No, seriously, someone needs to stop Ridley Scott before he sits behind the camera and calls the shots once more. Three decades ago, his was an artistic auteur, the revisionist re-inventor of science fiction as a haunted house with monster movie (Alien), a brilliant bit of speculation as savvy film noir (Blade Runner) and a form of frothy fantasy with one eye on visuals and another on otherworldly narrative (Legend). But ever since the end of the ‘80s, when success lead to sloppy choices like Someone to Watch Over Me, Black Rain, 1492: Conquest of Paradise, and White Squall, he was ready to be written off. Not even the phenomenal success of Thelma and Louise, or the equally compelling commercial gender take of GI Jane could erase the façade of failure.
Still, he persevered, and ended up rediscovering some of his muse with Gladiator. Then he ruined it again with the horrible Silence of the Lambs sequel Hannibal. Once more, he rose from the ashes of aesthetic “collapse” to give us the exciting Black Hawk Down. Since then, however, there’s been the uneven Matchstick Men, the saved by a DVD director’s cut Kingdom of Heaven, the horrific A Good Year, and the mediocre American Gangster. After 2008’s lazy Body of Lies, rumors began flying about Scott’s desire to return to his roots, so to speak. Geek Nation went ga-ga over news that he wanted to revisit the Alien franchise, perhaps building a prequel out of the space jockey’s story. He’s also announced intended genre adaptations of The Forever War and Brave New World.
What he gave us, instead, was Robin Hood, a hackneyed, redirected preface to the whole ‘outlaw of Nottingham’ nonsense. Originally, the film was going to focus on a heroic Sheriff to be played by seminal Scott sidekick Russell Crowe. Then there was talk that the star would saddle up for a double role - as both good guy and bad (the question, of course, was who was who). There was also talk of the Sheriff as Richard the Lionhearted’s right hand man, a CSI investigator type approach, and what finally made it into the movie, a political bent that had Robin defending the realm by demanding inherent rights from the despotic King John. The minute Crowe became immersed in the pre-production, he demanded massive rewrites. Within months, the revisionist look at the knave who robbed from the rich and gave to the poor was turned into a traditional battle between laymen good and royal evil.
For want of a better title, this is an origin story. Robin is seen as one of Richard’s chief archers, as well as an outspoken member of the brigade. He is not afraid to tell His Majesty the truth. When the King is killed, Robin assumed the identity of one of the knights, travels to Nottingham to deliver a deathbed promise, and agrees to help the aging Sir Walter Loxley save his land for his daughter, Marion. In the meantime, a confidant of the crown named Godfrey double crosses his country, selling out England to the French in order to…well, we don’t really know why. Along the way, there’s massive taxation without representation (or consideration for the people), a Magna Carta like attempt at giving some power to the populace, and the introduction of Robin’s future men of merry - Friar Tuck (a beekeeper), Little John (an earnest oaf), Will Scarlett (cheeky) and Alan A’Dayle (a minstrel who almost never shuts up).
Sadly, Scott brings nothing new to the myth or the moviemaking formula for same. It’s tough to say this but, aside from the overreliance on over-cranked handheld battle scenes, there is nothing here to indicate that the man who made Alien or Blade Runner was behind the lens - and it’s been that way for a while. In the past, Scott was criticized for giving his films a flashy, ad agency sensibility (he got his start in commercials). Apparently, said disapproval stuck, and he has been moving slowly away from the style ever since. Oddly enough, a movie like Robin Hood needs a little of the Legend touch. It needs more magic, more majesty, less dirt and grit and more sense of swashbuckling and derring-do. Do we want another repeat of the Kevin Costner fiasco from a few years back? Hell no. Do we expect more from the man who’s shown such a propensity to amaze before? Abso-friggin’-lutely.
One word you’d never think Ridley Scott would resort to is “autopilot”. Another is “redundant” - and yet that’s exactly what Robin Hood feels like. It’s Gladiator ported over to the Medieval times. All that’s missing are the dead wife and child and the waving fields of grain. When you watch what Scott is doing here, you are instantly reminded of far better films - but should one of them really be thinking about Monty Python and the Holy Grail here? During the raid on a French castle, the viewer keeps waiting for a solider to peek over and tell King Richard that his mother was a hamster and his father smelled of elderberries. Even worse, efforts like 300 and The Lord of the Rings have rendered such perfunctory period pieces obsolete. What is missing here is the sense of the epic, of a scope that moves beyond gorgeous countryside to something on an emotional and/or cosmic level.
Indeed, that’s what’s absent from Scott’s current crop of crap. There is no need for a film nerd or genre dork to invest themselves in what have rapidly become workmanlike Hollywood mainstream mediocrity. There’s no dazzle, no pizzazz, not feeling one remembers from seeing Tim Curry’s Dark Lord in full man goat regalia, or the stunning LA skyline with its gas fires and office building pyramids. Scott has clearly decided to diet, losing the eye candy in service of stars, ego, and his own sense of purpose. No one can question the man’s own personal goals. He clearly has enough clout to make the movies he wants to make. But what does is say about Scott that this is where he’s wanted to take his career over the last two decades. Thelma and Louise is understandable. But A Good Year? Not even Crowe could make that unfunny flat comedy work.
Maybe the Alien film (or films, as now is the buzz) are just what he needs. Maybe he’s sick of taking the fat Tinseltown paychecks and catering to the demands of his above the marquee A-list accessories. Perhaps he is capable of recapturing the magic, the feeling of freshness and cinematic joie de vive that entrapped us long ago. Lord knows we could use a visionary right now, what with the Shawn Levy’s and Michael Lembeck’s making mincemeat out of onscreen entertainment. Until he’s ready to regain his meaningful place among moviemakers, however, someone needs to take the directing reigns away from Ridley Scott - if only temporarily. He’s only hurting himself…and his audience.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where costs have risen and advertising has dropped precipitously. We need your help to keep PopMatters strong and growing. Thank you.