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.