Ridley Scott: Back to the Future
Who are the most successful British filmmakers of all time? I think you would have to say Chaplin and Hitchcock, David Lean, maybe Carol Reed and Michael Powell. But in the modern age, is there anyone who can compare with Ridley Scott?
At 74 he’s celebrating some 36 years as a big screen moviemaker. He has directed 20 films in that period, including such modern classics as Alien, Blade Runner, Thelma and Louise, Gladiator and (we’re all hoping) Prometheus. He’s produced many more, helped his brother, his daughter and his sons follow in his footsteps, run his own company for decades, and even owns (or part-owns) large swathes of Shepperton and Pinewood studios.
Of course there is more than one way to define success. Scott’s box office track record is spotty, and always has been. Except for Gladiator, he hasn’t enjoyed the phenomenal highs that Danny Boyle hit with Trainspotting, 28 Days Later and Slumdog Millionaire. He’s never won an Academy Award – then again, nor did Hitchcock. He hasn’t acquired the critical reputation of Ken Loach or Mike Leigh, but I doubt that keeps him up at night. He’s consistently commanded the expensive budgets required to fashion the kind of sensory, large-scale popular cinema that interests him.
What’s curious about Ridley Scott is that unlike Hitchcock, he’s pursued this interest across a wide range of different genres, including war films (Black Hawk Down), crime thrillers (American Gangster; Hannibal), costume epics (Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven), action (Robin Hood), contemporary dramas (White Squall), romantic comedy (A Good Year), fantasy films (Legend), horror (Alien) and scifi (Blade Runner). He’s never made a sequel, either, unless Prometheus counts. It’s a restless career, adventurous in a way… You get the feeling that he approaches his projects with a view to where they will take him, the challenges he will face on location and in researching them, and the visual stimuli they afford, rather than anything so common place as story or theme or character.
Like Hitch, Scott made his name in Britain but his fortune in Hollywood. His father was a colonel in the Royal Engineers, and as a lad Ridley moved several times, to Cumbria, Wales, and to postwar Germany before the family settled on Teesside. He went to art school, and then into advertising at a time when that medium was sexier, more creative, and more lucrative than anything going in the British film industry. It was the same route traveled by Adrian Lyne, Alan Parker and Hugh Hudson, and Scott’s younger brother Tony soon followed in their footsteps.
This industrious, talented and arrogant “Brit Pack” would storm Hollywood as movie brats like Cimino and Friedkin and Coppola succumbed to hubris, or drugs, or both in the early 80s. Accustomed to satisfying clients, their commercial instincts were more in synch with the ascendant corporate mentality of this transitional period in American film, when powerful conglomerates were taking over the old studio system.
They were also used to expending intense aesthetic control on their work: 30-second advertisements often commanded the kind of budgets for which an ex-theatre guy like Mike Leigh might spend on an entire feature. The likes of Someone to Watch Over Me, Tony Scott’s Top Gun, and Lyne’s Fatal Attraction would redefine how American movies looked: these were glossy, visually decadent pictures that reflected the materialism of Reagan-Thatcher years. The Scott brothers were at the forefront of that wave, and Ridley and Tony remain the last men standing in this ultra competitive group, even if Scott le grand doesn’t always look so comfortable in his contemporary 21st Century dramas.
Let’s back track a little. His first film was a Napoleonic drama, The Duellists (1977), shot in France with American stars (Harvey Keitel and Keith Carradine). Based on a tale by Joseph Conrad, it was the story of two officers whose feud played out against constant interruptions of war, and it’s still his artiest film. It wasn’t a commercial success, but anyone could see he was a visual artist of rare distinction even if he wasn’t sure how to handle actors or pace a narrative. (The same flaws can be found in Robin Hood for that matter.)
And then, apparently out of nowhere, he made Alien. The year was 1979, Star Wars had recently reestablished scifi as a viable genre and Scott was hungry for a hit, but Alien was nothing like that. Where George Lucas imagined a galaxy far, far away that was anti-septic and spotless, a place for heroes and Wookies, Parker took a premise that screenwriter Dan O’Bannon had already played with in John Carpenter’s jokey Dark Star and turned it into something unremittingly intense, scary, and monstrous. Parker’s spaceship – Nostromo (also after Conrad) wasn’t bright and gleaming, it was greasy and dark, and it was crewed by all-too recognizable human beings, coarse, rough edged men and women susceptible to fear, and selfishness, and being torn limb from limb by the stowaway in their midst.
Alien came up with a signature scene so shockingly visceral it earned comparisons with the impact of the murder in the shower in Psycho. It also produced one of the most famous taglines of its era, “In Space No One Can Hear You Scream”. As much as Carpenter’s Halloween it inaugurated the slasher horror films that would become a staple in cinemas in the early 1980s, and in Sigourney Weaver’s resolute Ripley – a role originally written as a man – Scott created the first of his feminist heroines (see also Thelma and Louise and GI Jane), an iconic figure who occupies a special place in the hearts of scifi fans young and old.
It’s grim and nasty picture in many ways, but utterly focused and compelling, and Alien was a big hit everywhere, enough to establish Scott in Hollywood with enough credit in the bank to make the big budget Blade Runner with Harrison Ford at the peak of his Raiders fame.
Was it the commercial failure of this dark, philosophical neon-noir anti-blockbuster that put Scott off scifi for the next three decades? He’s always been a pragmatist, and part of the reason we’ve seen so many refined versions of this enduring cult favourite over the years is because he was willing to compromise his vision back in 1982.
Commercial failure also attended his follow up, Legend, with a young, toothy Tom Cruise… Perhaps the combination of the two was enough to convince him he needed to get back to reality. Or then again, it may just have been that he poured so much of his imagination into Blade Runner, one of the most densely textured and visually stimulating of all scifi movies, he felt he had exhausted his imaginative reserves and used up his crystal ball.
Maybe “Alien” gave everybody the wrong impression about Scott. Maybe he wasn’t really a sci-fi guy at all, just a filmmaker who liked to imagine cruel and unusual punishments for his crew. It’s a suspense film that just happens to take place in space…
Well, maybe, but don’t underestimate how revolutionary this dirty, jerry-rigged vision of the future was, and let’s not forget that Scott’s favourite filmmaker wasn’t Hitchcock, but David Lean, the master of the international epic. Scott’s made as many big budget period pieces as anybody over the years. I suspect it’s in these historical dramas (1492; Gladiator; Kingdom of Heaven; Robin Hood) that he feels most fully engaged, even if only one of these, the underrated Kingdom of Heaven, can be said to have a screenplay worthy of the loving production he lavishes on it. It occurs, too, that costume dramas are not so different from sci-fi when you get down to it: in the past as in the future, the filmmaker must create an entire world afresh, an artificial environment in which every last prop and costume must be weighed and valued. Prometheus by all accounts look back into the ancient past to explore the future, as if the two are interlinked.
It’s easy to overlook when you consider the spectacular scale and reach of Scott’s movies, his dynasty, his company, his studio, but get right down to it and he’s as absorbed in the micro as the macro… He’s a detail man, just like Lean.