Retrospective: Ridley Scott - The Inconsistent Legend

Editor’s Notes: The Counsellor opens in theatres tomorrow, October 25th.

There is, for all film fanatics, a list of legendary directors.  While some names are synonymous across these lists, many legendary directors would appear on some and be absent on others.  My list (as arbitrary as this may all be) would definitely include Ridley Scott.  Over the years, Ridley Scott has directed some of the most iconic films, a handful of which you would find included in the conversation of best films ever.  He most certainly qualifies as a legend in filmmaking, but there is no doubt he must be one of the most wildly inconsistent of all the celebrated auteurs.  From one film to the next, while certain elements of Scott’s films are reliable throughout, the films as a whole can vary from great to mediocre and, on occasion, just plain poor.  Perhaps he has built up enough credit with his earlier works that this most recent missteps can be forgiven.  But I would argue that Scott needs to rebound.

He most certainly qualifies as a legend in filmmaking, but there is no doubt he must be one of the most wildly inconsistent of all the celebrated auteurs.

Born in 1937 in Northumberland, Scott had a unique path to becoming a director.  He spent some time in the Army but, at the behest of his father, Scott began honing in on his creative talents at the West Hartlepool College of Art and London’s Royal College of Art.  He bounced around through the sixties as a set designer and as a trainee in directing courses before directing a few shows for the BBC.  Scott worked for paltry returns before going into advertising with his brother, the late Tony Scott.  It wasn’t until the late seventies that his work with producer David Puttnam generated a feature film, The Duellists.  But in 1979, Ridley Scott directed the first of a one-two punch of epic and unforgettable science fiction films that would cement his place in history.


Alien is still, to me, the best of the Alien franchise.  Some may lean towards the amped up action adventure sequel, Aliens, from James Cameron as the best of the bunch, but it is so vastly different maybe comparisons are unfair.  Where Aliens was an action film, Alien is a horror set in space, a claustrophobic creature feature where dread and suspense keep the picture tight and involving.  Scott’s creation of the iconic alien life form is one of the most recognizable modern monsters.  And the decision to have the female lead, Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver in a career-defining role), wind up as the hero of the film was a new approach to sci-fi and to film in general.  While Scott borrowed elements from films and directors before him – I think of Jaws when considering the slow reveal of the alien – Alien was a singular vision and a rousing early feature.

Scott’s follow up to Alien was another science fiction epic, one that has taken more time and tweaking to fit itself into the discussion of great sci fi.  Blade Runner was not well received early by critics or audiences.  The film, based on a Philip K. Dick story, starring Harrison Ford as a hunter of Replicants, has an infamous history of studio meddling and cuts and recuts, and it has taken a long while for Scott to release director’s cuts one after another.  We now have the definitive edition form Scott, and most have accepted it as one of the greatest sci-fi stories ever told.  Blade Runner is most definitely a slow-burning story, a noir wrapped up in sci-fi elements, and a film I admire and appreciate more than I absolutely love.

One thing is certain with the films of Ridley Scott, and that is that his films will always and forever look incredible.  This, above all else, is what makes him a legend. 

Scott’s first flash of inconsistency began showing in the late 80s and early 90s with forgettable films like Legend and 1492: Conquest of Paradise, a disastrous Christopher Columbus epic.  But right before 1492¸Scott directed Thelma and Lousie, one of the most overlooked, underappreciated great films of the 90s.  Scott furthered the female empowerment he began with Ellen Ripley in 1979 by creating two unforgettable female leads, strong women fighting against male oppression and living life on their own terms.  Thelma and Louise is a fabulous adventure film with seminal performances from Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon; it also managed to introduce the world to a young actor named Brad Pitt.

The rest of Ridley Scott’s career forms like a roller coaster.  There have been great films, like Gladiator, the first of his films to win Best Picture.  There have been other solid entries like Black Hawk Down and White Squall.  There have also been ambitious projects that missed their mark, like G.I. Jane and Hannibal.  Some of his smaller films like Matchstick Men are lovely hidden gems.  There are some pictures that are flat out poor efforts, like the befuddling romantic dramedy A Good Year starring Russell Crowe.  Along the way, Scott also managed to direct the first sweeping historical epic that has developed a cult following in Kingdom of Heaven.  And then there was American Gangster, a flawed but compelling character drama centered on a true crime story.  Scott’s most recent ambitious project was a prequel (sort of) to Alien, called Prometheus.  While it has moments of greatness, the amazingly inept screenplay sabotages the beautiful imagery, and the logic flaws weigh things down beyond repair.

One thing is certain with the films of Ridley Scott, and that is that his films will always and forever look incredible.  This, above all else, is what makes him a legend.  Scott is a man who pays attention to detail on his canvas, which makes sense given his beginning as a set designer.  Sometimes, the film around the visual perfection of Scott’s work becomes his undoing.  This leads us right into his upcoming feature, The Counselor, which I am certainly excited to see despite the fact it will undoubtedly polarize critics and audiences.  Maybe it’s unfair to say Ridley Scott needs to rebound.  Maybe it will just take time for some of his more recent pictures to be appreciated.  If it happened to Blade Runner, it could happen again.

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Larry Taylor

Staff Film Critic
Ever since I was a child I have had an obscene obsession with film. After seeing Superman II as a five-year old, I have made it my mission to absorb as many films in as many genres from as many moments in time as I can. And over the years, there are films which have continued to shape my cinematic consciousness. I love discussing film, and I hope you enjoy discussing it along with me. You can read my work on as well.
  • acharlie

    this is a great piece man! You taught me a few things and elevated my appreciation for Scott.