Back to IndieWire

The Films Of Ridley Scott: A Retrospective

The Films Of Ridley Scott: A Retrospective

Ridley Scott is, in some circles anyhow, a god. Practically treated as royalty with laudatory genuflection from certain film enthusiasts — generally genre fetishists — he has turned in two unimpeachable cinema touchstones, “Blade Runner” and “Alien,” plus a few other arguable modern semi-classics including “Black Hawk Down” (though as you’ll see, not all us here agree with that assessment) and “Gladiator.” But his track record overall? Scott’s batting average isn’t exactly amazing across the board, and while he has major peaks, his work can be frustratingly uneven for someone who is clearly and masterfully talented. While a craftsman of technically marvelous and grand spectacle cinema, his films can also be inordinately soulless and have become increasingly so with each film (Sigourney Weaver famously said that Scott paid more attention to the props and extraterrestrials than the actors on “Alien,” but somehow that picture still worked).

And while his latest, “Prometheus,” has plenty of fans, and is inspiring all kinds of arguments, many who’ve already seen it feel that it’s another gorgeous, impeccably made misfire from the director. Scott is a great world builder, a great technician, and has plenty of facility with actors when he wants, but a look back over his career reveals just as many misses as hits. To mark the release of “Prometheus,” we’ve given our retrospective from two years ago a fresh lick of paint: below, you’ll find our take on the complete films of Ridley Scott. It’s sure to spark plenty of debate — let us know what you think in the comments section below.

The Duellists” (1977)
Scott’s first feature, which won him the Camera d’Or at Cannes, feels quite different from anything else that followed. It’s a stripped-down, vaguely allegorical tale, adapted from Joseph Conrad‘s short story, “The Duel,” about the decades-long feud between two French soldiers, D’Hubert (Keith Carradine) and Feraud (Harvey Keitel), who find themselves clashing swords every time they meet after Feraud takes insult at a perceived slight to his honor. It’s as visually sumptuous and detailed as you might expect, even at this early stage (even if it’s clearly, and admittedly, indebted to “Barry Lyndon“), it’s relatively lean and compelling when it’s not pursuing redundant romantic sub-plots, at least. But Carradine and Keitel are both woefully miscast — particularly when put up against the supporting cast, which includes Albert Finney, Edward Fox, Robert Stephens and Diana Quick — and stand out like sore thumbs in the world that Scott’s created. Still, it’s kind of a fascinating oddity in the director’s canon. [B-]

Alien” (1979)
Still Scott’s greatest film and better than James Cameron’s sequel, the director’s sci-fi horror is an exercise in minimalistic terror, manifesting it in the most unknowable, terrifying extraterrestrial creature ever seen on screen. Now that it’s part of film history, it’s hard to realize how surprising the film must have been at the time, sitting down in the theater, and not knowing that Sigourney Weaver would turn out to be the lead, or exactly what happens in that dinner scene. But even if years of homages, rip-offs and shoddy sequels have lessened the impact, it still retains its power to terrify. If anything, “Prometheus” only goes to reinforce the original film’s power, rather than lessening it, fortunately…  [A+]

Blade Runner” (1982)
What’s left to say about “Blade Runner” at this point? A flop on its release, it’s proven a massive influence on virtually every sci-fi movie, videogame and comic book since, and remains one of the most complete, coherent visions of a future ever put on screen that feels completely in step with dystopian classics like “Brave New World,” and “1984.” Whichever version of the film you watch — the pulpy Philip Marlowe original or the existentially introspective director’s cut — you walk away at the credits feeling like you’ve spent months in Los Angeles 2019 and, despite the bleak rain-soaked atmosphere, you’d go back again in a heartbeat. But it’s not just an exercise in world-creation; the noirish plot is gripping and the performances are uniformly outstanding. [A+]

Legend” (1985)
As dated and corny as Ridley Scott’s fantasy film can feel these days, the picture does get a lot of things right. Among them, the atmospheric, gauzy, elf-like aesthetics straight from the fairy world from whence it came, a dreamy score by Tangerine Dream, a wonderfully romantic closing number by sharp dressed Roxy Music gentleman Bryan Ferry, and what feels like a rare appearance by ’80s hottie Mia Sara. It’s also pretty damn quotable (“Black as midnight, black as pitch, blacker than the foulest witch!” says the stinky little Goblin Blix) or at least… it was at the time. Sure the sets are a bit cheesy, but as a pre-“The Lord of the Rings” fairy goblins romance fantasy flick, it was certainly one of the better ones of its time. [B]

Someone to Watch Over Me” (1987)
After three fantasy/sci-fi pictures, Scott headed to the contemporary world for the kind of sexually charged thriller that his old advertising colleague Adrian Lyne was having such success with around the same time. “Someone to Watch Over Me” tells the tale of a cop (Tom Berenger) assigned to protect a murder witness (Mimi Rogers), and it’s a treat to see Scott take on Manhattan with the same kind of eye he shot “Blade Runner” with (right down to borrowing some of Vangelis‘ score). And some of the performances — Berenger’s steely working class cop, and particularly Lorraine Bracco as his wife — are just about worth the price of admission. But the two leads have little chemistry, and the script is rote and kind of ridiculous, down to Andreas Katsulas’ overblown villain. It’s a movie you’ve seen a dozen times before, and a dozen times since, and it’s very much a minor effort from Scott. [C]

Black Rain” (1989)
Okay, maybe we do get plenty pumped by Hans Zimmer’s percussion-heavy, guitar-wailing theme, particularly when Michael Douglas and his glorious ’80s poof of hair pursues the big baddie by motorcycle. That doesn’t change the fact that Scott’s atmospheric actioner is a product of the time, a decidedly B-affair from a guy most consider A-List. Douglas and his partner, Andy Garcia, are NY cops huffing and puffing their way through a Japanese crime investigation, cutting through red tape the way movie cops do until, shockingly, the case gets very, very personal. Action fans will find a lot to like about the film’s crackerjack pace, but Douglas is laughable as a grizzled tough guy, and the film’s East-West relationships were probably somewhat progressive at the time, but still fairly cartoonish. [B-]

Thelma & Louise” (1991)
On a BBC radio interview a couple of years ago, frequent collaborator Russell Crowe said that Scott made the “first post-feminist action picture” with 1991’s “Thelma & Louise.” We’re not sure about the whole “post-feminist” bit (feminism is still going on, after all), but Scott did do a whole lot with this lean, beautifully shot and briskly paced (even at 129 minutes) road movie. Beyond a couple of absolutely riveting star turns by Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon, and yes, some nicely feminist subtext, the film also marked the big time debut of Brad Pitt. Most of Scott’s most compelling work (“Blade Runner“) involves the creation of an invented universe. Here, he was merely content on capturing a feeling of isolation, entrapment, and freedom. And he did it amazingly. [A-]

1492: Conquest of Paradise” (1992)
After the genre exercise of “Black Rain” and the aforementioned “Thelma & Louise” (arguably his most grounded picture), Scott returned to his familiar world of spectacle with the “1492: Conquest of Paradise.” The international cast was led by Gerard Depardieu, which quickly became one of many stumbling blocks for the film and indicative of the production as a whole. The actor, wonderful in his native French films, seemed lost here trying to work with English dialogue. The film, all pomp and circumstance, and brimming with its of sense of self-importance, was well-meaning, but ultimately limp and forgettable. While Scott did manage some of his trademark razzle dazzle it wasn’t enough to save the film that didn’t even have substance enough to fill up the costumes worn by its well-attired cast. [C]

White Squall” (1996)
A sort of proto-“The Perfect Storm,” Scott headed out to seas for the second time for this based-in-fact tale of a group of 1960s high school boys (including Scott Wolf, Ryan Phillippe, Balthazar Getty and Jeremy Sisto) taken out to sea by a schoolmaster and skipper (Jeff Bridges). And as you might expect, Scott fills the film with enough detail that you’d feel reasonably confident about taking out a ship yourself, while Bridges delivers a typically excellent, understated performance that steers clear from Ahab-like cliches. The storm footage, too, is as impressive as you’d imagine. But Todd Robinson‘s script leans too heavily on coming-of-age cliches, and the young cast never quite rise to Bridges’ level, which makes the stormy climax feel somewhat unengaging, and what comes before it frankly a little dull. [C-]

G.I. Jane” (1997)
After demonstrating a great empathy and understanding for strong female characters (a rarity from male filmmakers), Scott’s 1997 misfire was trying to recapture the rah-rah girl power spirit of his groundbreaking “Thelma & Louise.” Results, as they say, may vary. The elation that made “Thelma & Louise” was gone, instead replaced with a wafer-thin action plot by David Twohy (something about a woman being added to an elite combat team and missing nuclear materials), an unconvincing “gritty” turn by Demi Moore in the title role (shaved head and all), and an unrelentingly grim atmosphere, both thematically and photographically. It is interesting, however, to see Viggo Mortensen, in an unshowy role, impart even the most frivolous character with earth-shattering importance. Beyond that however, this thing is a major grind. [C-]

Gladiator” (2000)
This is one that continues to baffle us a little. Certainly not bad by any stretch, it’s hard to believe that back in 2000, this was an outright phenomenon, becoming a box office sensation, making a star out of Russell Crowe and earning a number of Academy Award nominations and wins, including Best Picture. Looking back on it now, it’s an impressive and accomplished piece of entertainment but hardly the stuff of a Best Picture winner (though, they usually never are). That said, there is something to be said about the power of the film and Scott’s filmmaking prowess that can still draw us in, and make us watch it to the end even during the most casual of channel surfing sessions. [B]

Hannibal” (2001)
Ten years after “The Silence of the Lambs,” it was time to cannibalize (yes, we went there) the popularity of Hannibal Lecter, but after a bumpy development which saw the departure of ‘Lambs’ director Jonathan Demme and star Jodie Foster, the property fell into the lap of Scott, who proceeded to shove this lump of shit down our throats like it were a Death’s Head moth and we were a size 14. The mad glee and playfulness of Hannibal, made famous by Anthony Hopkins in ‘Lambs,’ was replaced by an over the top, highly stylized freakshow that included a (smartly) uncredited Gary Oldman cutting off his own face and talking about drinking orphan’s tears, and a bored Ray Liotta eating his own brain. It’s even worse than it sounds. [F]

Black Hawk Down” (2001)
A common complaint about Scott’s career is that he’s nothing more than a technician; that his films, while handsome, frequently lack soul. We don’t always buy that posit, but a viewing of “Black Hawk Down” certainly gave us pause. The photography by Krzysztof Kieslowski collaborator Slawomir Idziak is astounding, and Pietro Scalia‘s cutting is world-class, but Scott can’t decide if he wants to make an aesthetic marvel or an immersive docudrama, and the two cancel each other out. His storytelling instincts, normally so good, fail him completely, and it’s almost impossible to follow the film’s geography, or to distinguish between the starry cast — only Eric Bana, fresh from “Chopper,” makes an impression. Even putting aside the film’s deeply questionable shoot-em-up politics, it’s a curiously uninvolving film, overdosing on bluster and bravado, but without truly engaging with the audience. [D+]

Matchstick Men” (2003)
When people say that Nicolas Cage lost his way after his enjoyable Jerry Bruckheimer-produced ’90s action flicks (which he did), they fail to take into account his strong turn in this sharp, fast and engaging con man/father-daughter tale. The actor’s mannered and manic character, hounded by phobias, struggles throughout the picture, with Cage portraying a wonderfully nuanced inner conflict. His empathy for his newfound daughter is at odds with his inherent neuroticism, and his fierce, on-the-ball skills of deception. Sam Rockwell is aces as usual, and Alison Lohman still bears the burden of this stellar performance she hasn’t been able to top. The contrivance at the end does make the picture feel a little slight, but it’s an absorbing, taut and well-written ride, and one of the director’s most underrated pictures. [B]

Kingdom of Heaven” (2005)
You may think you’ve seen, and been disappointed by “Kingdom of Heaven,” but you haven’t had the full experience of just how tedious it can be until you get into the protracted director’s cut. Yes, the extra 45 minutes restores entire plotlines and gives the film room to breathe, but it also just makes the slog of an experience (who cares if inherently dull gaps are filled) even longer. Yes, Edward Norton courageously plays his non-existent character behind a mask the entire length of the picture. Congratulations? Hopefully one day we’ll see a Final Cut with Bore-lando Bloom‘s performance digitally removed and replaced by Paul Bettany, Scott’s first choice for the part; there’s a reason that Bloom hasn’t toplined a new blockbuster in five years. Deeply flawed, it’s like the more solemn, vastly less entertaining version of “Gladiator,” with a completely shallow theme of faith that feels empty. Original version [D], Director’s Cut [C-]

A Good Year” (2006)
This 2006 picture is perhaps Scott’s most fascinating work, if only because it seems to swim against the tides of his basic intuitions and the very fiber of his nature. Putatively a romantic comedy, the picture is actually more of a character study about a tried-and-true asshole (a British investment broker) who eventually discovers he has a soul when he inherits his uncle’s French chateau and vineyard — the very place where he spent his childhood and a locale that contains his most cherished memories. The movie is a complete 180 from everything the filmmaker has ever made because, for once, he shies away from genre and actually tries to dig for some true humanity. So on paper, we ideologically love this film and it’s actually quite entertaining and engaging for its first hour or even more. It’s great to see Scott attempting something different and succeeding, at least early on. But sadly, it cannot resist some pretty bad pedestrian cliches in its devolving third act and the romance between Russell Crowe and Marion Cotillard, which only really comes to the forefront in the last half of the second act, is remarkably unbelievable and superficial. It’s also extraordinarily notable for being one of the few films that make otherwise excellent actresses like Cotillard and Abbie Cornish seem completely talentless. [C]

American Gangster” (2007)
This is probably one of the few Scott movies we wouldn’t mind he sequelize, if only because like “Robin Hood,” it’s clear he focused on the least interesting part of the story. Like “Robin Hood,” which was originally a dual-identities sort of experiment before becoming an origin story, “American Gangster” ends with a post-script informing us of the unusual working relationship between the two characters we just watched clash, coke entrepreneur Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) and city cop Ritchie Roberts (Russell Crowe). We walk away from the movie forgetting Lucas’ too-glammy criminal capitalist enterprise and the obvious dichotomy between his family life and Roberts’ own broken home, but remain enthused by the idea of Roberts’ second career as a defense attorney taking Lucas as a client and shortening his sentence. That’s the movie we would have preferred to watch. [C]

Body of Lies” (2008)
While charged with being an empty and empty-headed political thriller — it’s a spy film about a CIA operative who uncovers a lead on a major terrorist leader suspected to be operating out of Jordan — it does two important things: proves Russell Crowe is a fine (arguably better) supporting actor especially when he is subverting his tough guy, alpha male characters (it might be his most interesting work since “The Insider“), and it might have been the first picture where we actually bought Leonardo DiCaprio as a full-blown adult (as opposed to say, “The Aviator,” where you say, hey there’s that kid DiCaprio trying to play Howard Hughes). It also boasted nice turns by Mark Strong and Oscar Isaac as well, leading Hollywood to recognize both of their strengths, and Scott to bring them both back for his next picture. It’s also pretty damn entertaining, even if it’s insignificant. [B-]

Robin Hood” (2010)
As one of the most frequently filmed tales in cinema history, how would Scott, reuniting with Russell Crowe once again, find a fresh spin on “Robin Hood?” By 1) making it a prequel and 2) making it incredibly boring. The trend of late seems to have been using prequels to tell the least interesting part of a story, and that’s kept up here — we discover how Robin Hood (Crowe) became the folk hero, but don’t get to see much of what’s made the tale so popular over the years, with Scott stripping out the robs-from-the-rich-and-steals-from-the-poor theme, and replacing it with a Tea Party-style message about how unfair it is that millionaire Ridley Scott has to pay his taxes. The “Gladiator“-style action suffers from a severe case of diminishing returns, and the performances, even from greats like Cate Blanchett, Mark Strong and William Hurt, are flat and tedious, saved only by the sneeringly entertaining Oscar Isaac as Prince John. If Scott’s aim was to make “Kingdom of Heaven” look better in retrospect, then he succeeded. [D-]

— Rodrigo Perez, Oliver Lyttelton, Gabe Toro, Drew Taylor, Alish Erman, Ben Webster, Kevin Jagernauth

Sign Up: Stay on top of the latest breaking film and TV news! Sign up for our Email Newsletters here.

This Article is related to: Features and tagged , , , , ,

Get The Latest IndieWire Alerts And Newsletters Delivered Directly To Your Inbox