[5 June 2012]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
For many, the name Ridley Scott meant nothing until the final frames of a film called Alien. Then, after witnessing what many thought was the birth of a new voice in genre filmmaking, few would forget him. Yet there was more to the man that leading us around a world where no one could hear us scream. He was a merchant marine. He graduated from art school and worked for the BBC. In the late ‘60s, he started a production company with his brother Tony and began making a name for himself in commercials. By the time he tackled his first full length feature film, he was 40 years old. Since then, he’s made some of the best and most visually accomplished films of the post-modern era. He’s also been in charge of some less than thrilling excesses (1492: Conquest of Paradise anyone?).
Now, after a decade which saw his greatest success (Gladiator) matched by some of his worst received efforts ever (A Good Year, Body of Lies), Scott seems back on top. His revisit of the Alien franchise, the powerful Prometheus, promises to bring the 73-year-old back to the beloved geeks and fanboys who turned him into a titan in the first place. But there is much more to Scott’s creative canon than visits to planets far off and interaction with creatures mechanical and monstrous. With 20 films to his credit, we’ve decided to rank Ridley’s 10 best. You may not agree with the final countdown, but in a true rollercoaster career, this represents his most accomplished and artistic. Few filmmakers have Scott’s solid cinematic eye. Few also have a compendium of aesthetics as strong as this one, beginning with:
As an attempted era-appropriate epic, this slick take on the heroin scene in ‘70s Harlem is all Denzel. As a matter of fact, had the famous actor not saddled up for this ethnic Godfather wannabe, few would recognize Scott’s hand. The narrative dips into intriguing concepts like cutthroat street business and up from the illegal bootstraps determination, but for the most part, this is an actor’s arena. The visual flash we expect from Scott is muted, mired in the need to remind audiences of the Me Decade while serving the limited functions of the narrative. As with most of the director’s oeuvre, an intriguing miss.
To this day, there are those who defend this otherwise ordinary updated peplum. They argue for the Best Picture win, the Russell Crowe acknowledgement (he’s been much better elsewhere) and the classical nature of the overall effort. Yet when viewed through the prism of previous subgenre entries, this is much ado about Italian overkill. The manipulative storyline, coupled with the still in transition CGI leaves a vacant core that’s hard to warm up to. On the other hand, Scott’s over-cranked action ideal, which he would later perfect in our #7 choice, serves him quite well.
As his first feature film (after a distinguished career in advertising), Scott settled on this adaptation of the Joseph Conrad short story “Point of Honor.” The combination of period detail (set in the France of the 1800s) and star power (we’ve got Harvey Keitel and Keith Carradine at their mid ‘70s best) gave the filmmaker an entire canvas to create with, and the results are a revelation. Anyone who wonders why Scott became the fascination of fanboys for the next two decades need look no further than this bit of antiquated speculation to see his ‘genius’ at work.
The success of Gladiator brought Scott his choice of high profile projects. On the less than stellar side came his hackneyed adaptation of the Thomas Harris’ Silence of the Lambs sequel, Hannibal. On the side of the moving and marvelous came this thrilling reenactment of the Battle of Mogadishu, a raid integral to the United States’ effort to capture Somali warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid. Combining authenticity with well-constructed action, the end result became a post-modern warfare classic, complete with sly social commentary on the side. Sadly, 2001 was the start of a very uneven decade for the determined filmmaker.
Some consider it the last part of Scott’s sci-fi fantasy trilogy, the fairy dust and pitchforked finale begun with trips to a monster-infected outer space and a replicant reactive LA. Tom Cruise was the hot commodity, but it was Rob Bottin and his amazing movie make-up (including an almost unrecognizable Tim Curry as Satan) that really stole the show. While the final film argued for Scott’s preference toward the dark and diabolical, this feather-light folktale delivered in the eye-popping optical department. Oddly enough, it would also represent the last time the filmmaker would work within the genre for 27 years.
When it was originally released in theaters, many felt this Orlando Bloom-led look at the Crusades was nothing more than Gladiator-lite… and after the disaster that was Oliver Stone’s 2004 take on Alexander the Great, it appeared few fancied this kind of material. Yet on DVD, where a full blown director’s cut filled in many of the missing pieces, critics have turned around on this title, arguing it as some sort of masterpiece. There’s no denying that Scott is in familiar territory, doing for the 12th century what he did for Ancient Rome. But here, without the manipulative histrionics of Russell Crowe’s warrior, we get more depth.
After Legend, few thought Scott would venture into the realm of crime. But with Someone to Watch Over Me and Black Rain, he did just that. Yet it was this female empowerment fable featuring two stellar starring performances that turned the director from pure visionary to man of all genres. Taking Callie Khouri’s Oscar winning script and removing some of its redneck bite, he turned the tale of two fugitive gals into an universal statement of personal purpose. Among his many hits (and misses), it remains one of his most iconic, a sidestep away from his optical comfort zone that still generated greatness.
Though it won’t hit theaters until 8 June, this revitalizing return to form shows that Scott is really best suited dealing with the fantastical and the high tech. What he did for acid-blooded ETs at the beginning of his career he complements with this Frankenstein-inspired meditation on the pros and fatal cons of creation. Sure, we get the mandated prequel tie-in, the whole ‘space jockey’ element providing the necessary nod to narratives past. But here, hindered by nothing except his imagination and computer processing speeds, the director forges an almost-masterpiece. Those looking for outright horror need apply elsewhere. This is Scott’s 2001, and it’s quite the odyssey.
Because of its dark house in space premise, many marginalize Scott’s first major hit. In fact, the various follow-ups (by current auteurs James Cameron and David Fincher, to name two) often receive more critical credit for moving beyond the basics to explore and extend the creature mythos. Still, from the grit and grime of the Nostromo to the last act confrontation between Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley and the title terror, few films of this ilk have been as powerful. Scott scored on all levels, from design to dread, and brought viewers along for the glorious, gory ride.
Argue all you want to over the various versions out there. Lament the lack of voice over or the inclusion of an unicorn in the supposedly preferred “director’s cut”. Heck, even debate the supposition that Harrison Ford’s Deckard is himself a replicant. Whatever the case, films don’t come as visionary as this amazing slice of speculative fiction. From the brilliant use of practical F/X to the scope suggested in the plot, this is Scott’s signature effort, the movie he will be remembered for long after our fascination with xenomorphs and sword/sandals has waned. Thanks to Prometheus, his desire to return to this franchise has got us more than excited.