Countdown to Prometheus: A Ridley Scott Retrospective
With this week’s release of Prometheus, Ridley Scott returns to his roots, revisiting the world of his second feature film for the first time in over thirty years. It seemed like a good time for us in the third row to look back over Sir Ridley’s career as a whole; with brief essays about selected films from throughout his filmography as well as a week-long tribute to Scott’s films and the Alien universe.
Scott’s background is in art and design, having studied at the West Hartlepool College of Art and London’s Royal College of Art in the 1960s. He directed one short film during his time at the RCA in 1965, but wouldn’t direct another film until 1977′s The Duellists. In between, he worked as a designer for the BBC and formed a company with his brother Tony to produce commercials. It’s unsurprising that with this background, his films are well-known for their visual style, with Alien and Blade Runner especially outstanding in the field of visual design (thanks not only to Scott but to concept artists like H.R. Giger, Jean “Moebius” Giraud and Syd Mead) and becoming extremely influential in the look and feel of later sci-fi films.
Later Scott films have not necessarily captured the long-term imagination of moviegoers to quite the same extent as those two, but his sense of visual style and narrative storytelling has never faltered, even when the stories he’s telling don’t quite live up to the flair with which he tells them. After trying on a number of different genres (romance, fantasy, crime drama, etc.), he settled into a string of highly acclaimed war films, from the pageantry of Ancient Rome in Gladiator to the modern grit of Black Hawk Down and the medieval scope of Kingdom of Heaven and Robin Hood. Yet the anticipation of Scott’s return to the world of Alien shows perhaps just how much his early work continues to enrapture viewers.
If there are two legacies that stand out in Scott’s career besides his fantastic visual sense, the first is likely his recurring strong female characters, most notably Ripley from the Alien series (who is among the first modern female action stars in cinema, and has become a cultural icon even apart from her role in the film), and the dual heroines in Thelma & Louise, who have become feminist cinema icons of the highest order. And Scott’s other legacy is his pioneering use of the Director’s Cut, which he has employed on most of his major releases, whether it was his idea to release a secondary version or the studio’s. Scott has declared himself happy with the original release of Alien, with the Director’s Cut being merely an alternate version. Blade Runner, on the other hand, marks one of the most significant Director’s Cuts in the history of cinema, and helped develop the film’s rabid fan-base after its initially poor response upon theatrical release in 1982. The Director’s Cut of Kingdom of Heaven represents a return to Scott’s original vision after the theatrical release was overly influenced by preview screening reactions. Whatever the reason, Scott and his studios have seen fit to revisit these films and others, some more than once, but notably without ever destroying the theatrical cut in the process (yes, we’re looking at you, George Lucas).
Without further ado, let’s look at some selections from Scott’s filmography in greater detail.
Never fear, we have covered Ridley Scott’s Alien along with the rest of the Alien series in a separate post!
Blade Runner (1982)
So much time and energy has been spent talking about Blade Runner in the ensuing three decades that one might start to doubt just how much audiences rejected the film upon it’s 1982 release. Offering new insights into Ridley Scott’s second science fiction mash-up masterpiece (here Sci-Fi and L.A. Noir) which followed immediately after Alien, is rather difficult. Suffice it to say that production design and mood play a significant part in the films lasting appeal. The film uses some daring, at times rather obtuse imagery to generate that mood. Take the opening scenes of 2019 Los Angeles as an endless urban-industrial wasteland, fire belching into the heavens, but then cross-cut with a human eye (reflecting the city) filling the frame. Vangelis’ score manages to be simultaneously imbued with melancholy and awe. With that kind of classic cinematic opening (rivaling both 2001: A Space Odyssey as well as Star Wars) it gives Scott license, which he eagerly accepts, let the image guide the story rather than narrative details (of which there are plenty) or literal sense. The evidence of Blade Runner‘s exquisite ambiguity is on display in the plethora of Director’s Cuts which shift the meanings and nuance of the story back and forth.
Blade Runner anticipated the entire Cyberpunk movement on a studio budget by over two years. There is a story of William Gibson author of the seminal novel Neuromancer who walked out of the film only fifteen minutes in because he thought it would cloud his own vision. The rain, the urban sprawl and decay, and corporatism gone wild eliminating the middle class are all hallmarks of the genre, and while this sort of lay of the land is never stated, it is implicit in the surroundings of cop-assassin Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford). And make no mistake, the plot of the film involves a specialized police officer to engage in state backed cold-blooded murder of the latest and greatest human clones (“More Human than Human”) – the ones with emotions and wants and desires (“we’re not computers, we’re physical!”). You are watching a lonely man hired by lonely men to kill people. It’s a rather dark concept when you think about it.
During the only scene of any sunlight in the film (hazy and orange as it is – probably the pollution) Deckard requests the head of the Tyrell Corporation, creator of the Nexus-6 clones, to block out the sun, as it is too light in here. Los Angeles has become a decadent and unhinged city of vampires and Scott shoots everything through a gauzy mixture of smoke, moisture and neon. The real reason for the dimming of the light is to administer the Voigt-Kompff test, perhaps the most visually interesting bit of psychology ever put up on screen. It is one of the few elements from Philip K. Dick’s source novel transferred to the film and NOT changed in some fundamental way. The test involves empathy, one thing (in Blade Runner‘s greatest irony) that the human population seems to have lost in the future, and projects that loss onto the judgement of their own creations. For the V.K. test is in actuality a trial of sorts, fail it and be killed. Midway through he film, Rachel, a Nexus-6 lady with a porcelain face that exudes emotional hurts, asks Deckard if he has ever taken his own test. This is not to imply that (as many do) the policeman is a replicant himself, but rather that humanity has fundamentally lost all of its emotional currency, so why judge between human and android? When Nexus-6 titan Roy Batty plunges his fingers into the eye-sockets all the way to the brain of his maker, it is has much catharsis as it is horror – or most shockingly, oddly beautiful.
And there is the genius of Blade Runner, told in a cold, emotionless fashion, to reflect its time and place. Scott makes wonderful use of many iconic Los Angeles locales (Ennis House, Bradbury Building, etc.) and is always sure to dwarf the humans in the immensity of what society has wrought. When Nexus-6 Zhora performs her snake-dance in the seedy night-club there seems to be an endless line of performers coming into and out of the place. This is echoed by the dense clot of humanity on the streets, and the multiple sheets of glass she crashes through upon her awesomely protracted death sequence. A multitude of mannequins (and human bystanders) stand as witness as to her fall from grace. One could go on, Detective Gaff’s idiosyncratic mishmash of wardrobe, langauge, and portentous origami creations, J.F. Sebastian’s marvelously cluttered living space, or Roy Batty’s final soliloquy – dove in hand on a rainy rooftop. Blade Runner brims with loaded magnificence, often at the cost of making concrete sense. It is poetry.
- Kurt Halfyard
“I am the Lord of Darkness.” I remember the first time I heard those words, a teenager sucking down every piece of fantasy I could get my hands on. Having grown up with little access to movies, my teens were filled with discoveries like Legend, films that others had grown up with fond memories of but which I was discovering for the first time. Some of these adventures went better than others. I never bought into the hype of E.T. or Star Wars, movies I like but never loved, but the moment the film opened with Blix making his way through the dark forest after being summoned by Darkness, I was hooked.
Based on an original idea from Scott that emerged when Tristan & Isolde fell through (a film that was later produced by Scott) and written by novelist William Hjortsberg, it stars a young Tom Cruise stars as Jack, a forest child who is teaching a young princess (Mia Sara as Lili) the languages of the forest when he finds himself in the middle of Darkness’ evil plan: to remove the horns of the unicorns and plunge the world into darkness so he can rule supreme over all. With the help of some forest creatures, Jack defeats Darkness, rescues the girl and the returns the world to light.
Smoke machines must have been a staple on set but the excessive use only helps accentuate the mystery of the surroundings and surprisingly, it doesn’t take away from the details. If anything, it helps the film’s aging and Legend doesn’t feel as hokey as some of the other fantasy movies of the period. It certainly helps that the production is meticulously designed and Scott spends quite a bit of time revelling in the details of the surroundings, costume and make up.
What I’ve always loved most of all, above the look and sound of the movie (not to mention the deliciously evil Tim Curry and Sara when she goes dark and seems to lose a piece of her humanity – her evil laugh as she defies Darkness just before she’s rescued still makes the hairs on my arms rise), I’ve always loved the sense of wonder that permeates through Legend, a sense of childhood curiosity and fearlessness that helps Jack through his adventure. I can’t help but feeling a little bit of childhood glee every time I watch Legend, and though it does look aged in places, it continues to be one of my favourites and one that holds up nicely among the new stock of computer heavy fantasy.
As much as I love the idea of Scott returning to sci-fi, I eagerly anticipate the day his eye turns to fantasy again.
- Marina Antunes
Black Rain (1989)
The end of Scott’s reign of stylistic excesses in the 1980s, Black Rain was far more fizzle than sizzle upon its initial release, and only looks worse twenty-odd years later. The film aims for a contemporary Blade Runner setting in the the harshly lit mean-streets, markets and nightclubs of Tokyo and it is safe to say that visually, the film is interesting (as are all of Scott’s films) but as a police procedural which tries grasp and diffuse the US/Japanese tensions of the decade, the script is an abject disaster. It not only postulates from Michael Douglas’ prejudiced yahoo that the Japanese would be a lot more effective at … something … if they just adopted the American cowboy approach but then the film goes right ahead and does just that. Things makes not a lick of sense from a police procedural standpoint, or for that matter a gang-war one. There is suspending disbelief then there is watching Black Rain.
Michael Douglas plays a morally flawed New York cop who is on trial by Internal Affairs for stealing drug dealer money on a recent bust. He is a brash risk taker indulging in motorcycle racing under the Brooklyn Bridge on his weekends. He also, unfortunately, sports a Billy Ray Cyrus mullet, be we will leave that as a bi-product of the late 1980s. After witnessing a Yakuza hit in his local watering hole with his more straight-laced partner (a very spry Andy Garcia), somehow he gets the job of escorting the very high-profile, in Japanese circles, murder despite being under investigation, not speaking a lick of Japanese and being known for breaching protocol at the best of times. It’s not surprising that he loses his charge right at the Tokyo airport, but it is surprising that the very straight-laced authorities allow him to be ‘an observer’ into the continuing investigation not only with his American partner, but also with a local investigator, Masahiro. Thus Douglas and Garcia get to bulldoze their way through the investigation relatively unhindered until one of them literally loses their head.
Kate Capshaw (playing hard against type – that is if Willie Scott is type) shows up as a high-end brothel owner and flirts with Douglas, occasionally she even translates some japanese dialogue for him or points him in the direction of her own clientele. Otherwise it is wholeheartedly unfathomable how his leather-clad gung-ho self-fucking-entitled American cop can solve his chopstick problem let alone a wide ranging multinational counterfeit ring. We’d all be better served watching William Friedkin’s far superior To Live and Die in L.A. but instead we are stuck watching bad karaoke, macho cop shenanigans, muddy motorcycle chases and yet another use of the Ennis House by Scott (formerly Deckard’s apartment) as the lair of the Oyabun Yakuza lord who confesses his desire to forge the U.S. dollar not for personal wealth, but as an act of revenge for B29 firebombings of Tokyo in World War II. It wreaks of the yellow panic of the decade, and adds little to the conversation then or now. If there is no Director’s Cut of Black Rain, it is due to the simple fact that no amount of re-editing or additional footage could possibly save the thing.
- Kurt Halfyard
Thelma & Louise (1991)
Surprisingly, time has been very kind to Thelma & Louise.
Besides the fact that the road movie at its core follows a rather timeless structure, Scott shot the film in a very handsome way. The photography is vast and imposing, the sound of it is textured in a way that gives both a blowing wind and a passing truck equal importance, and the writing remains pretty snappy twenty years on. All of these qualities are rare for pop films from the late 80′s and early 90′s, as many of them come with an ugliness that was inherent to the era (an ugliness Soderbergh would later mimic in The Informant!).
The fact that the filmmaking in Thelma & Louise ducks those tropes of the era is wonderful not just because it allows it to age gracefully, but because it underlines Scott’s regard for his craft. It’s impossible to predict such things in advance, but one has to imagine that Scott and co. must have had an inkling how much this script would capture the imagination of the zeitgeist. Coming into things armed in that fashion, the temptation to simply make things “good enough” must have been in play. Happily, the fact that a filmmaker like Scott is never looking to make things just “good enough” is what allowed this film not only to thrive beyond the 1991 zeitgeist, but also allowed it to actually endure.
In reflecting on the film and its impact, two questions come to mind.
The first is the message of the film. There have been a lot of films this year with empowered female characters at their core, though neither Thelma nor Louise come with the ass-kicking prowess of a Lisbeth Salander or a Mallory Kane. That said, they all still share a DNA chromosome or two with Thelma and Louise and the way they take charge of their predicament. However, where the films of 2012 have surpassed Thelma & Louise is in the ultimate fate of their heroines. Curiously, for all of strong actions and decisionmaking the women make on the road, they can’t seem to figure out a better endgame than “Let’s die instead of getting caught”. Considering this film comes just three years after The Accused, which also dealt with the fallout of a sexual assault people at the time would be hesitant to condemn, I can’t help but believe that this film might have an even better legacy of Thelma and Louise finally took a stand with the law for the terrible event that kicked their journey into high gear.
The other question is one of impact and legacy. In making and releasing Thelma & Louise, a lot of hurdles were placed in the film’s path thanks to it being a story with two women in the lead. If you were to ask around, you might hear a claim or two that audiences and the Hollywood system has evolved since then and that modern films don’t face such challenges. Sadly, I don’t think that’s the case. Look at most of the stories surrounding last year’s release of Bridesmaids, and many of them will be painted with the brush of how difficult it was to get a film with an all-female cast off the ground. Some things have changed in twenty years, but I don’t think we can collectively thump our chests too proudly…at least not yet.
- Ryan McNeil (The Matinee)
G.I. Jane (1997)
“Next time I want your opinion… I’ll give it to you.”
- Master Chief
Being dragged kicking and screaming by an old girlfriend back in 1997 to a movie with possibly one of the dumbest titles ever was a lesser experience for this author. Perhaps why I ended up enjoying the film so much is precisely because of these lowered expectations, and I’ve always thought G.I. Jane was a little bit underrated and the vitriol spewed at the film seemed to be relatively unfounded.
I think one of the main problems the critics had was the seemingly overly blunt message of the film: a woman can be a man’s equal on the battlefield and also the controversy on whether or not women should be “allowed” in the military is absurd. And I think that may be a fair criticism as that point is clearly made and probably even a little unnecessary by 1997. But what should be praised is that G.I. Jane is not simply a blunt message movie about “women in the military.” It’s also about political correctness, “brotherhood in war”, leadership tactics and games of political attrition between the media, the politicians and the upper brass of the military. And on top of all that it’s just a damn fun movie about hard core S.E.A.L. training and who stacks up to who.
The story isn’t about whether a woman can hack it through S.E.A.L. training. We know she probably can. Sure that’s what the movie uses to hang its proverbial hat upon to get at other issues; but in reality the movie is about how society deals with the idea. Both the leadership looking in from afar and the grunts having to spend 6 weeks “in the shit” with her.
Unfortunately the movie doesn’t attack all of the most interesting aspects of a woman fighting for her country next to a small group of horny, hot-headed tough guys, but it does get at a lot of it and it gets at it mostly with some clever dialogue and hard core one-liners. Which leads me right into Master Chief…
I’m pretty sure this was my first real introduction to Viggo Mortensen and man, does this guy steal the show. It’s still possibly the best role of his career and he makes the most of it with subtle gusto. And let’s not forget Anne Bancroft’s turn as a tough-as-nails senator with blood on her teeth and dead skin beneath her fingernails from years of eating others for breakfast as she clawed her way to the top – essentially she represents the vision of victory for Demi Moore’s character’s struggles – not on the battlefield, but in the arena of political gutting.
I’m sure some could be drawn from G.I. Jane to the issue of gays in the military in order to keep the story more relevant for today. Again, it doesn’t really get into the psychology of men and women together on the battlefield or in the bunkhouse quite as well as it could have or arguably should have. And the action sequence the film builds up to isn’t quite as riveting or as well shot as some of Ridley’s other action sequences of the past, but the action isn’t really where the movie wants to take us anyway. I much prefer the two hours priors to that in which the pleasure is all derived from watching grunts eat from garbage cans, senators verbally duelling with Generals, and Demi (with hands tied behind her back) breaking Viggo’s nose with an eruption of blood and screaming at him to suck her dick.
Kingdom of Heaven (2005)
In both its versions, Kingdom of Heaven argues for an increase of length. The theatrical cut is a thin, uncompelling affair, and though Scott’s 3-hours-long director’s cut does substantially improve the film, the longer cut nonetheless feels paradoxically more rushed, introducing us to a demonstrably larger and more complex political world but racing through its scenes, subplots, and beats. I keep wanting even more. I think perhaps Kingdom of Heaven was the greatest 10-part, $200 million HBO miniseries that never got made.
In its place we have the epic, and the epic will have to do. And what a weirdly complex epic it is, taking as its starting place the tail end of the century between the first and third Crusades, when Jerusalem was in Christian hands and life in the Middle East had nearly normalized the new stability. Even as Kingdom of Heaven strives towards verisimilitude in its art direction, the speech and behaviour of its characters make a pointed lack of effort to sound like anything other than 2005 screenwriting; Kingdom of Heaven essays boundless holy war over meaningless dogmas and forgotten relics in a very 21st Century context.
Balian, a man of broken faith who finds the lie at the heart of religion and the schemes beneath the soul of the Crusades, is played by Orlando Bloom, and thus Kingdom of Heaven ultimately sinks. The actor’s best aspects in The Lord of the Rings and Pirates of the Caribbean – his dull prettiness and gormless naivete, respectively – scarcely allow him to convince us that he could be a blacksmith, let alone a crusader, let alone the crusader who held Jerusalem against Saladin for three days. There is a distinctive lack of dynamism in Kingdom of Heaven’s lead, and while all the jewels of Hollywood’s character actor stable (Jeremy Irons, Edward Norton, Brendan Gleeson, etc., etc.) trot out for their twenty minutes of Heaven, the film succeeds more in conveying a tactile time and place than a compelling emotional journey.
But still, what a time and place; and what a creature in prideful, sexual Sibylla (Eva Green); and what a compelling portrait of Saladin (Ghassan Massoud); and what an astonishing collection of visuals, a high-water mark even for Scott. Kingdom of Heaven is vast and fascinating even while it is frustrating and unsuccessful. And as unmerciful as it is upon the pride and greed that rise in the name of holiness, it is even more so on their outcomes, showing the wholesale slaughter of Holy War with compelling commitment. Towards the end, when mounds of human bodies pile high around the single breach in the wall of Jerusalem, all dead, we can begin to apprehend the scale of it – a time when men eradicated each other and themselves for what they believed was a god’s chosen scrap of dirt.
- Matt Brown
Robin Hood (2010)
In the annals of movies that are way better than they’re generally given credit for, Robin Hood is not terribly significant, because although the general response to the film calls it mediocre at best, it’s not a movie most people take any time to hate. Notable more for the giant clusterfuck surrounding the screenplay than the movie itself, Robin Hood has slipped into comfortable triviality. But in its director’s cut form particularly, I’d argue that the film is worth a serious rewatch by any fan of Scott’s work. I’d call it my favourite of Scott’s films since Thelma & Louise. I like it far more than the lugubrious and haughtily overpraised Gladiator, certainly, and more than Kingdom of Heaven, to which Robin Hood feels a useful kind of kinship. For an era he has scarcely visited in his career, Scott feels precisely at home in the British Middle Ages.
If you strip away the expectations for Robin Hood that come from either the rumours of the original Nottingham script, subsequently discarded, or the gaiety-and-frivolity look-n’-feel we can’t culturally escape for Robin, c/o The Adventures of Robin Hood, Scott’s Robin Hood is a substantial achievement. It has its sloppy elements – Marian showing up at the climactic battle, and the climactic battle itself, feel like the resolution to another movie – but in positing a “what would it be like if” origin story for Robin Hood, the movie is working with a more innovative mission than most audience members seemed to notice.
Both Blanchett and Crowe make good stead of the patchy script, showing off genuine chemistry. All of the principal characters feel like adults in an adult world, and when Robin and Marian fall in love, it feels like a mature relationship – not the sort of thing we see much of in action epics nowadays. Blanchett creates a Marian with a worldview, who don’t take no shit off nobody, and she is exceptional in the film. Marc Streitenfeld’s score is beautiful, smoothing over rough transitions and building an overall heroic momentum that might not, strictly speaking, be germane to the thrice-turned screenplay. And, unsurprisingly, Scott shoots the hell out of the picture. He’s sparing on the arrow-cam shots, but when they show up, they’re a beauty, and his general sense of staging and pictorial opportunity is on fine display throughout.
For all its script labours, Robin Hood picks an actual story, and tells it. An actual epic shot “for real” and certainly one of the last such things to exist, Robin Hood carves out a fresh take on an 800-year-old mythology that is rooted in plausibility, character, and historical detail. This is, by my lights anyway, what movies are supposed to be doing all the time.
- Matt Brown
Note – This piece was drawn from a longer reexamination of Robin Hood on my blog.