During the ’80s, I anticipated few filmmakers’ movies more than Ridley Scott’s: those of his fellow xenomorph wrangler James Cameron, perhaps. In both cases, that eagerness for something equalling their early efforts receded as they studiously managed to avoid the heights they had once reached. Cameron’s output dropped off a cliff after he won an Oscar. Contrastingly, Scott’s surged like never before when his film took home gold. Which at least meant he occasionally delivered something interesting. But sadly, it was mostly quantity over quality. Here are the movies Scott has directed in his career thus far – and with his rate of productivity, another 25 by the time he’s 100 may well be feasible – ranked from worst to best.
Body of Lies
(2008) Leo and Russell as CIA field agent and jaded handler respectively sounds like a recipe for success, but Scott’s seventeenth feature is an abject failure on just about every level. Where Black Hawk Down’s propaganda “fortuitously” rode a wave of jingoism that quickly escalated into the War on Terror, here Ridley actively tackles the subject, and reveals himself to be entirely out of his depth.
In that regard, he’s in good company, since Leo is still too juvenile in appearance to play a man at this point, and so seems hopelessly miscast. Always assuming you think his character is remotely credible in the first place. There’s a degree of fashionable Hollywood cynicism concerning US strategies and behaviour, but not on an essential level; it’s more to do with degrees and approach than questioning justification.
Leo fights the good fight by getting to know the natives – he even falls for one – while Crowe is a bull in a china shop. No cliché of the genre goes unturned, making the suffering DiCaprio’s character endures additionally laughable. Oscar Isaac gives a good showing in early scenes but then exits. The one reason to recommend this, though, is Mark Strong, who imbues his smooth Jordanian politician Hani with a sense of intelligence and insight that William Monahan’s screenplay otherwise entirely lacks.
(2001) Anyone nursing the notion of a true second coming of Ridders following the crowd-pleasing Oscar glory of Gladiator and the technical showcase that was Black Hawk Down ought to have been given significant pause by Hannibal. The very fact that he agreed to make it in the first place should have rung alarm bells, Thomas Harris’ novel having (intentionally?) sabotaged the appetite for Lector by moving away from the ghoulishly honed procedurals of Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs and focussing squarely on his side-dish show stealer, as if to say, “You want more? I’ll make you sick of more”.
In the process, he entirely undid a great female protagonist, the biggest casualty of the project – even more than Jonathan Demme passing – being Jodie Foster’s decision not to return. Not that you can blame her. The presentation of Lector in these movies incrementally deteriorates, arguably, from Brian Cox’s minimalist turn to Hopkins’ savoured scenery chewing to his unmitigated ham herein.
Unfortunately, he’s having rather more fun than we are. Scott has no facility for the pitch-black humour, leaving a predominant feeling of queasiness (witness Ray Liotta’s hair-raising final scene). Some of the visuals are pretty, as you’d expect, but never enough to distract from the unappetising content, even when the gore is “artfully” delivered. And as accomplished as Julianne Moore is, she and her Clarice only ever remind you of how indelible Foster was.
(1989) Scott goes overtly commercial, taking a leaf out of brother Tony’s book. At the time, I was a big fan, but then, I lapped up anything the director did on the basis of the possibility his next movie would be another Alien or Blade Runner (I’m still waiting on that front).
Now, well, it’s a messy, ugly (in content and tone, rather than aesthetics) flagrantly shallow piece of work, a culture-clash cop thriller without a subtle bone in its body, one that communicates through the sturm und drang of Hans Zimmer’s score and Michael Douglas chewing the scenery in a forlorn attempt to do the action star thing, rather than embracing the opportunity to explore and soak in another culture.
There are some evocative visuals, but also some incredibly cheesy action, and it’s a much better, marginally less ridiculous movie when Andy Garcia is still in it, which is up to about the thirty-minute mark. Before Douglas’ cop solves Japan’s Yakuza problem for them. The best you can say of Black Rain is that it did the trick; it was reasonably successful at a time the director needed a hit, and he at least spent his next two or three movies in an about face, attempting to tackle less obvious, non-knuckle-dragging subject matter.
(1997) “Suck my dick!” I think it’s probably fair to say that this is the crassest movie Scott has made. It’s a high-concept idea that ought to have had hit all over it, and if it had starred Goldie Hawn and been a comedy, it probably would have gone stratospheric. Instead, with Demi and her shaved head and fake tits, it just did decently.
G.I. Jane‘s nominally political in conception, as a number of the director’s movies inadvisably – because he only shows how clueless he is this area – have been, and about as feminist as only a director who made a stripped-to-her-panties Sigourney Weaver an icon entirely by accident can deliver.
There are occasional glimmers of a brain in the “Should women be allowed in the marines?” provocation, mainly from Viggo Mortensen’s hard-arsed instructor. Mostly, though, it has all the depth of a Bruckheimer movie. As such, G.I. Jane comes with a certain brainless energy; at least you can’t be hoodwinked into thinking it has anything going on under the hood. At the time, it looked for all the world like Scott had given up his aspirations towards quality material for good, in favour of box office he couldn’t quite grasp; that it had come to this. Little did we know that, as a sprightly sixty-year old, his era as a commercially reliable director was about to begin. The quality material side is still pending.
Exodus: Gods and Kings
(2014) After the (surprising?) re-engagement with material – whatever you think of the results, you have to admit he seemed interested in what he was making – of Prometheus and The Counsellor, this represented something of a reversion to late ’00s whatever’s at the top of the pile, “give-a-shit” form.
Not unreasonably, charges of whitewashing blemished the picture as soon as production began, but the problems with Exodus: Gods and Kings don’t fundamentally stem from how ridiculous Joel Edgerton looks, or that Christian Bale is visibly searching around for motivation he just doesn’t have. Although, neither of those things help. No, it’s that Ridders isn’t making this for any reason other than his unwarranted rep as a go-to-guy for sword-and-sandals flicks.
Gladiator worked because of Crowe, and Scott, with his copious-cigar-smoke-spewing swagger, clearly didn’t realise that, or he wouldn’t have let Orlando Bloom within a mile of the Kingdom of Heaven lead. He’d also have ensured any further ventures into such territory had a main character the audience could identify with and root for. With the successful biblical epic, there’s clearly an element of projection or association, be it The Passion of the Christ or (the 1959) Ben-Hur. Scott gives us a Moses (or Moshe) we have little interest in; Bale does his best, naturally as he’s a good actor, but he’s buried beneath the weight of a director and screenwriters without the courage of their convictions, and an epic shorn of any true grandeur or spectacle. This is a movie of CGI cityscapes and virtual legions, one where the environment is characterised by ugly blue, grey or brown colour washes.
Exodus also bolts when it comes to believing in the message – something Christian ticket buyers can spot a mile off, which is why they steered clear – opting for doubtfulness when it comes to Moses’ communication with God (the ludicrously cast Aaron Paul, as Joshua, spends most of the movie spying on him talking to no one) and implied belittling by presenting Him as a child, an atheist’s conceit and also one generally reserved for the horror movie (as a victim of unnatural possession).
The plagues of Egypt are mostly given scientific explanations, while the parting of the Red Sea is presented in as mundane form as any movie with no desire to impress an audience could be. And yet, when it comes to killing the first born, Scott has to allow for a divine hand. The picture rightly doesn’t shy away from addressing the contradictions of the Jewish God (“Is this your God? A killer of children?“), but it’s – ahem – plagued by the same kind of contemporary perspective and characterisation that blighted Kingdom of Heaven‘s better intentions. There are occasional galvanising moments, such as Ben Mendelsohn (going all out as queening, corrupt subject) ingratiating himself with Moses, and Moses entering the spotlight, but this is a mostly leaden affair.
(2007) Purely in terms of having the remotest interest in what he’s making, this and Body of Lies represent something of a career nadir for Scott. Has he ever been more on autopilot than in his sub-Heat telling of Richie Roberts’ quest to take down drug dealer Frank Lucas?
Could you give a shit about the latter’s rise and fall, or the former’s tribulations in achieving his mark? Did Russell Crowe and Denzel Washington give as undistinguished performances as this anywhere else in their careers (say what you like about his A Good Year toff, at least Crowe is memorable therein)? Did Scott ever waste a supporting cast so comprehensively?
Say something good about it? It’s entirely competent. The early excursion to Vietnam clicks in a way the rest of the movie simply doesn’t. But Scott could make a competent movie in his sleep. And it feels like that’s how he made this one.
Black Hawk Down
(2001) Scott hadn’t shown much inclination to attack political matters prior to Black Hawk Down. Sure, there was the feminist trailblazing of Thelma & Louise and G.I. Jane and the casual racial stereotyping of Black Rain, but nothing to suggest he was really hunkering down on making statements (indeed, Jane is so cartoonish, one might almost have assumed he was mocking his earlier accidental landmark movie, if you didn’t then remember Ridley doesn’t do comedy).
Black Hawk Down changed all that, and suddenly Scott was getting Pentagon funding and rewriting a massive US military failure has a heroic act of rescue and retaliation, complete with hordes of faceless Africans depicted like oncoming zombie cannon fodder ripe for comfortably detached extermination. The modus operandi of the War on Terror.
The picture came at a convenient, only-just-post-9/11 point, a morale booster supporting unjust US incursions, appealing, much as American Sniper later would, to the individual heroism of the soldier rather than the “righteous” cause. Effective propaganda then, and an undeniably well-directed movie. But unswervingly morally bankrupt. If all this puts you off, that’s understandable, but you can always play “spot the up-and-coming star” instead. That at least will pay dividends.
(1996) The forgotten Ridley Scott movie? Not that he hasn’t made sufficient numbers that you couldn’t lose half a dozen and barely notice. White Squall saw him probably at his low point in terms of career direction and box office acumen.
He’d needed to regroup before (the costly Legend‘s failure leading to the small-scale Someone to Watch Over Me), but had brushed with Oscar recognition only a few years previously (Thelma & Louise), only to take on an event movie bomb that was entirely ignored by everyone the world over (1492: Conquest of Paradise). His response was this almost brazenly uncommercial prospect, except that I’m willing to bet he saw it in terms of a sea-faring Dead Poets Society. Which it really isn’t at all; it’s based on an actual tragedy without any audience uplift at the end.
And, aside from Bridges’ hard but true ship’s captain– the kind of mentor who earns respect, but usually in retrospect – it’s without any memorable characters to speak of. It was suggested Scott was shooting his young bucks with a homoerotic eye, but really, that’s just how he’ll shoot anything. There are lots of nice vistas on display here, but very little engaging occurs until the fateful storm itself. It’s not all terrible news, though; Scott can content himself that the hugely successful The Perfect Storm over half a decade later, another where its main characters didn’t exactly win out, is now almost entirely forgotten too.
(2010) Post-Gladiator Ridders reaches the end of his first lengthy chapter with, appropriately, his final (thus far) collaboration with that thirty foot of grunt, all of it around the waistline, Russell Crowe. Prometheus marked a significant change in tack, even if we can see attempts to retread old ground (Exodus: Gods and Kings) afterwards.
Robin Hood might have been more than it turned out to be, had the original screenplay by Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Voris (Nottingham, in which the Sheriff was something of a hero and Robin a soft – as in anti-heroic – villain) not been thrown out on its ear. Ridders, fancying himself as a story guy – I mean, really, right? – went through a slew of ideas including a Fight Club variant of them being the same guy and doubling down on the archery element before arriving at this.
Which is… alright? I mean, it’s utterly normal and unsurprising in a way even Costner’s version wasn’t (that had Alan Rickman after all), and its biggest claim to fame is probably being, anti-intuitively, an over-the-hill Robin origins story. But the first half is actually pretty good, Max von Sydow rocks, and the idea of Robin posing as a man he isn’t is fairly solid. It’s only later, when we have his (forgotten) destiny thrust upon him and Marion riding into battle in knight’s armour, that we become painfully conscious of how shambolic the whole construction is.
(2015) If The Counsellor was Ridders at his most nihilistic and despairing, The Martian finds him going the whole hog for the flip side, possibly cynically rather than out of genuine desire for levity (The Counsellor flopped). It has to be said that upbeat Ridley isn’t one you want to spend a great deal of time with. Much of the movie feels forced, a rictus grin on its face, cigar protruding through clenched teeth, as irrepressibly upbeat Matt Damon attempts to science the shit out of his resource-strapped Robinson Crusoe stint on Mars.
There’s something a little hackneyed about the whole exercise, so doggedly can-do and nuts-and-bolts is it; imagine being forced to watch three episodes of MacGyver back-to-back. Added to which, a little of this version of charm-on-tap Damon goes a long way, and after forty minutes of him babbling on about disco (and having it piped throughout the soundtrack) with a ridiculous smile on his face, you ought to be sick of him; he’s really begging to be punched. There’s something of the perkily Whedon-esque about the characters, probably unsurprising since Drew Goddard, adapting Andy Weir’s novel, came up through his ranks. “In your face, Neil Armstrong!” is supposed to be amusingly scampish, but it’s just irksome. Michael Peña is great though – it should have been him marooned.
In fairness, The Martian is smoothly watchable, and precision-engineered to be as inoffensive as possible, hence it becoming the biggest hit of the director’s career (although Gladiator still tops it globally, adjusted for inflation). It makes for a nice piece of NASA propaganda too, with added natty spacesuits, naturally (Ridley’s spacesuits are always natty), sold in the “intelligent everyman thinks his way out of danger in space” that did so well for Apollo 13. At least until the climax when, after all that science shitting, the rescue is absurdly unlikely.
Scott, never one to mince his words, had the cheek to complain about the length of Blade Runner 2049 – the one that got away from his schedule – when The Martian is at least forty minutes baggier than it needs to be (and that’s without the obligatory extended edition). Yeah, maybe I’m just a grump with no joy in my heart, but I can do without its strained positivity.
All the Money in the World
(2017) All the publicity in the world pertaining to Kevin Spacey’s replacement with Christopher Plummer (as John Paul Getty Sr) couldn’t turn Ridley’s latest into a hit, or an awards contender (outside of Plummer himself). On paper, the material can’t go far wrong – doubtless why Danny Boyle’s TV drama version was in production simultaneously – but it suffers from the same problem of creative listlessness that has weakened too many of his pictures; aside from the technical side, what attracted him to this material? You’d be hard pressed to tell, as All the Money in the World only really lifts off when Plummer’s peripheral character takes centre stage in all his saturnine glory.
Boyle’s version went with the idea that John Paul Getty III was himself responsible for his own kidnapping, a grubbier prospect that might have added a spark to the sometimes-soporific subplot here. Charlie Plummer’s fine, Romain Duris the under-appreciated highlight of the picture as his sympathetic captor, who really shines on repeat viewing, and Michelle Williams exudes measured superiority and fractured distress as the pilloried parent. Mark Wahlberg’s the considerable weak link, however, and seriously miscast. Not as badly as Bloom in Kingdom of Heaven, but in the same ballpark.
Dariusz Wolski again offers fine photography, but Scott, as befits one more comfortable creating worlds than replicating them, has little feel for the period setting, exemplified by obvious soundtrack choices. There’s also the issue that, while embellishment is to be expected in a movie version of actual events (whichever version you choose to believe), the action climax entirely tests credulity. This is a dependable, well-made picture, and far preferable to most of his blockbusters, but it exhibits a not dissimilar sense of disconnect.
Kingdom of Heaven
(2005) On paper – another of those – and under the auspices of a different filmmaker, this might have been something great. Alas, it’s a picture that, even in Director’s Cut form, is scuppered by poor choices, be it in casting or William Monahan’s approach to the screenplay. At the forefront is Orlando Bloom’s disastrous positioning as the lead, based on an alleged historical figure to whom his character bears no resemblance. But that isn’t the main issue. It’s that Bloom has zero presence and a complete inability to carry the movie, so there’s a blank centre, and no amount of heavy lifting from the supporting cast can make up for it.
The other big problem is the abject revisionism on display, suggesting a world where no one has much in the way of actual religious conviction, and if they do, they’re simply mad (Brendan Gleeson). It’s an unfortunate consequence of Scott’s modernist bent, since it undermines the entire motivation, political and religious, of the Crusades.
To an extent, this works when it comes to the polar pragmatists of King Baldwin (Ed Norton, uncredited as the leper king, but playing a blinder and mesmerising whenever he’s on screen, making pearls from often less than remarkable dialogue) and Saladin (Ghassan Massoud: Saladin’s only questionable in his choices because, well, who could possibly take Bloom seriously?) Elsewhere, it’s just plain irritating, making the movie look foolish and blinkered, the same kind of foot-in-mouth approach to world events that scuppers Black Hawk Down and Body of Lies.
Nevertheless, Kingdom of Heaven makes for often impressive viewing, and it has the cachet of being about something interesting, even if isn’t rendered to its best effect for the most part. That it’s a lesser beast to Gladiator, however, points glaringly to the importance of a lead who can both engage dramatically and has star appeal.
(2003) It’s a funny one, Matchstick Men. You can recognise the yardstick adopted by Ridders in one way or another throughout his career; the influence of another filmmaker he feels he has to aspire to or compete with. But where previously it was a Kubrick or a Lucas, here he’s chasing a narrative conceit. The twist ending that reconfigures the viewing experience. Chris McQuarrie did it in The Usual Suspects and M Night Shyamalan added his own twist on the twist with The Sixth Sense. By the time Ridders got a sniff of it, the whole deal was a bit on the passé side.
But this tale of cons and conmen has a lot going for it, not least Scott utilising his visual acumen to get inside the experiential cortex of Nic Cage’s OCD master of the trade. I mean, Cage needs no augmentation (and he more than delivers on that perfectly heightened score), but if you’re going to, Scott delivers it just so. And the casting is perfect throughout, from a typically (that’s his career) untrustworthy Sam Rockwell to a star-making turn from Alison Lohman (which she made good on in the likes of Big Fish, Where the Truth Lies and Drag Me to Hell, although it seems having a family led to her mostly disappearing off the movie map).
Unfortunately, the twist in this case just isn’t that awesome; the connection between Cage and Lohman doesn’t sufficiently pluck at the heart strings, and the cons themselves aren’t quite inventive enough to entice. There’s also a feeling that Scott is doubling down on technique as a means to disguised his lack of connection to the material (a charge that could be levelled at him generally: see repeatedly above). I’d like to see what Scott would make of a David Mamet script, but Matchstick Men is at best Mamet-lite.
Someone to Watch Over Me
(1987) Ridley in the grip of a comedown, his dreams shattered, scrabbling around for something concrete, some kind of signifier of security that will prove his credibility, his ability to work on a smaller scale, to do something contemporary, work in genre, and make a success of himself, after expensive back-to-back flops.
Did Someone to Watch Over Me work in that regard? Well, it wasn’t a hit – probably because Tom Berenger and Mimi Rogers never spelled box office – but it was a change of pace and scene. Taking its tonal cues from the future noir of Blade Runner, Ridders summons an immersive metropolitan environment and even dabbles with class and society divides – blue collar joe Berenger gets lost in classy Rogers’ mirrored boudoir – but the strictly rote level of the thriller element rather lets him down.
It’s that neither-fish-nor-fowl aspect that ensured the picture has become rather neglected, neither thoughtful enough to merit reappraisal nor atmospheric enough to immerse oneself in its authentic ’80s sheen.
A Good Year
(2006) Of the five collaborations between Crowe and Scott, this is easily the former’s worst showing, and one of the most grievously miscast roles of his career. It’s also proof that Scott shouldn’t go near comedy with a six-foot pole. And yet, it’s kind of charming.
Ridders’ evident love of Provence is infectious, the supporting cast (including Marion Cotillard, Albert Finney and Tom Hollander) are sterling in a way Crowe just can’t be; he’s an actor generally at his best when you can recognise something of him in the role, and there isn’t any here; it’s the accent leading the way, flattening all else in its wake. Then again, despite what I’ve just said about him, the romance sort of works.
Perhaps Scott should make a fully-fledged love story? A Good Year is generally one of his lesser seen and more overtly mocked outings, but you’ll also find a groundswell of those who don’t care for Scott movies – or don’t even care that they don’t care about his movies – who genuinely adore it. For all his reputation as a world builder, Ridders has very rarely offered one you’d actually like to inhabit. Perhaps because he actually does live in this one (when he isn’t making movies at an exhausting rate), it’s an exception that’s at times quite intoxicating (unlike the vineyard’s plonk).
(1985) I like Legend more than I probably should; unlike its two predecessors, it doesn’t really have very much going for it beyond its visuals. The flop conclusion to Ridley’s sci-fi/fantasy trilogy – he wouldn’t tread those boards again until he returned to the Alien well 27 years later – it highlighted his weaknesses in a succession of ways that would provide rich fodder for his critics.
For a start, he’s much too much of a cynic to buy into a simple tale of good and evil, love and darkness, and without that conviction, the underpinning of the picture just doesn’t carry. There are bags of sumptuous visuals here, some of the most entrancing Scott has ever produced, but there’s no sense he believes in the world he’s summoned this time, or that the tale supports his mythic intent.
Tim Curry is a phenomenal as Darkness, but Tom Cruise, just on the cusp of superstardom, takes a rare foot wrong as puckish Jack; it’s certainly telling that Mia Sara’s Lili only really comes alive in her scenes with Curry. This is also an early sign that Scott isn’t so great with humorous hijinks; the one really funny scene is courtesy of Robert Picardo, but he had, of course, been hanging out with a master. Despite its flaws, though, despite being wafer thin in which ever version you watch it, it’s the last Scott picture where you really feel he’s striving for something. As such, it’s a poster child for the interesting failure.
Thelma and Louise
(1991) Oft-cited as a return to form and peak Ridley, a movie where he combines his visual nous with a great (Oscar-winning) screenplay, Thelma and Louise is some distance from being that. It’s a good movie, for sure, one blessed with fine performances from Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis, but tonally it’s (surprisingly?) uneven, staggering from harrowing attempted rape to jocund Butch and Sundance hijinks and not-quite-there straining for Bonnie and Clyde myth-making (the final shot, punctured by Scott second-guessing himself with a roll-call of halcyon moments of their trip).
Scott persuaded Callie Khouri to punch up the humorous content (what the director knows about comedy would make a very short popup book), but I can’t help thinking it would have been a much better movie – if less superficially approachable – had she directed it as originally intended.
The supporting cast are dynamite all round, including Brad Pitt in a career-making turn, Harvey Keitel as the sympathetic cop trying to talk the fugitives down, and Christopher McDonald stealing his every scene as Thelma’s idiot other half. Scott takes full advantage of the road-trip scenario to show off (particularly) desert landscapes, occasionally to poetic effect (to the strains of Marianne Faithful), but also can’t resist over-egging the pudding courtesy of Hans Zimmer and such conceits as torrents of rain glistening through bright sunlight.
(2000) Ridley came, he saw, he entertained. It only took him twenty years to hit audience pay dirt, and when he did, he never looked back. Of course, it isn’t really that simple. His previous picture G.I. Jane was a more overt, brazen attempt to deliver the kind of movie brother Tony was better known for, and it did okay, but not that well. He’d done something similar nearly a decade earlier with Black Rain to similar mixed results. And here he was, taking on a sword-and-sandals picture, a genre that was notoriously unbankable at that point (and Scott would go on to prove repeatedly that his making it bankable was a flash in the pan).
It wasn’t so much that Ridders found a formula, or a groove – although its success inspired him to a hitherto uncharacteristic churn-em-out approach that has now informed the latter half of his movie career – or that he had happened on a good script (while he likes to go on about story being everything, you can locate a good one of those in about a tenth of his pictures, if that). No, it’s a lot simpler: he’d discovered a star, and a vehicle for his star that showed him off in very basic, primal terms (and in that respect, the screenplay admittedly delivers).
And quite simply, Crowe has been decent in stuff since (solid might be a better description), but he’s had a difficult time finding material that shows him off in a similarly likably charismatic way. He’s a bit of rough, and it’s easy for that to come over as boorish or insensitive (see his offscreen persona). Fine for a Body of Lies, but try naming a lead role where he’s really shined in the past decade and a half (Jackson Healy or Capt Jack Aubrey probably come closest, but in both instances, he’s eclipsed by his co-stars). So put it together and it makes for something of a refreshing Scott movie. Forget about the world-building (which is relatively broke-backed with its virtual vistas and decidedly un-epic supporting ensemble, thanks to John Logan’s make-do writing); this one’s all about Maximus.
1492: Conquest of Paradise
(1992) The contender for the least remembered Scott movie, along with White Squall. Certainly, one of the least seen. In retrospect, thinking the “anniversary” of the “discovery” of America would lead to any kind of box office seems about as ridiculous as a Captain America movie becoming a global sensation, but there you go.
Consequently, both Ridley’s effort and the Salkinds’ competing picture went entirely ignored. But at least Scott’s was pretty good. Sure, it’s guilty of misrepresenting Columbus, but in his embodying misgivings over empire building (his country becomes the villain) it at least begins to address the larger issues his legacy bears.* It also helps enormously that Ridders has a performer as ennobled as Depardieu on hand, equipped to imbue the character with nuance and profound melancholy.
1492 also remains one of Scott’s most gorgeous pictures, enhanced enormously by Vangelis’ rousing, epic score. Post-Gladiator, Scott made something of a feature of his versatility with period epics, but the truth is, his prior duo of neglected excursions into the past are much more rewarding.
*Addendum 28/08/22: How much of this legacy has actual historical substance is up for debate.
(2017) Don’t get me wrong, Alien: Covenant is a mess. Or rather, not so much a mess as a monstrous hybrid of two very different movies struggling for supremacy. One is a direct sequel to Prometheus, pursuing the (sometimes clumsy) philosophical themes and concepts via the prequels’ antagonist lead David (anti-hero’s perhaps a bit too forgiving). The other’s a bog-standard Alien movie, some sequences of which wouldn’t seem out of place in AvP: Requiem (I’m looking at you, ’80s slasher-movie shower scene, complete with pop tune).
As such, there are – also like its predecessor – enough good things here to make this one of Scott’s most watchable movies; obviously, your mileage may vary, as there are many who decry the sheer effrontery of attempting to answer where the xenomorph came from (and I agree with them, essentially), and that’s before getting on to both pictures’ depiction of its protagonists’ stupidity.
At the forefront of the positives is Michael Fassbender in dual roles as David and later model Walter, the bad and good sons of Guy Pearce’s Peter Weyland. David’s rebellion against dad is set up in the prologue (“You will die. I will not“, establishing his unqualified superiority) and Fassbender is clearly enjoying the camp Bond/Batman villainy of the character (“My beautiful bestiary“). His final scene is truly nightmarish, establishing exactly where Scott’s sympathies lie (“They don’t deserve to start again and I’m not going to let them” he announces earlier).
Walter is dutiful in the manner of Bishop, and the counterweight to David’s insane Dr Moreau; again, it’s no accident that the AI crew member is better drawn than any of the human ones, or that, this time, Scott has the gumption to dispose of the female lead explicitly at the end; I’m still holding out that Walter’s alive on the planet (“It’s your choice now, brother. Serve in heaven or reign in hell. Which is it going to be?“) and destined to appear in the third part should Fox greenlight it (not so likely under new Disney management, even if the finances made sense – indeed there’s now talk that an Alien TV series is in the offing).
If pretty much everything between these two is great, John Gladiator Logan’s ham-fisted advice to make this more of an Alien film than Scott originally intended does its best to detract. This crew are so damn stupid, they make Prometheus‘ lot look like first-class scientists. The creator of the alien may be an evil genius android, but Scott, the cool nihilist, likes him; the leader of the humans is a person of faith and therefore an idiot who orders the landing mission and then sticks his head over an open egg at the invitation of a robot he knows to be untrustworthy (“There must be more than mere biological chance” suggests Weyland of our origins, but there’s no room for metaphysical flights here; Scott’s cosmos is resolutely material and anyone who thinks otherwise invites cold, harsh consequences. Which might make David the closest he comes to a movie alter ego).
And then there’s the way no one wears any kind of protective gear down to the surface, ideal for an airborne infecting agent, and quarantine is only considered when it’s much, much too late (the catalogue of escalating errors that ends in the destruction of the shuttle is, however, one of the finest sequences of Scott’s career). The pre-finale fight on the exterior of the loading ship is unnecessary, but not nearly as much as the loading bay actual finale, which is just plain bad.
And while some of the CGI is quite good (the human-sized neomorphs are suitably unnerving), still too much of it carries the fundamental awareness that these elements designed to scare are not physical; you’d have thought Scott understood the drawback there, but he is getting on these days. The tepid response to Alien: Covenant rather suggests audiences consider the xenomorph passé – or had no interest in the CGI one shown off in the ads – and preferred Prometheus‘ flawed musings. Or that they ultimately didn’t care for Prometheus, despite its box-office success. Whichever the truth is, it will be a shame if we don’t get to see the conclusion to David’s (and Walter’s) story. Of course, Ripley never had closure either.
(1977) The Duellists is relatively atypical for Scott, and also not at all. Atypical in that it’s a very diligently “literary” picture (adapted from a Conrad short story, itself based loosely – in that the actual number of duels far exceeded those depicted – on an actual account). You can feel respect, genuine or not, for the tone, mood and cadences of period – despite the Paramount-decreed transatlantic casting, although to be fair, it should be no more baffling than casting Brits – and the formality and futility of duty and honour as embodied by Harvey Keitel’s petulant, permanently-slighted Hussar periodically demanding duels with Keith Carradine’s bewildered-but-never-bested also-Hussar opponent.
Not at all, in that it’s the first example of Scott’s arbitrary selection of material. At least – well, there’s no at least about it – with Alien he was acting in a tangible, relatable way (reacting against the success and incredibly realised world of Star Wars). Here, there’s a feeling that this is what he thinks he should probably make as a respectable first film, one to get his foot in the door and meet with something less than the critical opprobrium that might greet a jumped-up ads director.
He cites two main influences; firstly, Kubrick’s work on Barry Lyndon (in that sense, you can see the same challenge-risen-to response to Star Wars) and the novel being in the public domain, but neither feel sufficiently vital in the end product. The director who blanched at the overlong Blade Runner 2049 (he’d have done it so much better, don’t you know) wouldn’t have gone near the material that attracted his 39-year-old self. With the rare exception (The Counsellor), the modern Scott seems to make movies with the least observant audience member in mind, and would kick you out of the room if you suggested a thoughtful, reflective, nuanced picture was something to shoot for.
But The Duellists is all those things, and even its idiosyncrasies (the aforementioned casting) tend to work in its favour. Carradine’s character, unable to extract himself from the demands of fate, is resigned to this inevitability, ultimately failing to struggle against it because he does what’s expected of him (“Sir, I cannot fight a man three times and then tell tales on him” he informs a superior at one point). Keitel’s aggression may not stand, but it’s the belligerent energy that fuels the picture’s otherwise reserved tone. It’s interesting to speculate what might have happened, had Scott switched to movies half a decade earlier, and what the pre-Jaws sensibility of the decade might have done to his outlook. I suspect, ultimately, nothing at all, and we were lucky to get him chasing the mantle of pure visualist for as long as we did. If Legend hadn’t floundered abjectly, it might have been for much longer, and much more rewardingly.
(2012) “How could you?” come the gasps. Quite easily, really, as I don’t see Prometheus‘ downsides as all-pervading, and indeed, the ups are enough to put it in the category of a good movie overall. Those downsides include an idiotic crew (not as idiotic as Alien: Covenant’s) who don’t know the first thing about safety precautions (again, though, they know more than Alien: Covenant‘s) and are given to running in a straight line when veering right might have been the best option (then again, would we be complaining had that been Noomi Rapace, and Charlize Theron had survived? And no way would Scott have killed her off between movies if she had). And if you’re going to cake Guy Pearce in makeup, at least don’t floodlight him so he looks like something out of Nothing but Trouble. Most of all is the complete absence of an excuse to go all prequel on our asses in the first place.
But having done that, having gone there, there’s a thematic appeal to the created lineage the picture etches out; I’m not going to make any arguments with regard to depth or resonance, as they’ll be laughed out of court, but there’s more going on here than the series possibly deserves (by which, there’s a valid argument this should have been entirely unconnected to Alien), particularly as embodied in the iconic creation that is David, an android for the ages and who gives the coolly lizard-like Fassbender his best role; it’s an achievement to get us to root for the ambivalent villain like this, and it probably only really happens once in a generation (see Hannibal Lector).
Prometheus is full of holes, and I entirely understand its rep among dissenters, but for me, it’s simply one of Scott’s most entrancing movies (on that basis, I almost gave it the bronze medal) and also one illustrating that he may not know how to synthesise them, but he’s still entirely there when it comes to at least some of the key ingredients of SF: the concept, the design, the sense of the uncanny. It took him a decade of, to varying degrees, chasing commerciality to make good on Gladiator, and when he did it was with a gleefully jaundiced black heart. That might have been why he followed it with…
(2013) Greed, hubris, and an unconscious death wish. Armed with a Cormac McCarthy screenplay (the author’s first, and maybe last), Scott’s cautionary tale of a mob lawyer who wants to get his hands dirty for unnamed financial reasons, despite the attempts by others (notably Brad Pitt’s Westray) to dissuade him, who continually denies the reality of the world he is in, received a critical mauling. Ironically so, as it’s the best thing Ridders has done in years.
Prometheus succeeded in spite of its script. You couldn’t say the same for The Counsellor, but it’s also at the centre of both the positives and the negatives. I first saw the picture in its original form, but revisiting it in the director’s preferred Extended Cut, a movie I liked with caveats is a movie I like even more with caveats. It breathes better, settles in more satisfyingly and comes across as less fragmented. Nothing can prevent the succession of monologues informing the early passages from seeming artificial (the Counsellor visits someone, that someone tells the Counsellor a colourful story: stir and repeat), to the level that it’s almost a parody of a Tarantino movie, but played straighter. And yet, scene by scene, these are disturbing, amusing, bizarre and always engrossing sequences.
There’s also the sledgehammer placement of cues for future actions (the functioning of a bolita, the cartel use of snuff movies, the mysteries and Achilles heels that are women*, as personified by Cameron Diaz’s Malkina, the cautionary nature of the “innocent” getting his hands dirty, invoking Body Heat).
And yet, for the most part, these issues don’t really matter. Fassbender’s Counsellor (only known by that name) is in permanent need of others’ counsel yet ignores it, a walking irony, showing himself woefully incapable of making decisions for his own and others’ wellbeing. The depth of feeling of his relationship with Laura (Penelope Cruz) doesn’t really carry, although this may be the intent – that our lead doesn’t realise the emptiness of his motivation until he is left bereft. Certainly, there’s an unsettlingly glacial quality about Fassbender that works to the picture’s benefit, and when the unthinkable happens the reality is all over his stricken face.
The performances are all first rate, Bardem in a frazzled fright wig, Pitt’s Westray offering the pretence of wisdom but proving to be an opportunist taking advantage of his associate’s misfortune (something I didn’t pick up first time, but then, it’s a picture that is both frustratingly and appealingly oblique in its motivations). And yes, Diaz, as an empty-eyed manipulator channelling Cruella De Ville, fucks a car, but it’s the least of the movie’s talking points, really.
*Addendum 28/08/22: Ironically so, at least in Diaz’ case.
(1979) The beauty of Alien, to paraphrase Ash, is its purity. Scott saw Star Wars and decided he’d have some of that, but not being a writer (with the point-proving caveat of A Good Year), he had to hunt around for material to make his visual mark on. And that was Star Beast, Dan O’Bannon’s stripped-down rewrite of Dark Star, divested of humour but complete with similar blue-collar archetypes, shipboard ET and AIs of variably benign intent (albeit, Ash himself was the invention of David Giler, in one of the rewrites enforced on the production).
It’s easy to forget, in light of its iconic status, that one of the criticisms of the picture at the time was the thinness of its characters (something that was also applied to John Carpenter’s The Thing a few years later); it’s down to Scott, with a keen eye for the performer fleshing out bare bones, that they become memorable. And that’s basically the sensibility he applies to every aspect of the movie.
Lucas’ used-future aesthetic is in overdrive here: a grimy, dank spaceship that doesn’t even work properly. But it’s balanced out by the queasy wonder of the xenomorph designs, and a sense of the truly alien that no one has equalled since, because they aren’t HR Giger. Alien‘s a scary movie, but that isn’t why its impact is so lasting. This is where Scott’s reputation for world building began, and it’s stunning achieved on every level; back then, he knew intuitively that you present enough of it to fascinate, but let the audience fill in the rest.
Added to which, in this and his next film he allowed for an immersion in that world that didn’t require cutting to the chase. You only have to look at his response to the recent Blade Runner 2049 to realise how lucky we were he was unable to make that project himself, since he no longer knows how to be the filmmaker who made Alien. You occasionally see a flash of it, but then he’ll cut away, before the environment has a chance to accumulate around you.
(1982) It may be ironically appropriate that Sir Ridley Scott has spent an indecent amount of time, when holding forth regarding his best film, proving he has no idea why it works. Because, if there’s one thing he’s repeatedly evidenced in his career, it’s that you only end up looking foolish continually reaffirming how story always comes first if your every project speaks to the opposite.
The genius of Blade Runner, and indeed Alien, is not story – much of the picture stumbles if you try to read consistency or coherence into it – but mood and performance. Deckard as portrayed by Harrison Ford is a man with barely any humanity left, who learns it from a machine (in a rather rapey, brutalist fashion, admittedly), making the thematic potency rather a nonsense if he turns out to be a replicant. But you know that already. Posing the question is fine. Answering it is for idiots.
And Rutger Hauer gives a performance at once OTT and nuanced, so indelible, it appears to encourage Scott to give that bit more tonally, something heightened and operatic. And you can’t even begin to assess the contribution of Vangelis. If not for Morricone’s work with Leone, it might be a shoe-in for the best soundtrack ever.
This is the Scott we would never really get to see again, frightened by the response to his fever-dream sci-fi (and on top of that, the rejection of his fairy land), he retreated into solidity of form and content. You’d never mistake him for a poet when you hear him commenting on the mechanics of his movies in resolutely unpretentious fashion, but when you watch Blade Runner, you’re fooled into thinking this is a director of true vision and expansive, lofty ideas.
Addendum 28/08/22: Since this worst-to-best was completed, we’ve had two more Ridders movies (and another is on the way). Here’s how the ranking looks with them included;
27. Body of Lies (2008)
26. Hannibal (2001)
25. Black Rain (1989)
24. G.I. Jane (1997)
23. Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014)
22. American Gangster (2007)
21. The Last Duel (2021)
20. Black Hawk Down (2001)
19. White Squall (1996)
18. Robin Hood (2010)
17. The Martian (2015)
16. All the Money in the World (2017)
15. Kingdom of Heaven (2005)
14. House of Gucci (2021)
13. Matchstick Men (2003)
12. Someone to Watch Over Me (1987)
11. A Good Year (2006)
10. Legend (1985)
9. Thelma and Louise (1991)
8. Gladiator (2000)
7. 1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992)
6. Alien: Covenant (2017)
5. The Duellists (1977)
4. Prometheus (2012)
3. The Counsellor (2013)
2. Alien (1979)
1. Blade Runner (1982)