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The Films Of Ridley Scott: A Retrospective

by The Playlist Staff
June 7, 2012 12:00 PM
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Ridley Scott
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

"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

"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]

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  • Neil | June 14, 2012 11:32 AMReply

    What a repellent, spiteful little article. Clearly the author knows very little about film.

  • Chris138 | June 9, 2012 1:28 AMReply

    I agree that Hannibal is his worst movie, although I don't think I'd give it an 'F'. Probably more like a 'C'. And I also agree that Gladiator, which I like, didn't deserve to take home Best Picture that year. It is indeed a bit baffling in retrospect.

    In my opinion, his best movies are Alien, Blade Runner, Thelma & Louise and Black Hawk Down. I even liked Prometheus a lot. I agree that Black Hawk Down has some questionable "shoot 'em up politics" and remains, for the most part, curiously uninterested in the Somali perspective, but it's so well made that I have to include it in his best. I also thought that one of the film's strengths was how easily I was able to follow what was going on, considering there was so much going on during that operation. I also think it has the greatest combat scenes ever filmed. Is it the best war movie ever made? Certainly not, but it works very well as a 'you are there' experience.

    And as for his most underrated I'd have to go with Body of Lies. I was surprised how much I enjoyed that movie after hearing such average things about it and being unimpressed with any of the promotional material.

  • Bob | June 8, 2012 10:49 PMReply

    Fuck you Hannibal was a great movie

  • Mike | June 8, 2012 11:59 AMReply

    I'd definitely agree with you about his late 80's/mid 90's slogs, but I guess I'm one of the few defenders of him in the past 12 years. For the most part. Black Hawk Down definitely has more soul to it than you give it credit for, to me anyway. Matchstick Men is one of the more underrated flicks of the past 10 years, and Kingdom of Heaven is one of my favorite films of all time in terms of style, storytelling and ambition, there's far more to it than the surface suggests. American Gangster is a frustrating one, because there's a lot of good about it, but it definitely needed a tighter script. A Good Year is slight, but a change of pace anyway, not great by any stretch, but more of a rainy day rental than the out and out disaster it was painted as. Robin Hood's another case of a lot of good, and muddle, it was a cool concept but there's too many moving parts for there to be weight on many of the characters & audiences just didn't seem to take to them making a 'grounded' prequel to the fanciful tale we're all useful. That project's whole development was odd though.

  • Mike | June 8, 2012 12:00 PM

    I forgot to mention Hannibal, which as you say is awful, but as gun for hire jobs go, it's a gorgeously shot film & has that awesome opera scene with the music they commissioned solely for the movie, that Scott famously reused in Kingdom of Heaven.

  • Olli | June 8, 2012 4:12 AMReply

    Hm, I mostly disagree with your ratings but that´s ok. Everyone has it´s own likings.
    To me „1492“ was a big boring mess even Scott´s visual flair could not rescue (F).
    Gladiator is still a near perfect epic which never fails to have me fully captivated (A).
    Hannibal is kind of a guilty pleasure to me. Yes it´s clearly over the top but still highly entertaining in all it´s clinical coolness and gross out moments. (B-)
    Black Hawk Down is the prototype of a modern war movie. This felt nearly like a 3D movie without even having 3D. Watching this one on a big screen felt like being up there with the guys. There are very few films I felt as involved in as this one. At one point you´re right. Amidst all hell breaking loose in Somalia, the soldiers don´t know where they are and neither does the audience. (A)
    Kingdom of heaven (Directors Cut) is another wonderful sprawling epic. In this version the political intrigues make this film also very interesting and even the much maligned Orlando Bloom comes off a lot better than in the theatrical cut. (DC: A-) (Theatrical cut: C+)
    Robin Hood is a strange one but still pretty entertaining and well acted. The biggest problem may be it´s title because this film just isn´t Robin Hood. It should have called Sherwood or something like that and the general expectations may have been different. (B-)

  • Olli | June 8, 2012 2:27 AMReply

    Regarding “Legend” you wrote that “the picture does get a lot of things right” and then you mention the score by Tangerine Dream? Well, that score almost ruined the whole movie. Do yourself a favor and watch the US-Version with the TD-score and then compare it to the international version, which was released with the original (studio rejected) score composed by Jerry Goldsmith. That´s a whole different experience…and then tell me again that the TD-score was one of the things the film got right.

  • Stevo the Magnificent | June 8, 2012 1:05 AMReply

    Boy, someone got out of bed on the wrong side this morning, was that a retrospective or a crucifixion? 'Kingdom of Heaven' (Director's Cut) is a tremendous and accomplished piece of epic film-making, '1492...' is a flawed but totally worthy movie, and 'Hannibal' is basically an onscreen opera, although he probably should have passed on that and directed 'Red Dragon' instead, now THAT would have been interesting...

  • Carson Wells | June 8, 2012 12:57 AMReply

    I thought American Gangster was better than a C, I'm not sure why so many people dislike it so much. I'd easily give it a B. Also, the thought of those characters being in a courtroom drama instead in no way sounds more appealing. That sounds pedestrian and is no doubt the reason why that version of the film wasn't made.

  • Christopher Bell | June 7, 2012 9:53 PMReply

    Jesus christ, a lot of Ridley Scott bullies, huh? "idiots"? "watch them again in 10 years"? And you guys mean this earnestly?

  • ? | June 7, 2012 2:03 PMReply

    A D+ for 'Black Hawk Down'? The hell?

    Otherwise, most of these are spot on. Though I would say 'Robin Hood' is his worst film by far & 'Hannibal' is a good for hire film. Actually Scott greatly improved the movie off the rather horrid novel. I like 'Kingdom of Heaven' more than you guys did but the real shame with that project is if Scott had been allowed to cast who he wanted for the lead the film would have been greatly improved.

    Only film of his I haven't seen is 1492. Need to get around to that sometime.

  • Mark | June 7, 2012 1:11 PMReply

    1492, Robin Hood and Kingdom of Heaven are all excellent films. The reviewers should watch them again in 10 years when they've grown up a bit.

  • d | June 7, 2012 1:33 PM

    Plenty of reviewers disliked those movies, many of them far older than those writing for The Playlist. Check Rotten Tomatoes.

  • georgina | June 7, 2012 12:58 PMReply

    I love his The Duellists, and am sure that with years it's getting better like wine. Prometheus is really stunning visually but absolutely clumsy from storytelling point of view. I'd call it far-fetched.

  • Nick | June 7, 2012 12:49 PMReply

    Scott's inconsistency is perplexing and frustrating but a D+ for Black Hawk Down? Pretty harsh if you ask me, especially considering you gave a better grade to A Good Year. Your review of Prometheus worried me somewhat but I'm not giving it much thought after this article.

  • Michael | June 10, 2012 1:46 AM

    I hate to say this but can you guys learn proper grammar and spelling for once in your lives? It's "your" not "you're". It's BAFFLING how many typos, grammatical errors, and general misinformation I find on this fucking blog. I love the movie news you guys report on and I wouldn't know where else to find it but when it comes to the quality of writing I find on this page sometimes I question how it is you achieved this level of fame as a blog.

  • The Playlist | June 9, 2012 7:29 AM

    "by RP, Oliver Lyttelton, Gabe Toro, Drew Taylor, Alish Erman, Ben Webster, Kevin Jagernauth" Actually 7 people contributed to it. Why Oli's name at the top? Because he built it and wrote the intro.

    "And why would multiple authors be used to subjectively rate the movies of a single director as a whole? Doesn't that completely throw off any consistency to the scale? " -- diversity.

    Each writer takes a different film and writes about it. We dont generally compare grades? "Oh, you gave American Gangster a C? Shit, then I need to lower he grade on..."

    Grades are independent anyhow. You're not comparing oranges to apples. you're grading the film on its own merits, not comparing it to others. Black Hawk Down and A Good Year are as disparate films as you can get. When I reviewed A Good Year, I graded it singularly (though i do think its conceptually interesting cause Ridley had never really made a film like that before -- arguably a shameless fantasy love story).

    Also, @Circusfolk. All you ever do is Ad hominem attacks, they're substanceless and boring. I'm not even sure if Black Hawk Down is that bad (I haven't seen it since it came out and dont remember much), but I'm certain if you had to debate Oli in his opinion of the film (he wrote it), he run circles and circles around you as you're arguments seem to be nothing more than, "it's awesome, you're idiots!"

  • Nick | June 8, 2012 8:31 AM

    If this was written by 5 people why does it say 'By Oliver Lyttelton' under the title (as the Prometheus review does)? And why would multiple authors be used to subjectively rate the movies of a single director as a whole? Doesn't that completely throw off any consistency to the scale? I didn't intend to come off as a dick, we all have our opinions, I just had a hard time with A Good Year scoring a better grade than Black Hawk Down.

  • frank | June 7, 2012 10:55 PM

    Nick, because the 5 writers who all wrote this individually on their own, wrote the Prometheus review together and collectively? LOL.

  • cirkusfolk | June 7, 2012 2:09 PM

    And I just noticed even though they gave Gladiator (the other movie they called a semi classic) a B, it seems like they don't like it as well and diss the fact it won Best Picture. Here's a fact, Ridley Scott got 2 of his 3 noms for Best Director for both Gladiator and Black Hawk Down, but yea, they suck and a worse films than something as forgetable as Body of Lies. please.

  • cirkusfolk | June 7, 2012 1:59 PM

    They are idiots. In the opening paragraph they state Black Hawk Down along with Gladiator is a "semi Classic" maybe Scott's 4th best film, and then the review gives it the 2nd lowest rating of a D+ right behind Hannable's F. Obviously the many writers who contributed to this piece (which I think was already ran once when Scott's last film was released maybe) can't get it together.

  • Tony Scott | June 7, 2012 12:21 PMReply

    This retrospective just goes to prove what I've always felt. Ridley is a half-there filmmaker, able to bring only half of what makes a movie good to practically each and every project he's ever done (Blade Runner included).

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