The Gilded Age: Ridley Scott's Prometheus and More Frustrating Films from New Hollywood Directors

New Hollywood disappointments - Prometheus - Star Wars - Indiana Jones

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Comments

  • War of the Worlds had "a cheap Shyamalan-approved conclusion"? You might want to direct that criticism at H.G. Wells.

    • Baco Noir says:

      Hear, hear, Greg. Couple of facts. Scorsese and Hitchcock also made their share of turkeys. Hitch? Under Capricorn, Topaz, Torn Curtain, Stage Fright, The Paradine Case, Marnie, Family Plot, Rope, etc. Scorsese? New York New York, Bringing Out the Dead, Gangs of New York, and (personally) most of Shutter Island. Lucas vetoed script after script after script of Crystal Skulls, so I lay the blame for that one at Lucas' feet, not Spielberg. And Coppola? He directed Jack as a way to get out of debt. And if winemaking is so unimportant why does he make about $80 million+ a year making it? As I've said elsewhere, Scott's a "team playing", do-whatever-the-suits-want visually talented hack.

      • dukeroberts says:

        Hey! Don't mess with Rope! Rope is great. Stage Fright is also not bad. It's just that one gimmicky plot device that makes it not up to typical Hitchcock levels of greatness.

        • Baco Noir says:

          Really? Terrible movie. The killers are so offensively swish too, thus making the film practically unwatchable.

          • dukeroberts says:

            They may be considered "offensively swish" now, but back then it was not so widely known.

          • dukeroberts says:

            And Jimmy Stewart was fantastic in it. I loved the interplay between him, John Dahl and Farley Granger.

        • Christine says:

          I freaking love Rope, no matter how much hate it gets. Wasn't it shot with almost continuously running film?

      • peliculita says:

        I agree - don't mess with Rope. That is arguably one of his best due to his experimenting with directing the movie as a play and only cutting when the film ran out.

  • Shawn Gordon says:

    Honestly, I don't think that the Ridley Scott films are that bad, Spielberg's worst is by far HOOK, and when are people going to admit that REVENGE OF THE SITH was pretty good, even better than the hokey Ewoked RETURN OF THE JEDI. The others on this list, stand guilty as accused..

    • Jake says:

      The younglings?
      "NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO"
      "I have the high ground" followed by hilarious leg choppings.

      Revenge of the Sith is TERRIBLE! At least The Phantom Menace had the pod race... the only good thing to come out of the prequels.

      So no, ROTS is NOT better than ROTJ and never will be. Even with the funny little Ewoks.

      • dukeroberts says:

        Aside from "NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!" and some terrible "love scenes" with Anakin and Padme, Revenge of the Sith is pretty damn good. It is not nearly as good as ROTJ though. ROTJ is great. I like the Ewoks.

      • Shawn Gordon says:

        I don't know what you mean exactly by younglings, I'm 34 years-old and saw RETURN OF THE JEDI wwith my dad the day that it came out. Besides, age doesn't make you wiser, it just makes you old, look at Donald Trump. Further more, it's like, just an opinion man.

        • Jake says:

          I'm talking about the scene in ROTS where Anakin kills "the younglings." It's hilariously bad.

          Other than that, I'm not really sure who your post is directed to, or what you are talking about with the age thing.

          • Shawn Gordon says:

            Guess I'm just not a fanboy who memorizes stupid dialogue. It did sound as though you were attempting to make my earlier post invalid by implying that because of my youth I could not possibly have the taste to judge ROTS better than ROTJ. If not, why the quote, there is plenty of goofy dialogue to be found in all the STAR WARS picks for sure as they weren't written by Tarantino or Mamet.

    • Spaniel says:

      Revenge of the Sith better than Return of the Jedi? Are you drunk or something?

  • Jake says:

    First, excellent article. This was a great rundown.

    For me, the big three offenders are Lucas, for obvious reasons, followed by Spielberg and then Ridley Scott. However, I contend that Spielberg hasn't made a good film since the near dual release of Jurassic Park and Schindler's List. Jurassic Park was the final film of the golden era of Spielberg and Schindler's List represents the best art film he has ever made. Everything since then has been downhill. It's really sad. Janusz Kaminski was the worst thing that ever happened to him (Lost World anyone? The lighting makes me want to puke!!).

    As for Scott, he made a couple of great films early on, but everything since then has been incredibly bland. I always note that fifty years from now, people will still talk about all the Tarantino films... all the Pt Anderson films... all the Kubrick and Hitchcock films... but only two of Scott's film. He's made too many boring insignificant films.

    And I actually really enjoyed Prometheus although I laughed frequently at all the stupid parts. It was still Scott's best film since Gladiator and maybe even Blade Runner.

    - Jakey

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  • max says:

    I put the blame solely on having Damon (LOST) Lindelof on the creative team. The guy is almost as bad as that dreck-duo Robert Orci and Alex Kurtzman.

    • M&M says:

      ^^^Spot on^^^

    • Jake says:

      I agree too. Lindelof seems to be an "all set up and no pay off" kind of filmmaker. If we learned one thing from Lost, it's that Lindelof and the rest of that team threw everything they could into a pilot and then had to spend the rest of five seasons figuring out how to pay off smoky monsters, polar bears, French radio signals, etc.

      Spoiler alert: They failed.

      Now they pitched a movie set in the future where we are going to find out an alien race bred all us humans on earth and now we are going to go meet and talk to them to discover our origins. But then they had to go out and write that story with some sort of meaningful ending.

      Spoiler alert: They failed again.

      • Well that is just your opinion. Lost didn't fail just because you didn't like it and neither did Prometheus. Some people just can't appreciate ambiguity, intrigue and mystery and need the realization that the answers will never be as good as the questions.

  • For what it's worth, every single one of the above films (with the possible exception of John Carpenter's later output) are significantly better movies than the three mentioned Ridley Scott examples. Ironically, Prometheus rips off much of Mission To Mars without that film's empathetic characters. Even The Next Best Thing is trying to be a realistic look at two friends torn apart and left with impossible choices (and kudos to Madonna basically casting herself as the third-act villain). Hook (Wow do I juggle being a filmmaker and a father?), War of the Worlds (Americans as homeless refugees), and Indiana Jones IV (What do I do when my best years are behind me?) are all personal statements from Spielberg and it's not WotW's fault that its social relevance immediately got upended by Hurricane Katrina. And all three Star Wars prequels are superior to 85% of what passes for big-budget popcorn cinema and their political parables make them every-more chilling by the day. Heck, even Jack boosts two great performances (Bill Cosby and Jennifer Lopez) in an admittedly flawed film.

  • bpvalentine says:

    I admit Prometheus falls short. However I don’t believe it is in the class you are setting it in (but hey you need an article, right?) Hannibal, Snake Eyes, and War of the Worlds are also, I suppose, just over your head.

    • dukeroberts says:

      I'm in the minority. I liked Hannibal and War of the Worlds. THere were problems with both, but I liked both overall.

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