The Gilded Age: Ridley Scott's Prometheus and More Frustrating Films from New Hollywood Directors
I went to see Prometheus over the weekend, and like many of you, I was disappointed (to put it lightly). Although a technical achievement in every way, the narrative and characters left much to be desired. The mystery I wanted solved was not the black goo or the Engineers — it was how the creative team of Ridley Scott, Damon Lindelof, and Jon Spaihts could produce a movie with such rudimentary mistakes. There have been casts of Scream movies with more intelligence than this lineup of characters. The connective tissue between the film’s big set pieces felt as if plucked from a Random Idea Generator program online; even the mythology was mucked up as the film dissolved into a by-the-book sci-fi thriller by the end.
Baffled, I thought about the simple brilliance of 1979’s Alien. The 1970s were a fertile time for Hollywood. What we consider to be some of the greatest movies ever came from the “New Hollywood” era, including Scott's Alien and works by the likes of Coppola, Kubrick, Altman, and more; these were directors who were the first wave of “film buffs” who emerged from university film programs having studied and loved the medium for years. They were awed and inspired by cinema, and introduced fresh technologies and darker and more subversive subject matter to wider audiences for the first time under a creative freedom Hollywood hasn't allowed since. But all eras come to an end, and not every great director has a perfect score (except maybe Scorsese and Hitchcock). Even if Prometheus didn't disappoint you, chances are one of these movies from nine New Hollywood filmmakers did.
9. Ridley Scott’s Hannibal (2001), Robin Hood (2010), and Prometheus (2012)
There are two kinds of Ridley Scott camps: Those who think Scott is a middlebrow director with mediocre titles that appeal to AMPAS voters only, and those who believe Alien and Blade Runner constitute a lifetime pass. That’s not to say Scott isn’t an accomplished and respectable director even today. Prometheus is his most technically beautiful film in ages, and Matchstick Men and Kingdom of Heaven are underrated achievements. But let’s face it: Prometheus is a narrative mess, his Robin Hood was a bafflingly bland Russell Crowe vehicle that famously massacred a fabulous spec script that was intended to tell the Sheriff of Nottingham’s story, and… well, just watch Scott talk up Hannibal in this commentary track clip.
8. Robert Altman’s Dr. T. and the Women (2000)
Not inherently a bad movie, Altman's Dr. T. and the Women is often delightful, but a bit too broad and soapy for the man behind MASH and Nashville. As an unconventional rom-com, Altman's film retains much of the director's trademark style, with charm and emphasis on character relationships over plot -- obviously, since a magical tornado comes out of nowhere at the end to wipe slates clean.
7. Roman Polanski’s The Ninth Gate (1999)
From the director who brought you Rosemary's Baby and Chinatown comes The Ninth Gate, starring a subdued Johnny Depp, who seems perpetually in danger of getting hit by cars, and Emmanuelle Seigner, delivering roundhouse kicks to baddies and floating down staircases. Like Altman's Dr. T., this isn't Polanski hitting an extreme low -- he's just not hitting any highs, either. The film's production values go a long way to delivering an elegant yet creepy atmosphere, but the business of the horror-fantasy plot falls deeper and deeper into absurdity with generic thriller frights.
6. Brian De Palma’s Mission to Mars (2000) and The Black Dahlia (2006)
You could also probably slide 1998's Snake Eyes into this lineup to prove a point that, like Prometheus, no matter how technically capable you are as a visual director, sometimes the narratives just don't measure up. Black Dahlia also carried the negative weight of bizarre miscasting (Hilary Swank, I'm looking at you), while Mission to Mars succumbs to shallow writing and absence of thrills. Snake Eyes, for what it's worth, tries to cover up mediocrity and frustratingly silly webs of intrigue under an abundance of style and visual prowess. Movies are a sensory experience, and if what you're hearing doesn't work, it doesn't matter if what you're seeing is the most beautiful image ever shot.
5. John Schlesinger’s The Next Best Thing (2000)
This is the man who directed Midnight Cowboy, Sunday Bloody Sunday, and Marathon Man. Obviously we can chalk this one up to the Madonna poison she obviously secretes onto every set she steps foot on. Right?
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