Ridley Scott is definitely one of my favorite directors ever and because his latest film, ‘Prometheus’, is about to be released here in the US, I thought it would be interesting to use the occasion to write about certain ideas that has been itching inside me for a long time about his movies.
Scott is, well, a Scotsman, that is, a superb European director but without the intellectual twisted pretentiousness we come to associate with ‘European movies’, justifiably or not. As such, he navigates between two worlds: films as spectacle (his Hollywoodean side) and films as instruments for the quest of ‘big subjects’, as pretexts to ask the ‘big questions’. Because of that, many of his films are regularly applauded by both public and ‘the critics’. Some examples: Can human life be coldly sacrificed for the sake of scientific interests (‘Alien’)? If we finally are able to synthesize human life, would it have a spirit, deep feelings, a soul like us (‘Blade Runner’)? How far can we take in terms of space and time our defense and vindication of honor (‘The Duellists’)? Is it actually possible the pacific coexistence of diverse cultures and religions in a defined geographical space (‘Kingdom of Heaven’)? And finally, in his latest movie, the aforementioned ‘Prometheus’, are we products of natural evolution, as classically framed by Darwin’s theory, or life on earth and intelligence, were ‘planted’ by extraterrestrial civilizations?
Those are quite a number of interesting questions about quite a variety of subjects. But what I attempt to elucidate in these quickly written lines goes in exactly the opposite direction: Is it possible to find a *common theme*, a leitmotif, running thru Scott’s films, or at least thru a number of them? And, if so, what it would be? How would it affect and/or impact the quality of his production?
My central claim here is that, yes, there is a very distinct theme or ‘meta-theme’ running thru many of his films: How humans can live in situations of no-escape that are at the same time life-threatening. Entrapment, as depicted in Ridley Scott movies is exactly the opposite of claustrophobia. The latter implies a danger that is mostly imaginary, that resides basically in the head of the sufferer who therefore feels compelled to ‘get out’, to escape from the triggering situation. Scott’s films depict entrapment as riddled with very real dangers from which the protagonists need to escape, but are unable to because that option is closed, the boundaries of their *universe of options* are air-tight sealed. The way each of them resolve the quandary makes for the edge-of-your-seat plots in his films.
And those boundaries can be *physical* but many times are not. Some quick examples: In ‘Alien’, Ridley Scott first big American success, the protagonist Ripley fights for her life inside a spaceship in the confines of outer space, the corporate cargo vessel ‘Nostromo’. The alien creature has killed all six members of the crew but her. She’s next. That’s a very real physical entrapment. In ‘Blade Runner’ the boundaries are not physical, are written in the genetic code of the ‘Replicants’: Four years life-span. They got to see their designers, bio-engineers who created them, for a possible ‘cracking’ (‘escape’) of their DNA code and therefore more life. They ultimately failed and the movie concludes with one of the most memorable monologues in the history of cinema (the ‘tears in rain’ one). In the very first ‘feature-length’ movie of his, Scott takes us, making use of impossibly beautiful imagery, to Napoleonic France and the ceaseless quest for ‘honor satisfaction’ in which, along many years, one soldiers hunts another and fights him in duel after duel, without acceptable resolution. In this instance the boundaries are given by a very rigid code of military ‘honor’ from which indeed there is no escape. Air-tight cultural boundaries are rendered beautifully and dramatically in ‘Thelma & Louse’, shot in expansive locations of the American southwest. The boundless scenic views are a poignant counterpoint to the rigid and suffocating patriarchal moral code of the local culture, which inexorably lead their female protagonists to self-immolation as the only possible way to ‘escape’ the no-escape situation. In ‘Gladiator’, the boundaries are defined for the Roman general Maximus Decimus Meridius by the omnipresence of the Roman Empire, indeed a totalitarian universe of antiquity. Even as a slave in the outermost province there is no chance he can escape Roman ‘justice’: Revenge and death (or revenge while dying) are his only alternatives. In ‘Black Hawk Down’, the soldiers involved in the Battle of Mogadishu are completely surrounded by the mob of the local Somali warlords for much longer than planned, a terrifying situation of entrapment, indeed. Their ultimate escape with many casualties and heavy aerial support feels at the end like a bittersweet miracle. In ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ there is a spectacular depiction of the siege of Jerusalem by the infinitely more powerful forces of Muslim king Saladin. The lengthy negotiations to save the people and sacrifice the city serve Scott as pretext for a reflection on the current situation in the Middle East, in itself a real-life situation of historical ‘entrapment’ and no-escape for the forces involved. Fascinating, indeed. In ‘Someone to Watch Over Me’, the main female protagonist is the key witness of a crime and is unable to leave her mansion, ‘sieged’, for fear of mafia retaliation. In this case the entrapment situation frames a romance between her and the policeman assigned to her case. Finally, as an example that breaks the rule in the most interesting way, Roy Waller, the main character in ‘Matchstick Men’ suffers from agoraphobia. For him the problem (and the trigger for fright and even panic) is not enclosed spaces but, on the contrary, open spaces. ‘Matchstick Men’ suggested me, by opposition, some of the ideas exposed.
In other films of Scott the theme of entrapment is not as dominant as in the examples cited above but, interestingly enough, those happen to be his ‘low points’, critically and financially. It seems that we have come to associate the Ridley Scott ‘brand’, consciously or not, to those high-pressure cooker plots.
‘Prometheus’ opens in wide release on June 8th in the USA. It was released on June 1st in England and a lengthy review is available in ‘The Guardian’.