Monday, June 21, 2010

The Riddle of Ridley Scott

If Ridley Scott had stopped working after his first three films, his legacy would be secure. The Duellists (1977) was an impressive debut which hinted that the British director was a master of period detail and cinematic beauty, but it was Alien (1979) and Blade Runner (1982) that would change the entire look and feel of a film genre. These back-to-back masterpieces are arguably the most influential science fiction films since 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Star Wars (1977), a remarkable achievement considering they were both directed by the same man in a span of only three years (and that nothing has been released in the time since which has made nearly the same impact).

However, he did not stop after the success of those two films. He has continued to work and dabble in different genres regardless of popular or critical approval. With films like Thelma & Louise (1991), Gladiator (2000), Black Hawk Down (2002) and Matchstick Men (2003) on his resume, he's been nothing if not eclectic. Unlike someone like James Cameron who will only get off his can to make a new movie if he's sure it'll be the most profitable (and expensive) one ever made, Scott has demonstrated an almost relentless work ethic, moving on to the next project as soon as one is completed. But aside from a few Best Director nominations over the years, he never has been recognized as one of the most consistent, hard-working and flat-out talented directors in the world.

One of the reasons for this is that storytelling has never been Scott's greatest strength. He favors complex plots over straightforward ones, and it's no surprise he started as a commercial director when so many of his films are edited like trailers. Even on Alien and Blade Runner, widely accepted as his two greatest films, there are stretches where the story takes a back seat to the visuals.

But even when his films don't exactly draw the viewer in on a plot level, they still manage to be artful and eye-catching. The visuals in his films, whether they're about medieval times or the modern American military or some futuristic world, have always been stunningly gorgeous. I for one can't remember a damn thing about the plot of Kingdom of Heaven (2005), but it contains images that I know I'll never forget. What's more, the worlds he creates feel lived-in. His production designers, cinematographers and costume people actually manage to make Russell Crowe look like a man living hundreds of years ago, rather than an actor playing dress-up.

Unfortunately, this difficulty with storytelling, along with his tendency to bang out film after film, seems to have hurt his reputation over the years. His last four films, Robin Hood (2010), Body of Lies (2008), American Gangster (2007) and A Good Year (2006) have compiled scores of 53 (out of 100), 57, 76, and 47 on Metacritic. American Gangster was the lone hit with audiences on that list, and the only one to garner any nominations from the Academy. Reviews of these films have characterized Scott as a workmanlike director, a man whose filmmaking is always competent, but no longer captivating, at least not compared to his early stuff.

This characterization is unfair to Scott, as it suggests that he no longer strives for greatness in his films, even as it acknowledges their technical brilliance. The truth is Scott is still the same director he always was, constantly putting everything he's got into every movie, never selecting projects based on prestige or profitability but only based on what interests him at that time, which seems to be changing every year. Even when his films aren't easy to love, they're very easy to admire, whether or not they change the landscape of cinema like Blade Runner did.

(It hasn't helped that his recent projects have tread increasingly familiar cinematic ground - drug empire, counter-terrorism, Robin Hood - but anyone who's seen more than a few of his films will recognize his unique visual imprint on these subjects)

And the overall career of the man should rightfully place him in the pantheon of the greatest directors living today. It's easy to point to his earliest successes and conclude that nothing else he's done since has eclipsed that. Imagine if Hitchcock had made Psycho and Rear Window as his first two films, then spent the rest of his career doing romantic comedies and crime dramas. That's the type of legacy we're talking about here, which may be frustrating for some, but remains impressive in its own right. Perhaps most impressively, Scott has stayed true to himself through all of it.


Wendy said...

Thank you for the James Cameron mention. Would he have ever even gotten started if Scott hadn't made Alien for him to sequelize? I love all of Scott's films except (and this is a big exception here) Matchstick Men. I think he just wanted to work with Nicholas Cage.

Austin said...

You left out "Legend," one of the best and most important (and beautiful) early fantasy films ever.

And don't confuse success with box office returns or oscar nominations.

I'm sure history will vindicate Ridley Scott if it becomes necessary. I doubt it, but true artists like Scott never diminish over time.

And James Cameron gave us Terminator and Terminator 2. He may be the most arrogant bastard in the film industry, but unlike most, he has reason to be full of himself.

Wendy said...

Like hell he does. Need I remind you of Titanic (puke) and Avatar (puke again)? I'm glad the Academy finally had the balls to award Best Director to Ms. Bigelow, someone who really deserved it, instead of that lazy S.O.B. I agree with Jacob - it's like people who will only play games they know they will win. Conceit. That's all it is.

Jacob I. McMillan said...

@Austin: Still need to see Legend. It's actually quite a good example of what I'm talking about. For an early-80s Tom Cruise movie, hardly anyone remembers it. I'm not talking about box office or nominations = success - I'm talking about cultural significance. Stuff people remember or pick up through osmosis even if they've never seen it firsthand because it's penetrated (sorry Wendy) so deep into the cultural vocabulary.

@Wendy: I'm never going to stop laughing at Cameron for losing his beloved Oscar to his ex-wife for a film which happened to be the lowest-grossing Best Picture nominee ever. Also I think Terminator was before Aliens. But he was sued for stealing that story from a French short film called La Jetee.

Wendy said...

Gotta respect a guy who gets his start by stealing other people's works. I mean we all steal in a way but usually not quite so overtly.

Scott has something for everybody - I love that his films span every genre from fantasy and sci-fi to period and feminist films. Why is he not everyone's favorite director? Ughh. People.

Jacob I. McMillan said...

He's not my favorite director because Miyazaki is better. He's definitely got the strongest female characters outside of Miyazaki, though.

Austin said...

I have to disagree with the hardly anyone remembers Legend, whether or not it has Tom Cruise in it. Most people I know know it and love it.

I think La Jetee, if it's the one I'm thinking of, inspired 12 Monkeys more than Terminator, but I've been wrong in the past. :)

(Speaking of 12 Monkeys, you (or I) should do a post about Terry Gilliam's directing. There's someone I think is simultaneously under-appreciated and overrated, if that's possible.)

Whether Cameron ripped it off or not, Terminator and Terminator 2 are great movies. Titanic was a terrible movie (Kate Winslet's breasts notwithstanding). Avatar was lame, but it wasn't as bad as the Star Wars Prequels. Well, that's debatable.

Jacob I. McMillan said...

I haven't seen a Gilliam film I've liked yet. I find his directing style over-the-top to the point of being distracting. At least it was in 12 Monkeys and Brazil. The animated segments in Holy Grail were good though.

By the way, I was wrong about La Jetee. It inspired 12 Monkeys but the guy who made it didn't sue James Cameron. That was some other science fiction writer who claimed Cameron lifted elements of his scripts for The Outer Limits. I get those cases mixed up. The plots are way too similar.

No movie with Kate Winslet's breasts in it can be totally bad.

Austin said...

check out "time bandits" or "baron von munchausen" if you want to see early gilliam (gilliam at his best) with bit parts going to several of his python mates.

other than 12 monkeys, those are my favorite gilliam movies, though I haven't seen the Fisher King.

Jacob I. McMillan said...

Have you seen Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas? That's one people usually mention when they're making the case for Gilliam as a great director (or trying to tear that case down). I tried to watch it once but was too drunk to follow what was happening. Hunter S. Thompson would've been proud.

Austin said...

That's right, I forgot Gilliam did that. I saw it, but don't remember much about it for a similar reason.