The legend turns 80 today.
“People say I pay too much attention to the look of a movie but for God’s sake, I’m not producing a Radio 4 Play for Today, I’m making a movie that people are going to look at.”
Let me be blantly upfront with this article I’m about to write: Ridley Scott is my favorite filmmaker. I don’t care how much try and convince me he’s a hack with a good visual sensibility or he’s lost the plot these days or he’s only made two decent movies; The man is a world builder. Auteur. A genuine visionary. His approach to storytelling, when paired with the right material, is second to none. From ancient Egypt to the streets of Harlem to the far reaches of space, Scott’s entire oeuvre practically spans the entirety of human life. Theoretically, you could make the argument all of his films are connected or even take place in the same universe thanks to a majority of them revisiting similar themes again and again to his distinct visual style. Of course, not all of his films work; He’s had just as good movies as he does bad. For every Gladiator or The Martian, we’ll have to slog through something like The Counselor or Exodus Gods and Kings to get to the good stuff. That’s almost his crippling flaw: He sinks or swim with a screenplay. Oh, it’ll look pretty for sure and sometimes, it seems like he’ll just make “movie X” just because he thought what was ever in the script would make for a great visual moment instead of a coherent script.
But then the stars align every once in awhile and it results in miraculous cinema. There’s a reason why he’s considered a grandfather of Science Fiction with classics like the original Alien and Blade Runner, both of which have held a massive influence over the genre as a whole, with the latter of which seemingly out of accident due to a disastrous production and executive meddling. Whenever he cranks a new film, regardless of the subject matter, my ears perk up and my eyes are locked on what comes next. But let’s take a step back and take a look at his career as whole, from humble to beginnings to where he is now at the ripe old age of 80.
Ridley Scott was born on November 30th, 1937 in South Shields County Durham in England along with two other brothers, Tony and Frank. He was always a fan of Science Fiction at a very young age, starting with the works of HG Wells and continually elevating with films like The Day The Earth Stood Still and Them!, until Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 A Space Odyssey fully convinced him to embrace the genre as a whole. While he was in College during the 60’s, he crafted his first short film called Boy and Bicycle with his brother Tony. To date, that little film is Scott’s sole writing credit. During this period and the 70’s, Scott continually kept on making short films and commercial work, which according to Scott the latter is made up well over 2,000 of these. Soon, however, he would start to make official films with his first feature: The Duelists.
Based off of the Joseph Conrad story The Duel and starring Harvey Keitel and Keith Carradine, the film was seen as an excellent debut for the director, evening earning him a prize at Cannes for “Best First Work” and even snagging a few BAFTA nominations for costuming and cinematography. This would also serve as his calling card to Hollywood, as the film caught the attention of some big wigs for him to tackle a project at the time called “Star Beast” or as it would later be known as, Alien. Once he got his hands on it, production was not without its issues but once released, the film became an instant classic for audiences, due to its haunting used future design, terrifying creature that was the embodiment of sexual horrors and for launching the career of one Sigourney Weaver, who would become a feminist icon in the land of cinema for her character of Ellen Ripley, the sole survivor of the ship being hunted by its hermaphrodite monstrosity.
He would return to Sci-Fi again in his follow up. Originally he was going to what would later became David Lynch’s infamous Dune adaptation but due to aesthetic choices that seemed to similar to his previous film and the death of his brother Frank, he decided not to go back into space but instead to Los Angeles 2019 in a world getting worse and worse due to overpopulation and bad weather. Based off of the Philip K. Dick novel Do Androids Dream Electric Sheep?, Blade Runner had a tumultuous production, the first of what would be quite a few in Scott’s career. From Scott’s insistence of doing multiple takes to obnoxious degrees to its cinematographer having failing health and last minute rewrites, improvisions and executive meddling to make the film “easier for audiences”, Blade Runner received mixed responses and lackluster box office at the time but would later be rediscovered on home video for a new audience to see it as the classic piece of Science Fiction that it is. Its view of the future it terrifying but beautiful all at once, Vangelis’ iconic score truly feels otherworldly and its surreal approach to storytelling is wonderfully patient. Eventually, Scott would get to complete Blade Runner the way he wanted to with Director’s Cuts in 1992 and 2007, the latter version called the “Final Cut”.
The rest of the 80’s was relatively sedate for Scott; His fantasy tale Legend had a production stretched out over years thanks to set and cast issues while also not doing well at the box office and critics (footage was also lost for a long time, until it was rediscovered and allowed Scott to complete the film as close as he wanted it to be) but also gave us one of the most iconic depictions of Satan ever put on film thanks to the always wonderful Tim Curry. His follow ups weren’t all that big of a deal either, with them being cop thrillers such as Someone To Watch Over Me and Black Rain, though the latter do very solid box office. The 90’s, however, were something of a roller coaster for the director.
In 1991, Scott got his hands on a script by Callie Khouri called Thelma and Louise, what might just be one of his most emotionally tender works. Starring Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis, this road trip film was a major success on all fronts, even earning Scott his first Oscar nod as director. From the chemistry of its wonderful lead actresses to its heartbreaking finale, the film became an instant classic for many and one of the few films in Scott’s career than can proudly be called feminist without attracting a swarm of male hornets into a frenzy. However, this would wind up being the only consistent hit of this particular decade, as he spiraled into into string of flops one way or the other.
The first one was his failed Christopher Colombus epic 1492: Conquest of Paradise, starring Gérard Depardieu and reuniting Scott with Sigourney Weaver, the film was a colossal flop for Scott, with terrible box office returns and an icy cold reception, mainly for its inaccuracies and over ambition on its story. The follow ups Scott cranked out afterwards weren’t much to make a stink about either, in the form of White Squall and GI Jane. They had their own successes (the former earned better reviews than either two but bombed, while the latter had the opposite effect) and in any other situation, this would be the nail in the coffin for any filmmaker. But not Scott. Not by a long shot.
It was the beginning of the new millennium and Scott came roaring back with one hell of an epic by the name of Gladiator, the tale of roman revenge between the heroic Maximus Decimus Meridius (Russell Crowe, in a star making and Oscar winning role) against the snide and pathetic Commodus (played with appropriate awfulness by Joaquin Phoenix). Celebrated for its quotable lines, rip roaring spectacle, stunning visuals, emotional score and tearjerker of a finale, the film would net Scott’s second directorial nod at the Academy Awards while also scooping up Best Picture. This is especially amazing considering the troubles he had to deal with during filming, from script issues to one of its main actors (Oliver Reed) dying during production. But Scott was not done yet. A year later, he would double down and crank out two pictures in a row: A sequel to Silence of The Lambs and a War film that depicted contemporary combat in the same way Saving Private Ryan did for World War II films. These films were called Hannibal and Black Hawk Down.
The former was something of a mixed bag in terms of successes. It was already fighting an uphill battle by being a sequel to one of the most legendary horror films ever made from a source material that was already pretty divisive, not to mention losing some of its main cast and talent from the original. Reviews were as expected: Not particularly good but the film found incredible financial fortune, besting both domestic and international numbers in the middle of February of all things. Not a bad trade off if you ask me. The latter, on the other hand, managed to pull off both feats excellently. A long, loud and brutal examination of the Mogadishu conflict and how much of a clusterfuck it was, it unintentionally came out at the worst time possible, just a few months after the 9/11 attacks, almost eerily foreshadowing what was to come with the United States’ War with Iraq. But even putting politics aside, the film remains a powerful and disorienting experience, relentless in its violence and despair for both soldiers and the natives. This film also wound giving Ridley Scott his third Oscar nod as director, though surprisingly nothing for Best Picture that year.
In prep for his failed epic Tripoli (which would later become Kingdom of Heaven, more on that later), Scott did a quirky little comedy crime drama called Matchstick Men. Starring Nicholas Cage when he still had dignity, Sam Rockwell and Alison Lohman, the film can be seen – and according to the commentary, Scott agrees – as a spiritual successor to Thelma and Louise, almost right down to the visual style. A story about a neurotic con man finding out he has a daughter he never knew about, it was very well received for its nice mix of drama and humor not to mention twists and turns but wound up coming up short at the box office. Still, it was just prep work for the real movie he was about to do just a few years later.
Kingdom of Heaven is one of Ridley Scott’s best films that never got a chance. A true epic in every sense of the word set during the crusades, it had an all star cast (Orlando Bloom, Eva Green, Liam Neeson, Edward Norton, etc) and was one of Scott’s most blatantly political films due to its sympathetic portrayal of muslims during the height of the War on Terror. When it was released in 2005 in the middle of the same month as Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of The Sith, it did not get the most positive recognition, failing domestically at the box office (though it did better internationally) and receiving mediocre reviews criticizing its underdeveloped themes and characters. However, the version that wound up theaters was not his true cut of the film. Scott battled with the executives (and even himself) over the length of the film, arguing audiences couldn’t handle a three hour movie, not to mention mismarketing the film to make it look like Gladiator in the crusades rather than the drama that was made. However, like some of Scott’s other films, KOH got a second chance on home video where his full was presented in all of its glory. And the final film itself is a glorious masterwork in every sense of the word. It was even one of the first films that studio 20th Century Fox ever put on Blu-Ray to boot. Nowadays, what was once seen as a mediocre and incomplete epic is now seen as a genuine masterpiece and one of the best films he’ll ever do (for some, it was even the last good movie from Scott).
The films he made afterwards in the rest of the 2000’s were a bit weird. A Good Year, his stab at doing a romantic comedy with Russell Crowe and Marion Cotillard, belly flopped both ways but also followed that up with American Gangster, a period piece crime drama that also had Crowe and Denzel Washington which was about the reign of Frank Lucas during the 70’s. Though it didn’t receive much awards attention, it did however net Scott solid reviews and box office. The next two movies he did with Crowe, Body of Lies and Robin Hood (his first film in the 2010’s) weren’t much in the ways of successes either. But his next film after those would show him going back to a genre he hadn’t touched in a long time: Science Fiction. And it would also be his first stab at trying out 3D to boot. It was to be an Alien prequel called Alien: Engineers but Scott was not satisfied with just making something as straightforward as that, complete with a rather extensive and ambitious rewrite and a title change to boot.
That project was called Prometheus.
And whoa boy did Prometheus make a splash with audience. Despite positive reviews and excellent box office for what it was, the film remains one of the most divisive Science Fiction epics of the new 10’s. Though both sides for and against the film would agree on its visual grandeur, responses towards the story and overall script go straight into Love It Or Hate It territory. Some love it for its grand scale, themes, characters and pace while others hated it for its characters not making the best decisions that wind up costing their asses, dialogue and accuse of it of having an identity crisis. Still, it introduced new ideas to the universe of Alien and the next two films that would come after Prometheus from Scott would make the film look downright perfect by comparison.
Those two movies were called The Counselor and Exodus Gods and Kings, both controversial works in their own odd ways. The former was a project birthed out of the fact Scott couldn’t get Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian from page to screen (a script was written by William Monahan, who worked with Scott before on Kingdom of Heaven and Body of Lies but couldn’t make it do to the novel’s absurdly graphic nature) so Scott elected to get a script straight the from source. The story was of a morality tale where a slick lawyer tries to get a little more than what he gets usually but his greed winds up biting him and everyone around square in the ass. However, what works in a book doesn’t exactly work to a screenplay and the results showed, due to its characters endlessly spewing monologues about life and death and greed to infinitum while the storytelling was vague as hell. But like any oddity this decade, it has gained a small but passionate following, with fellow filmmakers like Edgar Wright and Guillermo Del Toro cheering the film’s toxic insanity. The Counselor was also something of a rough shoot for Scott, as his brother Tony died in a tragic suicide causing Ridley to halt production to give him time to grieve.The latter, on the other hand, was looked upon even less so due to its casting choices of caucasian actors playing Egyptians and the simple fact that Scott somehow took the story of Moses and made it lifeless. But almost as if history was repeating itself, the next film Scott would make after these dominoes would bring back from the brink in a big way.
The Martian, an adaptation of Andy Weir’s Science Fiction survival drama about an Astronaut stranded on Mars, was a script that landed on Scott’s desk right before he was about to do Alien: Paradise Lost (which would later have its subtitle be called Covenant) courtesy of original writer-director Drew Goddard being busy with other projects. Starring Matt Damon and a slew of other big names (of which included Jessica Chastain, Kate Mara, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jeff Daniels and more), the film was a smash hit for Scott, doing well in its October release and becoming Scott’s most financially viable film to do date (a budget of 100 million but earning well over 600 worldwide). It also earned a slew of awards attention for him, including winning the Golden Globe for Best Picture (though in the Musical or Comedy category, something of which even made him raise an eyebrow) and a bunch of Oscar nods, including one for him serving as a producer in the Best Picture category. Out of all of the pictures Scott had directed, The Martian might just be him at his most idealistic, almost to the point of it being out of character for the often grim and dour director. Even his reasoning for the choosing the project was weird, mainly because he thought it made him laugh.
But all of the idealism that The Martian had produced from Scott took a drastic 180 in his follow up and long belated Prometheus sequel, Alien Covenant, quite possibly one of Ridley Scott’s most cynical and downright hateful films to date. It’s an unrepentantly nasty piece of work, drowning in its nihilism as it seeming delights in watching horrifying things happen to people who really aren’t deserving what’s coming to them, all the while ending on a note that while predictable is also gleefully sinister. Though the film earned solid reviews from critics, box office and fan reception were underwhelming despite having a reduced budget that its predecessor had. Still, there are plans to wrap things up according to Scott, with the next film to be called Awakening and written by John Logan (Penny Dreadful). His upcoming project All The Money In The World, based off of a blacklist screenplay about the kidnapping of John Paul Getty III and how his own grandfather refused to pay the ransom, was to premiere at AFI Fest but wound up in a slew of controversy when one of its main stars, Kevin Spacey, was accused of sexually abusing men of all ages. Wasting very little time, Scott cut Spacey from the film wholesale and replaced him with Christopher Plummer, all while trying to hold on to its current release for the 22nd of December. Can he make it in time and more importantly, will the quality remain despite the rush? Apparently, yes he could.
Despite all of his inconsistencies, Scott has proven himself to be quite a name in the industry. His grasp on visuals, ability to get great performances out of his performers regardless of the material, managing to never go over budget. And then there’s the themes/stylistic choices Scott keeps coming back to again and again in his films: The death of the father either somehow tied to the hero/villain’s motivations, the use of cool blues and smoke, the presence of the military in some capacity, independent women, an odd emphasis on hands being damaged in some way and endings that are never easy, even outright being a downer note. Even if all of these tropes are never uniformly in all of his movies, it’s easy to pick out the ones that do make use of at least one or two of these. Hell, even Prometheus outright summarizes Scott’s obsession of dead fathers when Michael Fassbender’s David to protagonist Elizabeth Shaw “Doesn’t everyone want their parents dead?”.
Scott has also been one of the progenitors in the medium of film for the popularity of director and extended cuts for movies, thanks to all of the various versions of Blade Runner crawling around. Films like Alien, Blade Runner, Legend, Gladiator, Black Hawk Down, Kingdom of Heaven, American Gangster, Robin Hood, The Counselor and The Martian all have extended versions in some way shape or form, even when he doesn’t want them! And with some of these, they even show how powerful editing can make or break a movie, with KOH being the most egregious example of this. Unfortunately, this longer versions of his films come at a price, as he’s been show to willing compromise with studios to get his films out, even if it comes at the cost of their quality. In his commentary for The Counselor, Scott mentioned that when he was forced to trim down the some of the film’s nastier scenes, he accused them of being “prudes”.
However, for all of his faults, I will always keep my eyes on whatever project he has lined up regardless of the subject matter and may he continue to live many years. Hats off to ya, you wonderfully cranky old bastard!