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.