Ridley Scott is one of Britain’s finest filmmakers, with a career spanning almost forty years and including such iconic films as Alien, Blade Runner, Thelma and Louise and Gladiator.
Born in North-East England in 1937 and older brother to the late Tony Scott, Ridley studied Art and Design during the mid-fifties, graduating from the Royal College of Art before beginning a career at the BBC. During the 1970s he moved into advertising, showcasing his keen mastery of lighting, colour and detail. Scott’s perfectionism was apparent, running back and forth between set and camera until every prop was exactly where he wanted; a trait arguably still evident in the multiple Director’s and Extended Cuts of his films.
His feature-film debut was 1977’s The Duellists, a sensational adaptation of a Joseph Conrad novella set during the Napoleonic War. This was followed by Alien (1979) and Blade Runner (1982), landmark explorations of the science fiction genre infused with elements of horror and film noir, respectively. Critical reaction to these was initially mixed and after Scott’s next film, Legend (1985), flopped due to studio interference his popularity dipped in the latter half of the 1980s before finding success – and an Oscar nomination – with Thelma & Louise (1991).
During the 1990s he set up a production company, Scott Free, with his brother, which has since produced a number of films and successful television series. In 2000 Scott again found his form with Gladiator, a commercial hit that also claimed the Best Picture Academy Award (he lost out on the Best Director prize to Steven Soderbergh for Traffic). Since then he has been at his most prolific, releasing almost a film a year including such gems as Black Hawk Down (2001) and American Gangster (2007). Now in his 70s, Scott shows no signs of stopping and is currently filming Exodus (2014) with Christian Bale, based on the Biblical story of Moses.
However, despite such an illustrious career Scott is often forgotten when discussing auteur filmmakers. This is largely down to his approach to filmmaking rather than his skill or the quality of his work. Whereas other filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino, Tim Burton or Wes Anderson stamp their personas on their films through narrative or aesthetic devices, Scott adapts his approach to his subject matter. This is shown by his fascination with visuals, sometimes even drawing his own storyboards (see above); whether the futuristic vision of LA in Blade Runner, 1970s New York in American Gangster, the war-torn streets of Somalia in Black Hawk Down or ancient Rome in Gladiator, the worlds he creates contain levels of diegetic detail and cinematographic vision unparalleled by so many of his contemporaries.
However, a common complaint with Scott’s films is that his attention to visual detail blinds him to narrative flaws; something exemplified recently by the critical distain for Prometheus (2012) and The Counsellor (2013). While the merits of these films are debatable, his work has repeatedly featured interesting and varied narratives inhabited by complex characters – figures whose characterisations are often furthered by their relationship to the mise-en-scene. Furthermore, unlike many mainstream directors, Scott frequently gives prominence to interesting, strong female characters, such as Ellen Ripley in Alien and the eponymous figures of G.I Jane (1997) and Thelma and Louise.
Often underrated, Scott remains one of the most ambitious, confident and exciting filmmakers working today. His mastery of visual design and employment of it as a device to form symbiotic relationships between characters and environments make his films richly rewarding viewing experiences.
Top 5 Ridley Scott Films:
The Duellists (1977) – A seemingly minor offence leads to two soldiers engaging in a series of duels over fifteen years. Scott’s debut is a visually stunning exploration of masculinity and hubris set against the Napoleonic War.
Black Hawk Down (2001) – Based on the true story of American troops intervening in the Somalian genocide of the early 1990s, this earned Scott his third Best Director Oscar nomination. Superb use of colour and contrast in the cinematography lend artistry to a brutal depiction of modern war.
Alien (1979) – A hostile creature is brought on-board a spaceship and begins to hunt the crew. Marrying the genres of horror and sci-fi, Scott forges strong characterisations and genuine fear amidst his dark, nightmarish visuals.
Blade Runner (1982) – A detective must track down missing ‘replicants’, but his mission leaves him questioning his own identity. The futuristic vision of LA is arguably Scott’s greatest achievement in a tough film noir loosely adapted from Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep.
Gladiator (2000) – A Roman General is sold into slavery and becomes a gladiator, using the arena to seek vengeance. Resurrecting a genre deemed dead since 1964, Scott breathes new life into hallowed antiquity and uses the setting to reflect on contemporary entertainment and ‘Hollywood history’.
Agree with our assessment? Do you prefer Tony instead? What are your top five Ridley Scott films? Leave us a comment and let us know!