Ridley Scott and the storytelling problem

There are very, very light spoilers for Prometheus and Alien: Covenant ahead.

I can’t think of too many more recent well-deserved sci-fi blockbuster hits than The Martian. I really like the film a lot. Expertly directed by one of cinema’s best ever world builders, Ridley Scott, it of course told the story of a man stranded on the red planet, with the simple task of staying alive for, er, a long time before help could be found. Given that the Mars movies we got in the early 2000s were Mission To Mars and Red Planet, I’m happy to call The Martian a substantial upgrade.

I’d also suggest it brought the best out of Ridley Scott.

Scott came to The Martian relatively late in the day. The film had been due to be directed by Drew Goddard, but his commitments to Sony’s ill-fated Sinister Six spin-off movie put an end to that. Nonetheless, he left behind one of the key reasons for the film’s success: a rock solid screenplay. Furthermore, that in turn was based on a story that had been scientifically researched and structured to within an inch of its life by Andy Weir, the author of the original novel. It’s the closest in recent times – perhaps the first time since Hannibal – that Ridley Scott has veered close to being a director for hire. And I think it led to his best film in a long time.

Because he could come to The Martian and do what he’s expert at, and lend an eye and feel to the film that I struggle to think of any other director matching. Whenever I’m watching a Ridley Scott film – be it Black Hawk Down, Black Rain, an Alien movie, even something like Body Of Lies – I know I’m in the hands of an expert at setting a scene, and stunningly realizing a world I may not know.

The problem, though, is that I rarely feel that I’m in the hands of a great, natural storyteller. More to the point, when Scott himself has a seemingly strong hand in shaping and developing a story in its infancy, rather than coming to the project late on, I think you can tell.

His two recent Alien films bear the hallmarks of this. Prometheus, for 30-40 minutes, utterly had me. I couldn’t take my eyes off it, a visually arresting piece of cinema that blew me away. Then, though, Prometheus things started to happen, and when the story needed to come in and take hold, the film fell away. Without going into story spoilers, I think Alien: Covenant has the same problem. That a new planet, a new ship, a growing threat, visceral horror is all putty to Scott, someone who surely deserves the overlooked introduction of “visionary director”. And then it takes its Prometheus pills, as the story starts doing things that I think a natural storyteller would call bullshit on. And call it fast.

I wondered, at first, if this was an Alien-centric problem, but I don’t think it is. In fact, if you go down Scott’s output since he made Gladiator (itself based off a strong John Logan script), I struggle to think of too many times where he’s put across a genuinely engrossing three act story. American Gangster certainly has lots of moments, and I do understand that many have love for Matchstick Men and Kingdom Of Heaven. But, perhaps with the exception of Matchstick Men, they never felt like complete stories to me. Films such as Exodus, The Counsellor, Robin Hood, A Good Year, Body Of Lies, Black Hawk Down and Hannibal are often praised for their moments too, when they get compliments, but not for their whole.

I remember reading an article, back when A Few Good Men came out, when then-debutant screenwriter Aaron Sorkin – who was adapting his own screenplay – told how the film’s director, Rob Reiner, would ring up and bellow questions at him at all times of day or night. It took a while for Sorkin to realise that Reiner was improving his script, and he didn’t seem to enjoy the process. But improve it Reiner did. That here was a director who knew what mattered, and pushed his writer to deliver it.

This was in the midst of Reiner’s incredible run of successful films – that I wrote about here – where he zeroed in on stories and told them exceptionally well. Reiner didn’t originate the story, but he instead made sure he could make said story as a film. I daresay he didn’t write a single stage direction, or a line of dialogue. But Reiner, nonetheless, is an excellent storyteller.

Now Rob Reiner is never going to make a jaw-dropping visual treat, and again, very few people can do what Ridley Scott does. This is no hate piece. But Reiner sure, at the peak of his powers, could spot, shape and tell a great tale and make it look easy. I don’t think Ridley Scott can do that.

As someone, being genuinely constructive, wrote to us the other day, “once upon a time I couldn’t wait for a new Ridley Scott film. Now, however…”. And I do get that. I think it’s a little harsh – give me an ambitious but flawed Ridley Scott venture over much of the fodder in my local multiplex, thank you very much – but there is something to it.

He doesn’t help himself, although I suspect he doesn’t care that much that doesn’t himself, when he talks about being able to “crank” another Alien movie out next year. I don’t think anyone wants to think of Ridley Scott cranking anything out. You go to Ratner directing school if you want to crank. I think Ridley Scott’s standards are higher than that.

But more crucially, he doesn’t help himself that he doesn’t seem to home in on what’s going to make a story work, and be complete, before he turns up on set and starts filming. It’s something second nature to an animated film, where a four year production cycle tends to include around 11 months of actual animation and a good two-to-three years of hammering the story until it works, effectively editing the film in advance. I wonder if Alien: Covernant, for all its merits, couldn’t have used at least a few more months in story development too.

Alien: Covenant is thus another frustrating piece, that bristles with brilliance, but I daresay will lose a good chunk of the audience when it starts taking storytelling turns that, for me at least, simply don’t work. That I’d have hoped someone would have interrogated before filming began, and fixed the problem.

Scott has said that the next Alien film is being written now, with an eye on it filming by the end of 2018. I fear that, unless he’s kept away from the core development of the story until it’s ready to go and has been worked to death, we could be having a similar conversation to this in two to three years’ time. As Mark Kermode said in his review of Covenant last weekend, Ridley Scott is only as good as the script he’s directing. I wish him better scripts.

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