Ridley Scott Critical Essays

Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Ridley Scott 1937-

English director and screenwriter.

The following entry presents an overview of Scott's career through 2003.

Since the release of his feature film debut, The Duellists (1977), Scott has emerged as one of the preeminent and most commercially successful directors in modern filmmaking. Known for his visual excess and stylish special effects in such films as Alien (1979), Blade Runner (1982), and Gladiator (2000), Scott both embraces and subverts the traditions of large-budget, Hollywood spectacle films. His movies frequently present sweeping epic storylines—often set against the backdrop of fantastic environments or major historical events—that focus on isolated characters overcoming adversity. However, several of Scott's works, particularly Thelma and Louise (1991) and Matchstick Men (2003), have also been noted for their keen psychological insight and complex characterizations.

Biographical Information

Scott was born in England on November 30, 1937, in South Shields, Northumberland, County Durham. During his childhood, he spent five years living in Germany, where his father, who remained an officer in the British Army after World War II, was posted. Scott studied painting at the West Hartlepool School of Art and later graduated from the Royal College of Art in London, where he studied advertising and graphic design. In 1965 Scott directed his first short film, Boy on a Bicycle, which was funded by the British Film Institute Experimental Film Fund. The short featured Scott's father and his younger brother, Tony, who also became a successful filmmaker, directing such films as Top Gun (1986) and True Romance (1993). After finishing Boy on a Bicycle, Scott began working as a set designer for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). He became a director for BBC Television and worked on episodes of the series Z Cars in 1966 and The Informer in 1966 and 1967. In 1967 Scott founded the commercial production company, Ridley Scott Associates, which has produced several award-winning television commercials. Scott's first full-length film, The Duellists, won the award for best first feature at the 1977 Cannes International Film Festival. He followed The Duellists with the science-fiction horror film Alien. The widespread commercial success of Alien cemented Scott's reputation as skilled director, which has since been confirmed by the continuing success of his subsequent films. Scott has won a wide variety of awards and accolades, including nominations for best director from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for Thelma and Louise, Gladiator, and Black Hawk Down (2001). Thelma and Louise was nominated for six Academy Awards in 1991, winning the best screenplay award. Gladiator was nominated for twelve Academy Awards in 2000, winning best picture, best actor, best costume design, best visual effects, and best sound. Black Hawk Down was nominated for four Academy Awards in 2001, winning best editing and best sound. In 2002 Scott was knighted as an officer of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II.

Major Works

Though Scott's cinematic oeuvre varies in genre and narrative style, one of the core continuing elements throughout his films is an emphasis on spectacular and atmospheric imagery. The Duellists, based on the short story “The Duel,” by Joseph Conrad, is set during the Napoleonic wars. The story follows two French officers who repeatedly cross paths over a period of fifteen years, with each encounter resulting in a duel of honor. After his foray into historical fiction, Scott turned to Alien, a film that blends two disparate movie genres—science-fiction and haunted-house horror. The action of Alien primarily takes place upon a vast industrial spaceship, the Nostromo. On an isolated planet in the future, the crew of the Nostromo finds an abandoned ship, infested with a strange parasitic lifeform. The parasite eventually develops into an enormous, acid-dripping monster, who methodically kills each of the crew members. In the film's conclusion, the sole survivor of the alien's attack, a female captain named Ripley, is forced to battle the monster. Ripley's fight is complicated by an android who works for the company that owns the Nostromo, who wants to capture the alien for military research. In his next film, Blade Runner, Scott again created a narrative that combines science-fiction with another atypical genre, the film noir detective story. Loosely based on Philip K. Dick's novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Blade Runner juxtaposes a traditional 1940s pulp fiction detective adventure with a visually stunning portrait of a dystopian American future. Set in Los Angeles in 2019, the film's protagonist, Rick Deckard, is a “blade runner”—a bounty hunter who is commissioned to track down a group of violent, runaway androids who are nearly indistinguishable from human beings. These artificial lifeforms—called replicants—are only constructed to live for four years at a time due to human prejudice towards their physical and mental superiority. The leader of the replicants, Roy Batty, has come to L.A. to find their creator and force him to let them live longer. In 1992 Scott released a director's cut of Blade Runner, which significantly altered the original film. In Scott's revision, he added additional scenes, removed narration from Deckard's character, and changed the film's ending to imply that Deckard is a replicant himself.

After directing the critically-maligned fantasy film Legend (1985), Scott released the smaller, more intimate suspense-thriller Someone to Watch over Me (1987). The film concerns Mike Keegan, a detective from Queens, New York, who is protecting a Manhattan heiress from a murderous stalker. As Keegan becomes preoccupied with the woman he's protecting, their developing relationship begins to threaten his marriage and family. Highlighting the contrasts between modern American and Japanese culture, Black Rain (1989) is an action-oriented crime film in which an American detective travels to Osaka, Japan, to track down a group of gangsters. Scott followed Black Rain with one of his most popular and controversial films to date, Thelma and Louise. Using the format of the road movie, Thelma and Louise presents a compelling portrayal of two female friends who feel trapped within their prescribed roles in patriarchal American society. The film opens with Thelma, an oppressed housewife, and Louise, a cynical waitress, setting out for a weekend fishing trip. The pair is sidetracked after Thelma is almost raped, and Louise is forced to shoot and kill Thelma's attacker. Fearing that no one would believe that the killing was justifiable, Thelma and Louise set off on a cross-country trek, planning to take sanctuary in Mexico. Though they are being pursued by a phalanx of law enforcement agents, the two women begin a multi-state crime spree to fund their escape. In the film's widely-debated conclusion, Thelma and Louise drive their car off the edge of a canyon to avoid being captured by the police, choosing to end their lives free rather than submitting to the will of others. In 1992 Scott marked the five-hundredth anniversary of Christopher Columbus's “discovery” of America with the epic film 1492: Conquest of Paradise. Focusing on Columbus's struggles with government and church authorities to finance and outfit his voyages, Scott characterizes Columbus as a visionary pioneer akin to the astronauts of the twentieth century. Scott's next film, White Squall (1996), further develops his exploration of the perils of ocean voyages. Set in modern times, the plot follows a captain and his crew of juvenile-delinquent boys who learn discipline, bravery, and comradery when their sailboat meets a deadly ocean storm. Scott continued his emphasis on strong female protagonists—as seen in Alien and Thelma and Louise—with G.I. Jane (1997), in which a woman, Lt. Jordan O'Neil, aspires to become the first female soldier admitted into the prestigious Navy SEALS program. O'Neil eventually earns her place with the rest of the SEALS in combat after saving the life of the superior officer who had earlier brutalized her.

Scott revisited the genre of large-scale historical epics with Gladiator, which won the best picture award in 2000 from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. True to its name, Gladiator is set in ancient Rome and follows Maximus, a betrayed former general, who is forced to engage in gruesome hand-to-hand combat in the Roman Coliseum for the entertainment of the masses. Due to his skill in battle, Maximus becomes a celebrity and uses his newfound fame to overthrow Emperor Commodus, the man who killed his family. Scott further explored the suspense-thriller genre with Hannibal (2001), based on the novel by Thomas Harris. Hannibal is the sequel to Silence of the Lambs—a Harris novel that also spawned a popular film adaptation—which features a young F.B.I. agent named Clarice Starling matching wits with Hannibal Lecter, a highly cultured doctor and notorious serial killer and cannibal. The narrative of Hannibal presents Lecter as a charming anti-hero as it constructs a final showdown between Lecter and Starling orchestrated by one of Lecter's few surviving victims. Returning to the military world of G.I. Jane, Scott directed the gritty war film Black Hawk Down, inspired by the nonfiction book by Mark Bowden. Based on a true incident and told from the perspective of multiple characters, Black Hawk Down recounts a series of harrowing events in Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1993, when United States Army Rangers made a failed attempt to arrest a group of brutal Somalian warlords, resulting in a massive street battle. In 2003 Scott explored a new film genre—the con artist film—with Matchstick Men. The story revolves around Roy Waller, an incredibly phobic and obsessive-compulsive criminal on the verge of pulling off his largest scam to date. Matters are complicated when Roy's teenage daughter unexpectedly arrives and needles her way into Roy's schemes.

Critical Reception

Many film scholars have come to a general consensus that Scott's films typically excel in the realm of visual imagery, but are often weak in narrative and character development. Critics have been overwhelmingly impressed with Scott's cinematography and artistic design—Blade Runner, in particular, has been singled out for its visionary representation of a crumbling futuristic world. Reviewers have noted how many of the elements in Scott's films—the creature in Alien, the final shot of Thelma and Louise—have become iconic symbols often referenced in popular culture. However, some have characterized Scott's visual extravagance as a symptom of his origins in commercial television, commenting that his excessive optical effects are stylish but lacking in depth and expressive significance. Thelma and Louise has attracted a wide range of debate regarding its central themes. Some have argued that the film is a feminist tale of female empowerment, while others have countered, claiming that the film uses the trappings of feminism to create an exploitative female-fantasy adventure. Commentators have also discussed the role of violence in Thelma and Louise, with certain scholars criticizing Scott for glorifying violence as a means of conflict resolution. Several critics have also faulted Scott's military films, G.I. Jane and Black Hawk Down, asserting that the films act as fascist propaganda for the American military complex. Others have disagreed with this assessment, however, and noted that these films present a balanced portrayal of the American military.