Ridley Scott turned 79 today. When it comes to endurance and vitality, there’s no one on his level. The man is churning out upper echelon material with the energy of filmmakers a third his age. As we celebrate the man, we celebrate his work. With a career as extensive as his, we’ve chosen some expected films and some that people tend to forget from his filmography.
The reality is that Ridley Scott’s true essentials is a list longer than five. With that in mind, you cannot go wrong with this collection of classics.
Danielle Ryan on Blade Runner
Blade Runner is one of, if not the, greatest science fiction films of all time. The theatrical cut isn’t ideal, but Ridley Scott’s Director’s Cut and Final Cut are both fine examples of the genre. The film examines some challenging themes. Questions of sentience, the soul, and religion are all dissected through the allegory of replicants. Replicants are “more human than human”, artificially created humans with a four-year lifespan. They bleed, they feel, and they hope.
Robotic sentience has been the subject of several films, but few do it with the raw emotion of Blade Runner. Scott had a very distinct vision of his dystopian future and the beings in it and the replicants are neatly fleshed out. They can have memories implanted that make them believe they truly are human, like the replicant Rachael. Even the blade runner Deckard might be a replicant if Edward James Olmos‘ origami unicorn bears any meaning.
Blade Runner is a complex and beautiful feature film with a great score, editing, and acting. But it was Scott’s singular vision that made it an important part of film history.
Travis Newton on Alien
Look, I love Blade Runner. But if there’s one essential Ridley Scott film, it is Alien. This is the key to unlocking his style. On paper, Alien is a streamlined missile. No backstories, no grand action, no squishy bruised spots. But with Ridley Scott’s guiding hands, it grew into one of science fiction’s best exercises in style. By narrowing its focus, it blows 2001: A Space Odyssey to pieces.
Scott is a formidable visual artist all by himself. But what makes him such a titan is that he knows how to surround himself with visionaries — artists like Derek Vanlint, Jean Giraud (Moebius), Ron Cobb, and H. R. Giger. And Alien isn’t just a visual masterpiece. It’s one of the best horror films ever made. It is a monolithic touchstone for creature and body horror, shining a light into our most morbid and terrible curiosities. A light just bright enough to see a slimy maw full of metal teeth coming right for you, and not much else.
Nick Nunziata on Thelma & Louise
The image above is a spoiler.
A lot of people forget to associate Ridley Scott with Thelma & Louise because of how much weight the film carries. Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon are the faces of the film and Callie Khouri‘s script is so important, so it’s understandable that Scott isn’t the first element that comes to mind. The director invested the film with tremendous style but his ability to never distract from the narrative reminds us that he’s not a style-over-substance filmmaker.
An instant classic, Thelma & Louise has many charms as it tells a rather heartbreaking story that somehow never descends into melodrama. It also shows incredibly gifted and prescient casting in the form of then-unknowns like Michael Madsen and some cutie named Brad Pitt. Thelma & Louise will live forever and in no small part thanks to one of our living legends.
Eric Fuchs on The Martian
Ridley Scott defined dark, moody sci-fi in his early career. His vision of the future in Alien was a spaceship full of dark corridors, soulless corporations, and infinite blackness. The Martian is the upbeat, positive answer that’s been waiting 30 years to come out. Sure, on Mars, technically people cannot hear you scream. But you can listen to a wonderful collection of the greatest hits of the disco era.
Scott’s older sci-fi films are too often cautionary tales. Blade Runner is why we shouldn’t build Replicants. Alien is why we shouldn’t explore space. The Martian is a film that asks why we *should* explore. Matt Damon is stuck alone on Mars. But Anthony Weir’s novel, which the film is based on, relishes in hard science details. Science is not the problem; it is the solution. Between growing potatoes, communicating via hexadecimal, and borrowing old equipment, The Martian is one of the hardest sci-fi films ever made.
The Martian is also Ridley Scott’s easiest and most crowd-pleasing movie. The cast is made up of lovable nerds who play up their charm for the audience. Characters don’t have backstories or arcs. They have charming quirks and jokes to ease the viewers through a complicated and tense rescue story. The film does not even have a villain. Ridley Scott is versatile enough to shift tones. He made a great film that is the exact opposite but in some ways equal to his gritty sci-fi masterpieces.
Nick Nunziata on Gladiator
You can tell when a director is trying to win an Oscar. Gladiator isn’t that film. Though it follows a similar course as films like Braveheart and Dances with Wolves with their muscular hero’s journey, this is simply lightning in a bottle. The time was right, the talent was right, and the film is a powerhouse. That rare mainstream movie that finds its way to the promised land in a clean, unpretentious way. It’s easy to forget how influential the film is but it truly took the costume epic genre to a level that was accessible in a way audiences hadn’t seen since the ’60s. When Ridley Scott is long gone, this film, even more so than his science fiction masterpieces, will be one that brings generations together.
Five Deep Cuts:
They’re not all perfect little snowflakes. The thing about Ridley Scott is that even his lesser works have merit. The DNA that runs through all of his work is so dynamic and strong that they elevate everything he does.
Danielle Ryan on Kingdom of Heaven: Director’s Cut
The theatrical version of Kingdom of Heaven is a hot mess. The film was heavily cut, and producers removed important plot points in the interest of time and appealing to a wider audience. Critics panned it, and Kingdom of Heaven was thought of as a flop. Scott is the king of director’s cuts, however, and he released a three-hour-long home video Director’s Cut that made Kingdom of Heaven an incredible film. Characters who seemingly had no motivations were suddenly rich and well developed. The film was longer but so much better for it.
Kingdom of Heaven is a historically-based action drama about a blacksmith who gets pulled into the craziness of the Crusades. He finds himself in medieval Jerusalem, where he falls in love, discovers himself, and eventually does his best to defend the city he has grown to love. It’s a brilliant epic that works both in the small personal moments between characters, and the massive, sword-and-sandals fight scenes Scott became known for with Gladiator. The film also features a great cast, including Edward Norton, Liam Neeson, Jeremy Irons, Alexander Siddig, and Eva Green.
It’s a shame that the theatrical version of Kingdom of Heaven was so awful. Otherwise, it may have ended up being one of Scott’s top films. It’s a gorgeous movie that transports viewers to medieval Jerusalem like no other film has.
Travis Newton on Hannibal
Before Red Dragon or NBC’s Hannibal got the chance to expand upon the infamous Dr. Lecter, Ridley Scott had a tall order ahead of him. Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs is the only horror film ever to win an Oscar for Best Picture. And in the years since its 1992 win, it hasn’t tarnished at all. When series author Thomas Harris published Hannibal in 1999, readers were baffled.
This sick gothic romance proved difficult to adapt for the screen. Master screenwriters David Mamet and Steve Zaillian tore their hair out trying to get it on the page. Ultimately, Ridley Scott’s knack for baroque style and love of gruesome violence are the glue the binds this film together. Neither Julianne Moore nor Anthony Hopkins is doing great work on the screen, so if you’re going to enjoy Hannibal, you have to acknowledge its gaudy tastelessness.
Nick Nunziata on White Squall
Part coming-of-age flick and part “men against nature” parable, White Squall is a charming little movie. It wants to be a floating Dead Poets Society, and though it doesn’t connect on that level, it has a lot to offer. Jeff Bridges is fantastic as the leader and Captain of the boat that was savaged by the titular storm. It’s a role he doesn’t get much credit for but one that showcases a side of the actor we’ve not seen enough of.
The film also boasts a selection of the best and brightest young actors out there, many of whom came into their own. Though Scott Wolf was present and presented as the “next Tom Cruise”, it’s Ryan Phillippe, Balthazar Getty, and Jeremy Sisto who shine the brightest. Seeing Scott tackle the sun-soaked open seas is a great contrast to his famous grittier work.
And that haunting shot of Catherine Goodall sinking to the bottom. Powerful stuff.
Eric Fuchs on The Counselor
The Counselor might be Ridley Scott’s darkest movie. Brad Pitt’s character describes a device called a “bolito”, used by the Mexican cartels. It’s a metallic noose with an unstoppable motor that will tighten forever, sawing through the skin and arteries of the neck until decapitation. The Counselor’s entire story is a bolito. It’s more of an engine than a plot. Our nameless lawyer hero (Michael Fassbender) is given plenty of warning not to deal with the devil. He does so anyway. From that moment on, the rest of the film is his slow destruction and the destruction of all those around him.
You don’t film a screenplay by Cormac McCarthy expecting something cheery. McCarthy’s dialog is a long philosophical essay on oblivion and inevitability. The scenes see a talented cast slaughtered by various grisly mechanical devices. It’s not all misery. There is a hilarious scene involving Cameron Diaz’s character “catfishing” Javier’s Bardem’s car.
The Counselor is one of Ridley Scott’s films that very badly needs a reevaluation. Critics savaged it in 2013, the consensus being that the film was too bleak for a thriller. They are right. There are very little thrills to The Counselor. For there to be thrills, your hero needs a chance to escape. There is no question that the titular Counselor (Fassbender) is doomed, nor is the rest of the cast. That makes The Counselor a very tough film, but one of Ridley Scott’s best.
Andrew Hawkins on Legend
The strangest thing about Legend is that it even exists. Tim Curry fans love this movie. It’s awesome. There has never been a more iconic version of the Lord of Darkness in film. His presence and delivery on screen is so memorable and unforgettable that the film’s influence has reached everything from John Carpenter to Tenacious D. With Legend, Ridley Scott managed to make a fantasy thriller that isn’t even remembered as a solid entry in the genre.
Legend is way better than its reputation. Hardcore fans of the movie love the story of Jack and Lily and the events that almost led to the world being consumed by ultimate darkness. Ridley Scott took William Hjortsberg’s fantasy screenplay and crafted a world filled with creatures cut straight out of old European folklore and fairy tales. The film as a whole plays like a fever dream and has been cut and re-cut to make four distinctly different versions.
The core elements that make Legend work are its direction and design. Very few films resemble the look of the picture, and the practical effects on screen are almost unparalleled. Ridley Scott used a handful of tricks during the production like repurposing Blade Runner sets to build Darkness’ throne room, and that kind of inventiveness and ingenuity is just a small part of what gives this film a weird kind of magical quality. Legend should be seen with an open mind as not just a unique fantasy film, but a film that has far too long been unappreciated and ignored. It deserves better.
Happy birthday, you beautiful man.