Why this might not be so easy
Royal College of Art graduate Ridley Scott has the eye of a painter. A sumptuous and meticulous visual stylist, he crafts seductive imagery packed with exquisite detail. Moody atmospherics abound, and the play between light and shadow is often mesmerising.
There’s always the guiding principle of realism at work. This carries over even into his more fantastical pictures, which ground the action in their own vivid reality. As boldly artistic as he is acutely commercially minded, Scott is a jack of all genres but master of sci-fi and the historical epic in particular. He’s no slouch when it comes to thrillers either.
His movies are stocked with resilient and intelligent heroes and heroines. He’s got a knack for eliciting powerful female performances. But there also exists a fierce streak of pessimism, which serves as a psychological link between disparate titles. The subject of greed, in various forms and iterations, emerges as a recurring theme.
A completist approach to his filmography is likely impossible. His earliest years at the BBC are opaque due to the general unavailability of shows he worked on as a set designer and episodes of serial dramas he directed. By his own estimation, he’s shot 2,500 commercials. 1973’s Boy on the Bike, reworked for Hovis from his 1965 film Boy and Bicycle, is considered a classic of the form, as is his 1984 Apple Macintosh promo. You can trawl BFI Player and YouTube for a few more, and the History of Advertising Trust website has around 40 of his adverts to watch online.
There have been 27 theatrical features to date, as well as a TV movie – 2013’s The Vatican, which was the pilot for a Showtime series that never happened. There exists, too, an unreleased version of All the Money in the World (2017), starring Kevin Spacey in the J. Paul Getty role that was reshot with Christopher Plummer.
Add to this numerous TV documentaries, shows and movies made via Scott Free Productions, including 2020’s Raised by Wolves, for which he helmed the first and second episodes. Plus, there’s his propensity for releasing different versions of one film as director’s cuts and extended editions. Several of these can be counted as superior to their theatrical versions (including Blade Runner, Legend, Kingdom of Heaven, American Gangster and The Counsellor).
The best place to start – Blade Runner: The Final Cut
Scott first developed a taste for world-building with Blade Runner (1982), which is celebrated for its gloomy dystopian depiction of a futuristic Los Angeles. Starring Harrison Ford as the titular ‘blade runner’ who is charged with hunting down android ‘replicants’ gone rogue, Scott’s film took the cold and technological cityscapes seen in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) and married them to American film noir tropes, creating ‘future noir’.
For all the extraordinary production design, cinematography and Vangelis’s haunting electronic score, Blade Runner isn’t simply an aesthetic tour de force. Alongside its vaunted philosophical musings about the nature of reality and what it means to be human, it also counts as a tragic love story, with melancholic acting by Ford and Sean Young providing crucial emotional connection.
Of the several versions available (including five officially released on Blu-ray), 2007’s final cut is your recommended first dip. In Scott’s eyes, it’s the most complete and satisfying version of his influential masterpiece, correcting previous imperfections.
What to watch next
It was 1979’s Alien that made Scott’s name. Just as influential on the sci-fi genre as Blade Runner, it’s the terrifying tale of a spaceship crew encountering a deadly parasite in deep space. Alien offers up gothic horror atmospherics, unforgettable imagery (with designs by Swiss surrealist H.R. Giger) and progressive politics (the hero of the hour is a woman).
Scott’s historical epics advance the case for him as a master of lavish and exotic spectacle. His excursion to Ancient Rome, Gladiator (2000), won Russell Crowe an Oscar, while his Crusades epic Kingdom of Heaven (2005) was positively reassessed once made available in its intended three-hour cut. Robin Hood (2010) is an engaging political take on the mythological Sherwood Forest bandit, and Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014) offers a brooding, often nightmarish, interpretation of the Biblical fable, with some fantastical horror-tinged sequences.
Made to coincide with the 500th anniversary of Columbus setting ashore on the Americas, the underrated 1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992) is Scott doing sci-fi inside another genre (seafarers as astronauts), with Gerard Depardieu fantastic playing Columbus as a naive utopian. It shares with Kingdom of Heaven a critique of Christianity and the Catholic church’s blood-soaked invasion of foreign lands.
Black Hawk Down (2001) is a gritty, frenetic war movie set during the US’s 1993 raid on Mogadishu. Gruelling and sun-bleached, it offers a frazzled grunts-eye-view of modern urban warfare, which again proved Scott’s ability to turn his hand to almost any genre.
Where not to start
A Good Year (2006), a Provence-set romcom with an obnoxious City trader protagonist (played by Russell Crowe), is the kind of lightweight fluff you’d expect Scott wouldn’t touch with another director’s viewfinder. But he’s made a career out of surprising us with choice of material and taking calculated risks. Some pay off, some don’t.
The 1990s kicked off with a modern classic, the feminist road movie Thelma & Louise (1991), starring Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis as cross-country fugitives. But the rest of that decade proved to be choppy waters for Scott. Of this period, which includes White Squall (1996) and G.I. Jane (1997), only 1492 warrants reappraisal.
Elsewhere, Someone to Watch over Me (1987), Black Rain (1989) and later productions Matchstick Men (2003), Body of Lies (2008) and The Martian (2015) all have their individual merits, but they’re not what you’d call essential. The true oddities in the deck are Hannibal (2001) – a gigantic success at the box office, but a tonally wild and ghoulish Silence of the Lambs sequel channelling James Whale camp – and the gloomy but poetic Cormac McCarthy-penned crime drama, The Counsellor (2013).
The Last Duel is currently in cinemas. House of Gucci is released on 26 November.
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