First off, I am not saying that Wes Anderson and Ridley Scott, two auteurs with new movies in theaters, will not someday surpass their best films: that kind of prediction is impossible and counterproductive. But it must be admitted that they set the bar high, and neither has yet leaped over it.
I'm an inveterate, unrepentant Anderson partisan. Even "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou," his weakest film, achieves in the CGI wonderment of its submerged finale an easy, deep understanding of friendship and love. His latest, "Moonrise Kingdom," is likewise a sweet, poetic take on runaway young love and an approaching storm. This is an apt metaphor for growing up, though one that is a bit too on-the-nose, combining the themes of his prior work — part coming-of-age tale ("Rushmore"), part family dramedy ("The Royal Tenenbaums"), part island caper ("The Life Aquatic"). In his finest hour, the stakes are subtly raised: nothing he's made matches the familial detritus of "The Royal Tenenbaums" (2001) for emotion or audacity.
In his off-kilter designs, so gorgeously wrought, one sees the fragments he's shored against his ruins, building a home from the things we keep around to remind us of the people we used to be. In "Tenenbaums" above his other films, Anderson found the subject matter that best suited his intricate — some would say mannered — style. I don't know another film that captures with such precision the meaning of memorabilia, the way we gather up totems of nostalgia to stave off the process of breaking down.
There Anderson softened the scalpel he wielded in "Rushmore," but in doing so found a warmer register that has defined his work ever since. From its opening montage, a brilliant gloss on this "Family of Geniuses," the film balances every prick of Mark Mothersbaugh's pizzicato theme with a look backward at triumph, and every frame thereafter moves toward recapturing some semblance of that former glory. Notice that the grown children (here I include Royal, the eternal child), returning home to make another go of it, want the things as well as the feelings to be the same as what they were. They want to find in the closet something they think they've lost.
Perhaps my trouble here is in evaluating a director whose films share so much common ground. Perhaps it's that "Tenenbaums" pioneered the Anderson style the way we've come to know it, as though its freshness rubbed off and won't wash away. His lasting accomplishment, though, was to make this very specific family a finely drawn stand-in for every mistake and miscalculation, every memory and every moment of belonging, that you or I have experienced in our families, too. It leads to the inevitable question: if the work that defined your directorial sensibility is so damn good, what can you do to follow it up?
The question is a particularly potent one if such success came early, as it did for Ridley Scott. Three of his first seven features, "Alien" (1979), "Blade Runner" (1982), and "Thelma & Louise" (1991) are rightly regarded as classics. If "Prometheus" is not quite a return to form, despite its close ties to the exquisitely terrifying "Alien," it at least suggests a step in the right direction — away from the middling portliness of everything he's made since "Gladiator."
Though Scott builds with real beauty on the overall mythology of the series, too many of the characters, like Charlize Theron's chilly corporate observer, remain in relative stasis throughout. Some of the cogs (Michael Fassbender is the standout) are terribly effective, but they don't work in unison with the same natural verve that marked "Alien." By comparison, the fluid development of the crew of the Nostromo is especially skillful: Ripley and Ash's relationship counts on each character to thrust and parry, to grow symbiotically as they devolve into hateful antagonism.
"Prometheus" seems closer kin, really, to James Cameron's "Aliens," hurtling forward via explosions and technological advancement. The pacing of Scott's first two forays into science fiction was courageously temperate; rare — perhaps even nonexistent — is the extraterrestrial adventure or post-apocalyptic thriller of the last three decades that does not owe something to his superbly evocative atmospherics. The direction of "Alien" creates a perfect, eerie passivity, in which everything comes as a surprise: the sudden disappearance of "the facehugger" is so unsettling because we sense that something terrible is bound to happen, but have no idea what shape it will take.
It would be hard under any circumstance to exceed successes like "Alien" or "The Royal Tenebaums," films the mere mention of which can elicit vivid sensations. For both directors, more exceptional work may be in the offing. But even if their best is in the past, we'll always have the memories, and thankfully the DVDs, too.