NB: The following contains spoilers for Blade Runner, Prometheus, The Counselor, plus a brief exploration of Exodus: Gods And Kings.
Having made the leap from commercials to feature filmmaking with 1977’s The Duelists, British director Ridley Scott has created a varied range of dramas, science fiction films, historical epics and gangster pictures.
Now in his late 70s, Scott shows no sign of slowing down; between 1980 and 1990, he directed four feature films. Between 2000 and 2010, he directed nine. Since 2012, Scott’s brought us one film annually, beginning with Prometheus, followed by The Counselor in 2013, Exodus: Gods And Kings this year, and The Martian scheduled for release in 2015.
It’s an extraordinary rate of production, and doesn’t even take into account all the other films and TV shows he oversees via his company Scott Free Productions. The sheer number and variety of Scott’s recent films is such that it’s difficult to see many unifying threads between them, other than his now well-established talent for arresting visuals.
In terms of subject matter, Scott appears to be something of a magpie, cherry-picking whatever story appeals to him in any given year. But his latest film, the biblical epic Exodus: Gods And Kings, exposes a common theme that connects to The Counselor and Prometheus, and in turn links all the way back to Blade Runner.
On the face of it, these films couldn’t be more different – one’s a dialogue-heavy thriller written by one of the most respected novelists currently working, Cormac McCarthy, another’s a sci-fi horror film, the next a Bible story. But beneath the genre surface, there’s a uniting element: a mortal character on the search for meaning.
In Prometheus, the entire mission to the stormy planet LV-223 – led by Noomi Rapace’s Shaw and Charlize Theron’s overbearing Vickers – is one of discovery and of finding existential answers. There, the crew discover that the race who created life on Earth are cruel and unfeeling, their methods seemingly inscrutable. The beings who made the vicious beast in Alien also made us.
Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce in inch-thick fright makeup) has his own agenda for sneaking off to the horror planet: to unlock the secret of life and hopefully grant himself immortality. Instead, he simply finds violence and death; clubbed over the head with his own creation (Michael Fassbender’s obsequious space butler David), he falls to the ground and is subjected to a last-breath revelation.
“There is nothing,” Weyland gasps. Lying next to him, David’s disembodied head offers no comfort: “I know,” comes the reply.
Peter Weyland’s is a futile journey that harks all the way back to Blade Runner, Ridley Scott’s second studio feature and perhaps still his most respected film. In it, doomed Replicant Roy Batty made an illegal trip to Earth’s Los Angeles circa 2019, where non-humans are shot on sight by hunter-killers like Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard.
Just like Peter Weyland, Batty hopes to meet his maker and gain an extension on his cruelly brief four-year lifespan. Batty’s maker is Dr Eldon Tyrell (Joe Turkell), a corporate boss and science genius in unfeasibly large glasses.
Tyrell reveals to Batty that a Replicant’s short life is set from birth and can’t be extended. Batty responds in distinctly human fashion: first with anger (brutally despatching Tyrell by crushing his skull), then with sadness, and ultimately, philosophical acceptance. As Harrison Ford’s voice-over in the original theatrical cut puts it (in thuddingly obvious terms), “Maybe in those last moments he loved life more than he ever had before. Not just his life, anybody’s life, my life…”
Last year, Scott made The Counselor, a doom-laden yet nevertheless curiously funny meditation on death and greed. About a nameless legal counsellor (Michael Fassbender) – who spends too much money and, when a consignment of cocaine is stolen, ends up on the hit-list of a Mexican drug cartel. On the face of it, the message behind Scott’s violent and decadent confection appears to be a simple, finger-wagging, “live within your means.”
But there’s also something else: the greater part of the film sees the counsellor running around and looking for a way to avoid his terrible fate. The Counselor essentially unfolds as a series of lengthy and somewhat uneven interviews. The upshot of each of them is broadly the same: there’s nothing you can do. The grim reaper’s on his way, and you’d best make your peace. One character tells the counsellor, “You are the world you have created. And when you cease to exist, that world you have created will also cease to exist.”
Exodus: Gods And Kings
Then we come to Exodus, the latest period epic from Ridley Scott, who’s directed plenty of them in the past: The Duelist, his debut, could be seen as an early taste of his interest in the genre. The Oscar-winning Gladiator established Scott’s talent for wrangling huge casts and bombastic set-pieces, while Kingdom Of Heaven demonstrated a knack for weaving in weighty themes among his action and colossal sets.
Exodus continues that form, with a film that doesn’t skimp on the action sequences, but is actually far more philosophical and less bombastic than its trailers might have implied. Christian Bale plays a soul-bearing and conflicted Moses, who’s a world away from the chest-out, upright holy man embodied by Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments.
Expelled from Egypt and receiving a mission from God in the middle of a storm, Moses returns to Memphis to free his enslaved people, the Israelites. When the preening Ramesses (Joel Edgerton) stubbornly refuses to let the Israelites go, God unleashes a series of increasingly destructive plagues.
From beginning to end, the Moses of Scott’s film isn’t so much a character emboldened by his holy calling as left buckling under the weight of it. Like the Engineers in Prometheus, the God of Exodus is depicted as an unknowable, potentially uncaring and possibly even deranged force of nature. Exodus could even be described as an existential biblical epic. God’s appearance to Moses doesn’t inspire faith in either him or the audience, but further questions. Are Moses’ visions real, or are they hallucinations? If the Almighty does exist, why is he so cruel as to rain down such pain and suffering on ordinary mortals?
“Is this your God?” Ramesses asks Moses in one particularly haunting moment. “Killer of children?”
Earlier this month, I met production designer Arthur Max, who’s worked with Ridley Scott on all of his feature films since 1997’s GI Jane. “Do you think it’s an existential film?” I asked.
“Oh, very much so,” Max said. “Absolutely.”
“Moses isn’t a man of moral absolutes,” I added. “He’s no more sure about where he is with God at the end than the beginning.”
“I think that’s why Christian Bale was quoted as saying, ‘Moses is a schizophrenic’,” Max told me. “And everybody got into an uproar about it. We always knew we were going to offend a lot of people somehow…”
“Death smiles at us all. All a man can do is smile back.” – Gladiator
Controversy aside, Exodus and Scott’s other recent films form a distinct worldview when taken together. Whether they’re dealing with science fiction, a Bible story or a drug thriller, they all offer the same view of a chaotic and often cruel universe.
Cormac McCarthy once observed that, in tragedies, the central character only has to make one mistake in order to meet his ugly fate, whereas some people can do horrible things for their entire lives and meet a peaceful end on their bed at the ripe old age of 102.
That perspective on life may have been what interested Scott in making McCarthy’s The Counselor screenplay in the first place, since it dovetails perfectly with the undercurrents in the films he’s made either side of them. Could it be that, as he’s grown older, Scott has begun to think a little bit like Roy Batty in Blade Runner? It would certainly explain why his most recent work has resurrected some of the most urgent and powerful themes in that film, and why, after more than three decades away from Blade Runner, he decided to make a sequel.
At the time of writing, it’s still unclear whether Scott will direct the long-in-gestation Blade Runner 2. But according to recent interviews, it’ll have a great deal in common with the 1982 original. “It’s a very nice, logical and emotional evolution of the very first film,” Scott told Entertainment Weekly. “[…] I was very much involved in writing it and fundamentally came up with the idea of what it is.”
It seems logical, then, that Blade Runner 2 will continue to explore the same existential themes as his most recent films. Most obviously, the imminence of death, and the human struggle to find meaning in the face of it.