The Cynicism of Ridley Scott: Examining His 2017 Films

The Octogenarian indulged in his colder side last year and made two similar movies.

(Spoilers for Alien Covenant and All The Money In The World herein)

It’s a rare but interesting feat when directors crank out two films in the same year. Filmmakers like Clint Eastwood and Steven Spielberg can do this on a dime if need be, the latter especially. Sometimes, it can say something about the flexibility of what certain directors can do. Somebody like Spielberg was able to crank out both Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List within the same year (both of which were box office and Oscar hits). Of course, there are some directors who can do more than even two (see Takashi Miike) but I’d like to focus on one in particular from last year: Sir Ridley Scott, my personal favorite of all time. The two films he cranked out last year, Alien: Covenant and All The Money In The World, say more than just his work load (especially the latter, given its now infamous last minute reshoots). I think they say something about his current headspace and what he thinks about the world right now.

Let’s get the first (and more widely seen movie) out of the way: Alien Covenant. Now while the film managed to get decent critical notices, it was sharply divisive and not the biggest financial success. One of the reasons why it triggered something of a divided response is what a sadistically unpleasant piece of work it is. When your film opens up with innocent people being burnt to a crisp (with the lead protagonist Daniels, played by Katherine Waterston of Inherent Vice and Fantastic Beasts fame, helpless to watch her husband being flayed alive), you know you are in for a rough ride. It’s almost as if Scott watched Alien 3 and said “Bfffbbbbt, like that’s bad. Try this on for size, motherfuckers!”. From then on, Scott basically turns what should be a bog-standard Alien picture into a grotesque house of horrors, gleefully cranking up the carnage as it goes along almost out of spite for those who didn’t respond to his previous Alien picture Prometheus as he had intended.

Such sequences include the aforementioned incident on the ship, both backburster scenes, the genocide of the Engineers, David’s “children” munching on the crew of the Covenant when they enter his humble abode like a villain out of Hammer Horror movie, the infamous shower kill which plays out like a sick “moneyshot” gag or the very dark ending, which is marks the series first out and out Downer Ending, as David (Michael Fassbender in one of his mightiest and memorable roles) triumphantly looks over his new test tubes in the form of helpless human beings in cryo-pods. In comparison to his other stabs at Science Fiction (especially when compared to his last film, the earnestly optimistic The Martian), it’s like the equivalent of watching someone so fed up with everyone and everything, yelling “Fuck it” and then proceeding to splatter it on screen for two hours. This little “montage” should say it all.

Any sensible person would all of this aggravating to watch but for me, it says something on how he currently views humanity: That we’re bunch of dumb motherfuckers for our hubris in trying to advance our species technologically, that our own creations will outlive us (as seen with Michael Fassbender’s David) and that if we do meet our maker, he’ll either be unpleased with us or already dead because we did it.

Meanwhile, All The Money In The World, his second picture this year, takes a more subdued but equally repulsed at humanity not for it’s stupidity but in its greed and how we measure human beings in their weight of how they benefit us financially then on their character. This fictionalized but gritty and fast moving take on the real life kidnapping of J. Paul Getty III and how his own grandfather, J. Paul Getty, refused to pay the ransom under the suspicions of his grandson staging his own kidnapping (Paul considered it in real life but wound up biting off more than he could chew when it happened for real) and justifying his lack of cooperation under the belief that if he pays for one, he would then have “14 kidnapped grandchildren”.

The whole affair plays out like an endless game of tug and pull between Paul’s mother Gail Harris Getty (played with wonderfully melodramatic gusto by Michelle Williams) and Getty Senior (Christopher Plummer, who shines despite being a last minute replacement) as the former tries to find ways of bringing her son home while the latter is content to build new villas and find more emotional investment in paintings than he would with actual people. Getty Senior’s final scene in particular rings true of this, as he clutches to a painting of a mother and child as he dies in his lavish lair.

Money make take appearance of a typical Hollywood thriller and in many ways it is but Scott isn’t content to just present it that way. In many ways, this works as a sister film to Covenant, he lays it on thick with operatic presentation, female leads who go through hell (Daniels and Gail), villainous characters (David and Getty) who find more solace in things than they do human beings, gloomy but gorgeous color palettes and endings where the villains get the last laugh. The film’s music also has some parallels. When not using Jed Kurzel’s oppressive score, Scott looks to Wanger for David’s odyssey into godhood. Meanwhile, the great director leans on composer Daniel Pemberton to craft original compositions that match Getty’s grandeur. David sees himself as Ozymandias while Getty views himself as the reincarnation of Hadrian.

Though Money ultimate ends on a more positive note than Covenant does (the child is saved, Getty Senior dies alone), the scars of the incident continue to grow. The film’s final shot in particular feels as if Getty Senior’s controlling presence still looms over his family and other members, as evidenced in a bust that almost looks as if it’s piercing into the soul of Gail’s as she looks at Getty’s bust as if it were the real thing, tearful and fearful, while the music swells to an operatic crescendo. And that’s not even covering what happened in real life, which played out like a series of bits that’d wouldn’t be out of place in a tragic comedy.

Scott seems to relate more to the villains of his films here than he usually does. He always finds some semblance of humanity in them (look no further than Roy Batty’s eloquent final monologue at the end of Blade Runner) but here he doesn’t just find humanity in them; He relates to them. Despite being a genocidal mad scientist, David’s emotions are surprisingly genuine. His tearful justification (if it can be called that) of why he callously killed Elizabeth out not sharing his views for genetic advancement seem to come out of a place of actual sincerity. Meanwhile, as callous as it seems for a man with such wealth, Getty Senior does have a point of not paying the ransom, as it may spawn imitators. And he does genuinely love his children; Early flashbacks show him affectionately loving little Paul and giving him life lessons of the value of the family name.

But as in typical fashion for the great director, he needs a female heroine to lean on and both films definitely sport that, though one does it better than the other. Unlike typical productions these days, who go out of their shouting at the top of their lungs how proudly feminist they are, Scott’s been doing that subtly for the longest time and doing it before it was cool. Even if his protagonists are males, he does a good job at giving the ladies the care they need and both films gives examples of Scott heroines with Daniels and Gail. Of the two, Daniels is the least developed unfortunately. Though she does does good job at showing vulnerability and craftiness, she lacks depth to be a truly memorable character. On the other hand, you won’t see Gail shoot anyone but her courageous iron will and refusal to back down in such a horrible situation shows more of her character than any action see could have. At one moment, after being hounded by the paparazzi (with one reporter sporting bulging eyes demanding a mother should shed a tear for her son), she almost sarcastically but emotional states to Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg playing a finical stooge for Plummer) “Do they want me to cry? Is that it?”.

It’s going to be interesting to see where Scott goes from here after this one two punch. With the exception of The Martian, this decade has shown off a surprising weariness from the director. Not that he’s sunshine and roses all the time but this decade in particular shows him bearing his teeth, even in his twilight years. Maybe his bitterness wouldn’t be so amplified after his brother Tony’s tragic suicide and maybe that’s affected the soul of Scott’s work. His aforementioned Alien prequels, the utter nihilistic incomprehensibility of The Counselor, the almost atheistic approach to God in Exodus Gods and Kings – Whether nor not these films actually work as entertainment or coherent storytelling is one thing but as insight to what goes on in his noggin’, they can make for interesting think pieces. Even if he keeps making movies into his 90’s, I’ll always be there, even if they might not work fully.

(Alien Covenant is now streaming on HBO while All The Money In The World is releases today on video and streaming)