Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photos by Twentieth Century Fox, Warner Bros, Universal Pictures and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
For over 40 years, director Ridley Scott has been opening the frame to visions of peerless grandeur, from the historical landscapes of Rome, the Middle Ages, and biblical Egypt to the vast emptiness of outer space and open water to the smog-choked cities of Los Angeles and Osaka, Japan. His facility with genre films was clear in the astonishing one-two-three punch that opened his career — the absurdist swashbuckler The Duellists, the deep-space horror film Alien, and the sci-fi dystopia of Blade Runner — but the true common denominator is a quest for beauty and a gift for allowing a fully realized backdrop to play a dominant role in the storytelling.
One surprising note on the list below: Scott has director’s cuts of several of his films — Blade Runner, Legend, Kingdom of Heaven, and The Counselor — and all of them are improvements on the theatrical versions, often significantly better. The theatrical cut of Blade Runner, which added voiceover narration to help clarify the action, has been largely supplanted by the (slightly shorter) cut without voiceover, but the alternate versions of the others are not as easily found, especially on streaming. In the extreme case of Kingdom of Heaven, that’s a full 50 minutes lost and the difference between a Gladiator rehash with a weak center and a much richer treatment of the Crusades and a deep-seated religious conflict that continues to this day.
There’s an argument to be made that Scott peaked too soon or that he squandered his promise as a director of true science-fiction on a studio canvas. But even the worst films on this list are worlds worth getting lost in, because he invests so much creative and technical energy on atmosphere and image-making that those elements endure regardless of the parts that don’t work. And when everything’s going right, his best work has set a standard that other filmmakers have struggled to follow.
By far the better of the two competing Christopher Columbus films of 1992 — the other, Christopher Columbus: The Discovery, was a calamity of historic proportions — 1492: Conquest of Paradise nonetheless exposes Scott’s weakness for obsessing over a sumptuous backdrop and losing engagement with the story happening in front of it. Gerard Depardieu is certainly a better Columbus than the other film’s George Corraface, but no more dimensional: Here’s a historical figure who’s been a lightning rod in the debate over colonialism and its impact on indigenous peoples, but 1492 chooses to mythologize rather than interrogate. It’s spectacularly beautiful when it hits the open water or explores the lush wonders of the New World, but the Columbus that emerges after 150 minutes is a dreamy cypher, an easy answer on a Social Studies test.
Best known for Life in Provence and other best-selling memoirs about the eccentricities and splendors of southeastern France, Peter Mayle collaborated with Scott on the idea for A Good Year, a novel that more or less celebrates the same virtues. But Scott isn’t a director who’s adept at handling the deliberately slight — ditto Russell Crowe, his star — and the mismatch of sensibilities results in a film that spoils Mayle’s delicate magic. The trite story sends Crowe’s slick investment banker to his late uncle’s rundown château and estate in Provence, where he’s supposed to ready the property for sale, but winds up falling in sync with its soul-soothing rhythms. Rather than evoke the quirks of vineyard life, A Good Year sets up a crude choice between his cold life back in London or an earthly paradise full of wine and beautiful women. Easy call.
Aside from Anthony Hopkins, the Oscar-sweeping team behind The Silence of the Lambs — director Jonathan Demme, star Jodie Foster, and screenwriter Ted Tally — all passed on Hannibal after Thomas Harris’s novel came out in 1999. The screen adaptation is a good indicator why: Though the first film handled the serial-killer grotesquerie with chilling deftness, its true focus was Foster’s Clarice Starling, a fledgling FBI agent trying to assert herself in a menacing, male-dominated world. Hannibal recasts Foster with Julianne Moore and then mostly marginalizes her in favor of an absolutely disgusting mano a mano between Hannibal Lecter and a previous victim (Gary Oldman) hellbent on revenge. Shooting in Florence, among other haunted locales, Scott pays homage to the ornate bloodletting of Italian giallo, but sinks into rank, witless exploitation.
In updating The Ten Commandments for the age of 3-D digital effects, Scott burned through $200 million to stage biblical miracles and plagues on a massive scale, but seems more interested in spectacle for its own sake than an expression of true spiritual conviction. Christian Bale and Joel Edgerton square off with appropriate intensity as Moses, who leads 600,000 Hebrew slaves on a perilous escape from Egypt, and his brother Ramses, the pharaoh who marshals his forces against him. Scott’s commitment to historical accuracy has him explaining the bloody Nile and the parting of the Red Sea as more natural phenomena than acts of God, but it’s never clear what religious point he wants to make. He worships at the altar of technique.
The year was 1987. Tom Berenger and Mimi Rogers’s stars were briefly ascendant. Sting was the choice to sing a George Gershwin standard over the opening credits. And the trend of sexy domestic shockers after Fatal Attraction hadn’t yet kicked into gear, since that film had just come out a few weeks before. Someone to Watch Over Me is a product of its time, a serviceable romantic thriller that wound up looking chaste and old-fashioned next to the films that would soon flood the market in the same genre. Berenger and Rogers have solid opposites-attract chemistry as a working-class NYPD detective and the rich socialite he’s assigned to protect from a ruthless killer, and Scott luxuriates in the moody corridors of New York’s ultra-wealthy. But their class differences are mapped out too broadly, and the plotting is as off-the-rack as one of Berenger’s suits.
After playing the dickish hero in Romancing the Stone, The Jewel of the Nile, and Fatal Attraction, and before playing the dickish hero in Basic Instinct, Falling Down, and Disclosure, Michael Douglas played a supremely dickish hero in Scott’s thriller about a disgraced NYPD officer who takes on the Yakuza in Osaka, Japan. His cop-on-the-edge routine — leather jacket, aviator glasses, motorcycle, bottomless petulance — is overcranked, as is the cartoon menace of the criminal underground, which fed into a brief cultural freakout over Japanese dominance. Yet Black Rain is visually ravishing, capturing the smog-choked streets of Osaka with the intensity and dynamism of a first-rate graphic novel. The surface forgives a lot of what happens underneath.
There’s not much to Scott’s glossy exercise in battering-ram feminism: Woman gets thrown into a Navy SEALs-esque program to challenge military gender barriers. Woman succeeds despite relentless brutalization and assault. Woman says “Suck my dick!” G.I. Jane feels like a variation on Top Gun, by Scott’s brother Tony, fetishizing the macho rituals of the naval elite and ending with a real-world demonstration of lessons learned on the training ground. There’s not much room for nuance here — the political horse-trading involved in creating this opportunity is particularly unconvincing — and the film’s leering eroticism undercuts the seriousness of its case for women as equals on the battlefield. But Demi Moore’s fierce commitment to the role transforms her into a trash-art Joan of Arc, willing her place into a man’s world.
In the 1938 classic The Adventures of Robin Hood, Robin Hood is a happy iconoclast, meting out his form of social and political justice with the cheerful irreverence and deft strokes of Errol Flynn, cinema’s premier swashbuckler. Scott’s Robin Hood has a more historical bent, which is the first indicator that every last bit of fun has been drained out of it. In fun’s place, Scott brings the grit and grime of 12th-century England to life and places Russell Crowe’s Robin at the center of a battle against royal tyranny, albeit without wealth redistribution on his agenda. The immense scale does, however, yield battle sequences of thrilling scope and brutality, with arrows raining down from the skies and armies amassing by land and sea. It’s Braveheart with a quiver.
Body of Lies has two of the biggest stars in the world and made over $100 million at the box office, but does anyone remember the first thing about it? It’s a crisply directed thriller about the efforts of the CIA and Jordanian intelligence to break up a terrorist network, but Scott’s career-long aversion to politics deprives it of a strong point of view. As a cat-and-mouse game between the authorities and a terrorist mastermind, Body of Lies is strictly by-the-numbers, but it does suggest a telling disconnect in the relationship between Leonardo DiCaprio’s operative and Russell Crowe’s analyst: One on the ground in global trouble spots, the other making decisions from his home in Washington D.C., without respect to their real-world impact. There’s a bit of commentary here about the arrogance of Americans dictating Middle East policy from afar, but the ins and outs of the mission take precedence.
When news broke about Kevin Spacey’s sexual misconduct less than two months before All the Money in the World was due to be released, Scott hustled to replace him, casting Christopher Plummer as J. Paul Getty and hastily reshooting all of his scenes. What’s particularly remarkable about the move is that Plummer’s Getty dominates the film even when he’s not onscreen. With his 16-year-old grandson held for ransom by Italian kidnappers in 1973 and the boy’s mother (Michelle Williams) pleading for help, Getty shocks the world with his miserly callousness, saying, “If I pay one penny now, then I’ll have 14 kidnapped grandchildren.” Scott handles the race-against-the-clock quality of the story cleanly, but it’s Plummer’s performance that’s most compelling here. His Getty is both monstrous and emotionally isolated, walled in by a fortune that’s doomed him to misfortune.
Loosely based on a true event from 1960, when a storm wiped out the Albatross, a two-masted schooner that functioned as a school for seafaring young men, White Squall is more or less Dead Poets Society on water, with Jeff Bridges stepping into the Robin Williams role. Bridges’s mercurial ship captain is a step up from Williams’s manic oh-captain-my-captain, but the students themselves are a stock bunch of ’60s squares and rebels in white tees (and without them), more compelling as physical specimens than psychological ones. As with 1492: Conquest of Paradise four years earlier, Scott drinks in the majesty of open water, but the film doesn’t come fully to life until the title sequence, when the now-skilled and confident shipmates are humbled mercilessly by Mother Nature.
Based on Mark Bowden’s book about a team of Delta Force commandos and elite Army Rangers who engaged in ferocious battle on the streets of Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1993, Black Hawk Down is a visceral you-are-there account told strictly from the point of view of American military men. There are serious problems with this approach, like the absence of context for the fight and the endless slaughter of faceless Somalis, but Scott burrows into the tactical details of a skirmish that wiped out 18 American soldiers and more than 500 Somalis. For Scott to take an apolitical approach to a politically loaded conflict is morally dubious, but it’s hard to argue against the mastery of his staging, which gets both the overall strategy and the chaos on the ground persuasively right.
Based on a New York Magazine profile of Frank Lucas, a vicious heroin magnate in the 1970s, American Gangster is a straightforward mob epic about a former chauffeur and protégé to Harlem kingpin Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson who seizes control of the business after his boss dies of a heart attack in 1968. Denzel Washington plays Lucas as a speak-softly-but-carry-a-big-stick type who likes to operate in the shadows, but strikes with overwhelming and often audacious brutality to defend his territory. His entrepreneurial venture into a pure Thai dope called “Blue Magic” draws heat from both the criminal underworld and an Essex County detective (Russell Crowe) fighting through a corrupt NYC police department. The gangster story is more compelling than the police-corruption story, but Scott brings them together in a vividly realized era where the city was a garden for lawlessness.
Several of Scott’s films have “Director’s Cut” editions, but he’s the rare case where all of them are improvements on the theatrical cut, a couple of them significant. The director’s version of Kingdom of Heaven, his massive Crusades epic, adds a full 50 minutes to the running time and creates a more coherent, immersive, and complex reading into 12th-century religious conflict and what it might teach us about contemporary tensions between Christians and Muslims. No cut of the film can redeem Orlando Bloom’s ho-hum performance as a blacksmith who travels to Jerusalem to find spiritual solace after a family tragedy and ends up defending the city against a siege from the West. But Scott has never taken a bigger swing for the fences, and his sympathetic treatment of the Islamic world counts as a politically bold engagement with a relevant historical flashpoint.
After kicking off his career with three straight classics, Scott ran aground with his fussily directed fantasy about unicorns, fairies, goblins, dwarves, and the fight to keep Darkness incarnate from descending on a beautiful forest kingdom. There’s not much to the efforts of a spritely Tom Cruise to rescue a virginal princess (Mia Sara), but then again, storybook simplicity is a virtue in Legend, which is better than its reputation suggests, especially in a director’s cut that’s nearly 20 minutes longer than the theatrical version and restores a mesmerizing Jerry Goldsmith score. The world of the film is staggeringly beautiful, creating an oversize forest of enchantment and menace, capable of shifting from heavenly idyll in one scene to Grimm fairy tale in the next.
There’s a nobility that usually comes with characters who overcome disabilities, to say nothing of the actors who play them, but one of the dark pleasures of Matchstick Men is that triumph over adversity means being the most effective criminal possible. A fully committed Nicolas Cage stars as a con man who suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder and Tourette’s, which complicates the pool-filtration scam he runs with his dirtbag protégé, played by a very funny Sam Rockwell. The script, co-authored by Ocean’s Eleven writer Ted Griffin, is appropriately twisty and frequently hilarious, but there’s some soul to Matchstick Men, too, particularly in Cage’s relationship to the 14-year-old daughter (Alison Lohman) he didn’t know he had.
Overseeing Ben Affleck and Matt Damon’s first screenplay collaboration since Good Will Hunting — albeit with a surely crucial co-writing credit to Nicole Holofcener — Scott seems perfectly at home with the brutality and gore of a medieval kingdom where “trial by combat” is still an option to settle disputes. But his Rashomon-like story of a rape recalled from multiple performances brings the sexual politics of Thelma & Louise back into play, along with an unexpectedly bawdy spirit, sparked by Affleck’s hilarious turn as a decadent count who scoffs at the case. The three leading turns — by Jodie Comer as the intrepid victim, Damon as her husband and square-jawed knight, and Adam Driver as the accused squire — are all excellent, and the film’s insights into patriarchal power resonate through the centuries.
The only Scott film to win Best Picture — he’s never won Best Director, losing this time to Traffic director Steven Soderbergh — Gladiator is a throwback to giant sword-and-sandal spectacles like Ben-Hur and Spartacus, updated for the age of CGI. The scale of Gladiator explains its Oscar win more than its questionable depth, but Russell Crowe’s brute charisma carries the day, as his fallen general survives betrayal and enslavement and hacks his way through various duels-to-the-death to exact vengeance upon the tyrant (Joaquin Phoenix) responsible for his downfall. Though dressed up with digital landscapes that advances in effects have rendered less impressive over time, the film is a classic hero’s quest, rooted in family tragedy and redeemed by the righteousness and determination of a wronged man seeking justice. It’s the rare Best Picture winner that would probably have a better reputation if it hadn’t won.
With his sequel to Prometheus, Scott edges away from the earlier film’s arty peculiarities to create something closer to a traditional entry in the Alien franchise, albeit still defined by austere craftsmanship, ornate celestial architecture, and some heady ideas about humanity facing its own extinction. It also develops David, the android played by Michael Fassbender, into a terrifically cold-blooded villain, whose agenda runs counter to the crew and colonists that make an unexpected landing on the alien-infested planet of Origae-6. Katherine Waterston steps up as a capable Ripley type who leads an increasingly decimated team through the paces, and Fassbender, in a dual performance as David and the kinder next-gen Walter, embodies both the promise and threat of artificial intelligence. The series Scott wound up starting with Alien had shifted into action-adventure in Aliens and the subsequent sequels, and here he takes it back to its cold, clinical roots.
Scott’s return to the sci-fi/horror that made his career is Alien-adjacent — it “shares strands of Alien’s DNA,” he said at the time — but it’s an odd duck, a prequel that attempts to deliver the gruesome monster-movie thrills of the franchise while exploring fundamental questions about the existence of man. Working with Lost co-creator and showrunner Damon Lindelof, who overhauled Jon Spaihts’s original screenplay, Scott builds out Prometheus with a complicated mythology about astronauts on a journey to meet their creators, called “the Engineers,” and the dangers that confront their expedition. It takes patience (and multiple viewings) to sort through all the signs and wonders, much less reconcile these abstractions with the expected spasms of otherworldly terror, but Scott’s insistence on diverting the Alien series toward a more unexpected and rapturously strange end pays off.
One of the worst-received films of Scott’s career also happens to be one of his best, though the lion’s share of the credit must go to Cormac McCarthy, who wrote the original screenplay and whose voice comes through more dominantly here than in the Coen brothers’ adaptation of his novel No Country for Old Men. Through the deliberately standard-issue story of an amateur criminal (Michael Fassbender) trying to arrange a $20 million drug shipment from a Ciudad Juárez cartel, McCarthy stares into the abyss of human evil and the abyss stares back, pitilessly. Scott emphasizes the trappings and temptations of wealth and power as only he can, but as the scheme starts to unravel, McCarthy’s philosophical monologues take over with a beauty and violence of their own. It’s an odd film to say the least, between the talkiness that curbs any narrative momentum and eccentric flourishes, like a car-humping to rival anything in Titane. But Scott gives over so much to McCarthy that it has the feel of a great novel — and a future cult classic.
Films often make virtues out of determination and the will to survive, but The Martian, based on Andy Weir’s novel, does one better by valuing the importance of knowledge and intellectual rigor to achieve the unlikely. When Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is left for dead on Mars, shivved by flying debris and a dwindling oxygen supply, he has to puzzle out ways to extend his life on an uninhabitable planet on the faint hope that he’ll get rescued. Though The Martian has a can-do attitude that’s far from the doom-laden helplessness that overwhelms Alien, the two have in common a survivalist simplicity that arises from a single character who refuses to accept the seeming inevitability of failure. At a time when scientific process gets painted as voodoo in certain political circles, there’s a meat-and-potatoes satisfaction to watching a film that makes straightforward problem-solving seem heroic.
There are times when the bigness of Scott’s directorial style feels ill-suited to the intimacies of Callie Khouri’s script about women on the lam, but as Thelma & Louise has embedded itself in popular culture, the scope of the film seems more appropriate — and, in certain moments, genuinely epochal. American road movies have often taken advantage of the Western landscape and the freedom it represents, but there’s a unique power to the image of two women hitting the open road, at first to explore its possibilities and later to escape the law — and the world of men — as it encroaches on them. Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon have exceptional chemistry in the lead roles, which are keenly written to contrast sharply but reveal compatible desires to escape from their drab, working-class lives. Considering its ending, it’s striking how much Thelma & Louise has become a feminist touchstone of friendship and self-discovery, no matter how the journey ends.
For his brilliant debut feature, Scott reportedly took inspiration from the period lushness of Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon two years before, but the absurdity of the ongoing conflict in The Duellists has more in common with one of Kubrick’s anti-war films. Keith Carradine and Harvey Keitel play French soldiers in Napoleon’s army who nurture a decades-long grudge that occasionally results in them coming to blows in sword fights, jousts, and eventually pistols at dawn. Scott’s mastery of genre and eye for natural beauty are apparent from the beginning, and he slyly mocks the rules of engagement for this ongoing conflict, which have to be suspended any time Carradine outranks Keitel or whenever Napoleon sends them into battle. Over time, however, their rivalry consumes their lives so wholly that compromise becomes impossible and escalation inevitable. It’s a subtle allegory for how countries slide into war.
There’s no overstating the impact Blade Runner had on future visions of science-fiction dystopias, if not more generally the neo-noir sheen that has become the default look of so many genre films about glittering cityscapes of rain and shadow. The opening shots paint 2019 Los Angeles as an unrecognizable place transformed by technology (flying cars!) and omnipresent advertising, and the scene on the ground anticipates the confusion and danger of androids infiltrating society and overwhelming their masters. The voiceover narration imposed by the studio for a theatrical version was a mistake — unrewarded by critics and audiences, who were initially cool on the film — but the director’s cut (and later, “The Final Cut”) allows for a stronger focus on Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), a grimly determined cop assigned to hunt down a band of replicants gone rogue. Through his eyes, the world of Blade Runner becomes a journey through the land of misfit toys, a place humans once sought to control but have lost their grip on. The question of whether Deckard himself is a human or replicant is its own philosophy course on the nature of man, but Scott’s sleek production hints at a future where we’ve ceded so much to technology that the answer to such a question will cease to matter.
The sequels to Alien have been such free-for-all battles between humans and deadly extraterrestrials that it can be easy to forget the chilling simplicity of the original film, which needed only one creature to decimate the crew of a deep-space mining vessel ill-equipped to fight it. A candidate on any shortlist of the greatest horror films ever made, Alien borrows heavily from the hushed grandeur of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, particularly the ironic feeling of isolation that goes along with being stuck in the infinite. Sigourney Weaver’s performance as Ellen Ripley, the warrant officer who holds her own against the threat, is an enduring picture of strength and resourcefulness, but Ripley is also a woman of principle, willing to make the difficult decisions that true leadership demands. If her decision not to let an infected crew member back onboard isn’t overruled by her subordinates, the alien doesn’t even make it onto the ship. The film is a potent nightmare of what a real extraterrestrial encounter might be like, with Ripley squaring off against a mysterious and hostile being, without the tools to stop it.