admittedly do amazing things once they’re in there). Meanwhile, people are zooming around in flying cars! But this matters not. The film goes deeper than most sci fi stories to ask some challenging questions. Does artificial life have as much right to exist as the creatures that have created it? And do those creators have the right to take that life away, when the creation fails to meet their expectations? The final sequences in J.S. Sebastian’s toy shop/apartment in ‘The Bradbury Building’ build to a compelling conclusion and Hauer has never been as enigmatic as he is here.  Blade Runner is serious film-making on a grandiose scale. Scott has made many films since, but this will probably remain his undisputed masterpiece. It’s stood the test of time and passed with flying colours.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

Exodus: Gods and Kings

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30/12/14

Ridley Scott is perhaps the closest thing we have to a director of the stature of David Lean. Unabashedly old school he is never happier than when commanding armies of extras on a massive scale, so perhaps it was inevitable that he would eventually take on a biblical subject – the story of Moses. Here, the great man is played by a scowling Christian Bale who at the beginning of the film is fighting the Hitites alongside his ‘bessie mate’ Ramses (Joel Edgerton.) But when Ramses becomes pharaoh, word gets out that Moses is actually an adopted hebrew, a fact that gets him banished from Egypt and sent back to join ‘his people’ where before very long he is instructing them to seek their freedom.

There has already been some controversy about this film which features two caucasian actors in the lead roles and Scott’s reply (that it was all about getting funding and who would pay to see Mohammed Whatever in the lead role?) was understandably badly received, but I’m going to put that matter aside and concentrate on what’s on the screen, which really is a great big curate’s egg of a film. This being a Ridley Scott production, there are scenes of incredible cinematic splendour – the construction of the pyramids is amazing, the Plagues of Egypt are particularly jaw-dropping and the climactic parting of the waves is nail-biting stuff – but along the way we have to endure too many turgid scenes of people standing around in temples talking in (suspiciously contemporary terms) about fairly boring subjects. And one has to wonder why Scott bothered to engage the services of Sigourney Weaver when he wasn’t going to bother to give her anything to say. What I did like was the daring treatment of many of the accepted fantastical elements of Moses’ story. The parting of the waves is quite clearly a tsunami, we see Moses himself carving the ten commandments onto stone tablets and most contentious of all, ‘God’ is depicted as a scruffy kid with a bad haircut. Some will hate this, but what was the alternative? A white haired, bearded old geezer speaking in a stentorian voice? A bit too Life of Brian, methinks.

in the end, Scott does it his way and God help anyone who stands in his path. Overall, I enjoyed this, but those slow lengthy passages dragged down the final score somewhat. One thing is clear. When it comes to epic cinema, nobody else comes close to the majesty that is Ridley Scott. On a sad note, the film is dedicated to his brother, Tony, who took his own life in 2012.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney