Monday 8 May 2017

Ridley Scott: From Xenomorphs to Maximus

With Alien: Covenant just a few days away, I take a look at the career of the man behind the camera who started it all...
Over a 40-year career, Ridley Scott has crafted a reputation as a versatile master of the screen. A filmmaker whose stamp includes a second-nature fluency over the camera and a deft understanding of the power in subtle yet impactful visual effects, Scott originally concerned himself with working behind the camera on television commercials, the most notable of which is Apple's iconic 1984 advert for the Macintosh computer. This experience shaped his approach to film and informed his ability to convey a lot through very little, like any good commercial should be able to do.

And although he may not possess the same name recognition credentials as a Spielberg, a Scorsese or a Cameron, Scott's best work almost certainly deserves to be mentioned in the same sentence - films like Alien, Blade Runner, Gladiator, Thelma and Louise, Black Hawk Down, Prometheus and The Martian are just a sample of Scott's immensely varied filmography and illustrate his surprising versatility as a filmmaker.

In fact, Scott's versatility is as evident in his failures as much as it is in his successes; on top of a notching up a handful of bonafide classics, Scott has enjoyed his fair share of flunks over the years, most notably towards the latter the half of 80s. Erratic and inconsistent yet eclectic in tone and never uninteresting, Scott's filmography has seen peaks and troughs aplenty; for every Exodus, we've also been treated to a Gladiator. For every Robin Hood, we've witnessed a Kingdom of Heaven

Scott's back catalogue is one fit to burst with technical mastery and filmmaking wizardry of the highest level, from the pinpoint accuracy to the complexities of modern warfare on Black Hawk Down to the deft navigation of tone, humour, character and internal science on The Martian. The former is claustrophobic, gritty and filled with scintillating battle photography; the latter sees Scott embellishing his more whimsical side with a faultless adaptation, all whilst juggling a sprawling ensemble cast and heaps upon heaps of jargon and math speak. 

That Scott can so perfectly pivot to suit the needs of each project speaks volumes about the depth of his changeability as a filmmaker. Horror, sci-fi, fantasy, history, drama, comedy, romance - his back catalogue covers it all. What other director working today could take an act as inherently tacky and tasteless as Cameron Diaz humping the windshield of a Ferrari and turn it into something oddly compelling as Scott did with The Counsellor, a film totally deserving of its growing cult status might I add.

(L-R) Alien, Gladiator, Blade Runner and Prometheus

The erratic nature of Scott's filmography should by no means counteract the strength of his best work; when he hits those high notes, his work takes flight like few filmmakers could even imagine. Take, for example, one of his earliest films and the launching point for a franchise still chugging along today, 1979's Alien

From the grandiose Gladiator to the pondersome Prometheus, one could never accuse Scott of resting on his laurels. For many filmmakers, simply making one masterpiece in an entire career would be enough to retire on; not so for Scott, who continues to put out exciting and engaging features to this day, nearly four decades after he (chest)burst onto the scene. 

On more than one occasion, Scott can claim to have breathed new life into a struggling subgenre. With Gladiator, he revived the sword-and-sandals epic; a string of pale imitations flooded cinemas in its wake, from Wolfgang Petersen's Troy to Oliver Stone's Alexander. In Blade Runner, Scott presented audiences with a bold and grimy cyberpunk future dripping in neon and smoke. The future noir aesthetic it helped establish is still replicated today in films like Ghost in the Shell and Dredd.

Ridley Scott on the set of Alien: Covenant with
Katherine Waterston as Daniels.
Scott's filmography can also be characterised by his leanings towards strong female protagonists, from the titular characters in Thelma and Louise and GI Jane to Shaw and, of course, Ripley from the Alien series he established. That trend is set to continue in Alien: Covenant, with Katherine Waterston taking up the mantle of chief badass with new character Daniels.

His work often concerns itself with introspective examinations of what it means to be human and artificial intelligence, especially in the realm of science fiction with Blade Runner, Alien and more recently with Prometheus, a film which also contained particularly pungent religious leanings. This spiritual angle bleeds into his work on Exodus, Legend and Kingdom of Heaven, amongst others. 

Interestingly, one of Scott's greatest flaws as a filmmaker precipitates one of his greatest strengths. Throughout his career, Scott has wrangled with studio interference on a number of projects; most notably, Kingdom of Heaven, Blade Runner and Legend all suffered at the hand of studio-mandated cuts, forcing a film into cinemas when they didn't necessarily reflect Scott's vision. 

Often finding himself wading through complex narratives and lengthy runtimes filled with deep story detail during the editing process, Scott's insistence to return to a project after the initial theatrical edition has paved the way for a number of markedly improved director's cuts, most notably Kingdom of Heaven and Blade Runner, which were both elevated from maligned to straight-up masterpieces once Scott was able to tell the story he wanted to tell. Empire Magazine went as far as to say that the 45 minutes that were later added to Kingdom of Heaven were “like pieces missing from a beautiful but incomplete puzzle.”

This approach has also meant he has developed a reputation for being methodical, no-nonsense and workmanlike, routinely pumping out a film every 12-18 months over the last decade despite being well into his autumn years. And at 79-years-old, Scott shows no signs of slowing down; he recently signed on to direct a WWII epic about the Battle of Britain and has repeatedly spoken about his desire to keep churning out Alien sequels for years to come. "If you really want a franchise, I can keep cranking it for another six," he recently said during an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald. "I'm not going to close it down again. No way."

An extraordinary craftsman with a work ethic and output of a man half his age, Scott's moments in the sun far outweigh his less revered and patchy periods. Anyone with Alien, Blade Runner, Gladiator and The Martian on their resume has earned their place amongst the pantheon of cinema’s greatest filmmakers in my book, and I hope that he gets the chance to notch up a couple more classics before putting his feet up.

Alien: Covenant opens in Australia this Thursday May 11. Check back to Feeling Fuzzier tomorrow for my review.


  1. Solid post, and what an impressive resume Ridley's got! I'll be curious to see how Covenant turns out, although my hopes aren't terribly high. I wish he'd take the backseat on the future of this franchise and let Neill Blompkamp step in and direct the Alien4 movie we all want and deserve!

    1. I don't know, I'd much rather see six Ridley Alien films than one Blomkamp one. After Elysium and Chappie, he shouldn't be let anywhere near this franchise. Just my opinion though, I know a lot of people thought his concept for Alien 5 was interesting :)

  2. Great post, Rhys. Definitely an interesting career to look over here. And since you mention it here, I actually haven't seen the director's cut of Kingdom of Heaven, but I enjoyed the theatrical version well enough. Sounds like I need to get on that already. :P

    1. Definitely get on that mate, it's a really interesting example of how more actually is better! :)



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