I figured it out. The reason Ridley Scott has been so preoccupied with pushing David, Michael Fassbender’s android character, to the center of the Alien franchise is because Ridley Scott himself is a goddamn machine.
Even though I didn’t love Alien: Covenant, I can recognize what a remarkable technical accomplishment it is. Making one of these giant-budget franchise movies is a punishing experience, and it never surprises me when someone needs to take some time away after. Instead, Ridley Scott does the Spielberg thing where it always feels like they’re making two or three movies at the same time, somehow staggering the entire filmmaking process. That feat doesn’t even take into account the difficulty of deciding to reshoot an entire role after you’ve finished a film because of sexual assault accusations made against one of its stars, all while still planning to make the original release date. For the final film to show as few seams as this one does is amazing, and even without factoring any of that in, it’s a solid, uneven, anxious adult thriller about a truly horrible public figure.
Anyone who says they would not want the freedom that comes with wealth is lying, and anyone who says they know for sure how they would handle it without actually experiencing it is lying as well. Real wealth changes not just the person who has it, but the world around them. Real wealth opens doors. Hell, real wealth creates doors where there were none. Real wealth has a distortion field that it creates, and stepping through it can reveal who someone really is just as easily as it can destroy that person if they’re not ready for it. There are few better case studies in what wealth does to someone than the life story of J. Paul Getty. If you live in Los Angeles, his name is connected to museums and charity. If you study his legacy, though, words like “exploitation” and “avarice” and “inhumanity” seem more appropriate, and no incident better illustrated how much he valued money over human life, much less his own family, than when his grandson Paul Getty III was kidnapped.
Kevin Spacey played J. Paul Getty in the original cut of this film, and Christopher Plummer stepped in late in the game, but you’d never know it based on his work. While I think the film as a whole is good, not great, I would make the case that Plummer tore into his role with a zeal that is as impressive as the energy summoned by Ridley Scott to make the swap look like such an organic part of the film. Plummer’s more appropriate to the idea of this aged, haunted take on JPG. At no point does Scott try to ask you to see Getty as someone warm or sympathetic, but the film does offer up a glimpse at the loneliness that Getty couldn’t process or address. He tries desperately to fill that hole in himself with things, but the tax dodge he uses ends up accidentally enabling the best things that have ever been attached to his name. Scott seems interested in landing some punches on the ugliest behavior in the film, and there is some really strong material here. But it’s undercut by the subplot involving Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg), Getty’s all-purpose man of action. Wahlberg is completely miscast in the role, and the weird, vague threat of a romantic subplot involving Gail Harris (Michelle Williams), the estranged mother of the kidnapped boy, strikes me as both false and gross considering the circumstances.
Williams does solid work here, even if she does seem to be rodeo-riding that accent, constantly on the verge of being thrown off by it. She’s the human heart of the movie, the one Getty who doesn’t understand how anyone can put a price on a human life. The movie really fails in the way it makes her ex-husband (Andrew Buchan) into a drug-addled ghost, but never a character. I’m not sure he has more than ten lines of dialogue in the whole thing. The ways they bent the story for fictional purpose confused me, since the real story has so many crazy twists and turns, but it all appears to be focused on making this a struggle between Gail and Getty. She’s the one person to ever enter his orbit who escapes it without being ruined by the money, and he hates that. Most of the film feels like his struggle to assert control over her, by whatever means he can, even if it means allowing something or someone he genuinely adores to be destroyed.
Dariusz Wolski’s photography is gorgeous and burnished, and even more incredible when you see how much of the film actually involves Plummer. I’m not sure what they rebuilt, what they shot on locations, and what they dropped him into digitally, but it’s remarkable work. Daniel Pemberton’s score is appropriate and does a good job at cranking up the anxiety. In general, the thing this film does best is create a low-grade feeling that something awful could happen at any moment, and there are a few where things tip over into the worst case scenario. Charlie Plummer is a passive presence as the kidnapped kid, and that feels like a flaw in the film. He barely registers as a character, so it’s hard to get invested in his eventual fate. It’s all handsomely staged, and there’s a certain degree of urgency, but there are these strange dramatic holes that keep the film from really landing.
That’s Ridley Scott, though. As much as he blows me away technically, and as good as he is at certain things, he is capable of delivering films that feel like they were made by artificial intelligence. Many of his films lack a sort of basic human warmth that might make the difference in how they work as a whole, and it doesn’t seem like he particularly cares. They are films that are about the spaces in which the stories take place as much as they are about the people in the stories, sometimes even more so. This goes in the lesser column for Scott, with a footnote that he did pull off the miraculous. Considering Plummer is one of the highlights of the film, it is impressive that Scott pulled the replacement off, but it also raises the question of how much worse this would have been with a make-up laden Kevin Spacey in the part instead.
Running time: 132 minutes
Drew McWeeny | Chief Film Critic