Of all the directors we would label as “great”, Ridley Scott is a curious study. He has certainly made some great films – some of the best, in fact – but his body of work also contains more middling to bad films than your Spielbergs or Scorseses. Chalk it up to his talents as a storyteller, or lack thereof. Scott has a mastery of production design and cinematography that few other filmmakers can rival, but he is not a storyteller. His inability to distinguish between a good script and a bad script means that his films will always look good, but they may end up feeling unsatisfying, frustrating, or just plain terrible. So, any list of Ridley Scott’s best films will inevitably be a list of Ridley Scott films that had a good script. With that in mind, here are That Film Site’s top five Ridley Scott films.
- Thelma & Louise
Even a quarter of a century on, it can be difficult to believe that Thelma & Louise is a Ridley Scott film. We have his use of music, and the mounting tension in the final scenes; but other than that, the subject matter doesn’t seem like the kind of thing Scott could really get his teeth into. It’s a testament, then, to Scott’s versatility as a filmmaker that Thelma & Louise has become one of the classic road movies. It helps that Scott had a great script; Callie Khouri’s screenplay crackles with vitality. And credit is due Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis. For more than a decade, Scott had built a reputation for being difficult with actors, but Thelma & Louise seems to have been a turning point, and he coaxes Oscar nominated performances out of his two leads. And, of course, that ending…
Of all the films on this list, Gladiator probably has the weakest script: ponderous and creaky at times with an inflated sense of self-importance. But it’s the actors and Scott’s eye for design and cinematography that elevates the film to greatness. Russell Crowe gives what has to be his best performance as general-turned-slave-turned-gladiator Maximus Decimus Meridius, and Joaquin Phoenix gleefully chews the scenery as the wicked Emperor Commodus. The real star, though, is Scott’s meticulous recreation of the Roman Empire circa AD 180. Gladiator’s production design goes above and beyond the epics of yesteryear from which it so clearly takes inspiration. Every detail of the costumes, the sets, the weapons and props, is rigorously researched and fabricated. Special mention must also be made of Hans Zimmer’s score. Scott is a director who knows how to choose composers and how to get great music out of them. The battle music has a wonderful waltz-like quality to it, and I dare you to listen to Now We Are Free without getting a lump in your throat. Hollywood has tried to ape Scott’s success with the historical epic, and has consistently failed to meet his high standards.
- The Martian
This is what happens when you give Ridley Scott a truly fantastic script. Drew Goddard’s adaptation of Andy Weir’s novel is tightly paced, brilliantly funny, and has genuine respect for science and scientists. Marry that to Scott’s visual skill, and you have Scott’s best film since Gladiator. There’s a Kubrick-like dedication to accuracy and detail in the near-future NASA technology, which puts one in mind of a more realistic version of the assiduously crafted Nostromo. In fact, The Martian’s excellent production design really does give us the sense that we could be on Mars in a few years (but hopefully not get stranded there). The novel’s running gag concerning disco music also allows Scott to indulge his love of musical montages. And so we get the likes of “Waterloo” playing over perfectly edited sequences of Mark Watney surviving on Mars while scientists do science on Earth. The Martian was Scott’s joyous return to form after fifteen years of average to poor films. Alien: Covenant might have let him down, but at least we know the old dog still has it in him.
The Duellists may have been his first feature, but Alien is the film that made Ridley Scott. All the ingredients are here for a great Scott film: a brilliant cast giving subtle performances; tight pacing that ratchets up the tension; and of course, meticulous production design. Much has been said of the opening shots of the Nostromo’s interior, and for good reason. This future is the worn-out, lived-in technoscape that Star Wars pioneered two years earlier; but where Lucas’ film felt grimy and used largely for budgetary reasons, Alien’s design does the same to give us a sense that this is a real, workaday world. The script backs this up, as our space trucker heroes argue over bonuses rather than spout exposition. All this worldbuilding serves a greater purpose: when the horror begins, it’s all the more horrible because it feels like it’s happening in a real space. And the horror is horrible. Scott chooses to show us little of the Alien itself, instead allowing us to experience it through the crew’s mounting terror. When we do see the Alien, it’s a phallic, sexual predator, preying on our deepest fears of rape and bodily violation. Aliens was a great sequel, and the franchises subsequent films have their merits, but none of them can match Scott’s peerless sci-fi horror. Alien would be his best film, but then he made…
- Blade Runner
Blade Runner is the greatest science fiction film ever made. More thematically dense than Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and more accessible than 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner’s influence on cinema is immeasurable. Countless films have imitated its steamy, dimly lit urban sprawl, not to mention the pervasively gargantuan advertisements that seem more relevant now than in 1982. The melting pot of cultures and languages that is Scott’s neon-drenched future is the de rigeur setting for pretty much all cyberpunk. Perhaps most impactful, however, is the marriage of profound ideas and populist action. Blade Runner explores what it is to be human, along with themes of mortality and legacy, but couches them in a pulpy noir story that ends with a thrilling on-foot chase through an abandoned building. Films like District 9, which also nests important ideas within an action framework, just wouldn’t exist without Blade Runner. The film has had a tumultuous journey from box office flop to near-mythic cult favourite, but the mere fact it made that journey is testament to the profound and lasting appeal of Blade Runner.
And there you have it: That Film Site’s top five Ridley Scott films. Feel free to loudly disagree in the comments.