Peel the Onion | Duds, Gems, and Masterworks: A Selection of Films from Ridley Scott (Part III)
As a testament to Scott's diversity and mastery over the medium, 2000's Gladiator almost single-handedly revived the swordplay genre from a decades-long Hollywood stupor. Because of this "genre reset," Gladiator today may be seen as a cliche, overshadowing its technical brilliance and brazen entertainment value. A star-making vehicle for relative new Hollywood acolyte Russel Crowe who plays Maximus Decimus Meridius, a fictitious character based on several characters, including Avidius Cassius, a general in Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius' armies.
Gladiator is an epic tale of Maximus's righteous revenge — murdered son and murdered wife, you see — set in ancient Rome. Crowe is imposing as Maximus but plays the character with sympathy as he goes up against boy emperor Commodus, played by a pre-megastar Joaquin Phoenix. Scott's set design and milieu are breathtaking, and he makes the most of the then-emerging digital technology to build those unforgettable scenes of the Colosseum.
Thelma & Louise (1991)
Zooming out of Ridley Scott's filmography, it's not like he's heavily renowned for being a feminist director. But the results speak for themselves as 1991's Thelma & Louise became a tome for female empowerment, becoming a critical and commercial hit, receiving multiple Academy Award nominations, and winning Best Original Screenplay. Reportedly, screenwriter Callie Khouri initially hesitated that Scott would have the subtly to do justice to the storytelling, which is about two women who become road trip buddies after killing a would-be rapist. The famous last shot of Thelma and Louise's Thunderbird gliding into the Grand Canyon is iconic. Still, Scott's deft handling of the material not only proved his genre mastery but also brought back credibility and accolades after a career dry spell.
It's generally agreed that Scott's "classic period" started in the late 70s with "Alien" — a bonafide sci-fi horror classic. What's astounding is that Alien was only Scott's second feature. That it's become so iconic and influential has cemented Scott as one of the greats and is a primary reason we make deep dive lists like these. Despite the subsequent imitators and knock-offs, Alien still stands as the reigning monarch of the genre it created. The famous poster slogan "in space no one can hear you scream" perfectly captures the feeling of isolation and humming dread of an unknown entity. Now more than 40 years old, Alien is, in the words of film critic Peter Bradshaw, "lethally contemporary," continuing to speak to the human condition of paranoia and fear of The Other. Part of this fear is how Sigourney Weaver's Ripley and crew must face up to the notion of dying in the silence of a galactic vacuum. Scott's well-worn spaceship set design with blue-collar workers who aren't snazzy scientists or super military personnel appeals to a sense of the ordinary that still resonates with audiences. And then the reveal of the creature itself is still one of the most iconic cinematic moments in movie history. Scott has arguably been chasing that Alien moment ever since.
In Greek mythology, Prometheus is the name given to a Titan god of fire. Since its release, Scott's 2012 science fiction of the same name has taken a pummeling from the film community, with critics and punters alike lambasting it as a disappointing return to the Alienverse. But here's the thing. Prometheus continues to fascinate, whereby Esquire critic Dom Nero has outright called it a "masterpiece," baiting dissenters to redeem the movie as one of Scott's greats. We're in semi agreement here. While not a masterpiece in the traditional sense with bountiful accolades and box office spoils, Prometheus is excellent nonetheless.
And despite its goof-like characters doing silly things like not running sideways to avoid a falling spaceship or thinking an alien face sucker is cute talking to it like a puppy — with a superbly chilling performance by Michael Fassbender — the movie's premise is what makes Prometheus a Scott classic.
Where Alien took the mantle of a slasher movie in space, Prometheus is a richly-detailed mix of heady philosophy and what it means to be human. The storyline of the mysterious engineers is jaw-droppingly bold and fascinating from the only director who could do something as daring. Perhaps not a bonafide classic, but for Scott, this is a high watermark as he tackles one of the biggest questions; what is the meaning of our existence? It's no wonder he bitterly crushed the beautiful setup with Prometheus with a botched Alien: Covenant. Even he felt the audience didn't deserve such awesomeness. Give the film another try if you don't believe me.
Blade Runner (1984)
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Not a question but the title of Philip K. Dick's dystopian science fiction novel of which the rechristened Blade Runner took its map. There are often two indisputable classics that follow the Scott name, the first being Alien and the second Blade Runner. As Scott's third feature venture, Blade Runner is perhaps his most iconic movie in terms of world-building, the likes of which no one had seen anything like it before or even since (only Blade Runner 2049 matches it). A hugely discussed and obsessed-over milestone in the tome of science-fiction, Blade Runner has grown exponentially from a one-time cult classic to now adorned and essential masterpiece.
Harrison Ford plays ex-cop "blade runner" Deckard, a specialist in disposing of wayward androids or replicants who are almost indistinguishable from humans. The film takes place in a retro-futuristic version of Los Angeles, and as things move, we start to question if replicants can develop souls (or are created with them). Most famously, Rutger Hauer's replicant, Roy, gives a final heartfelt soliloquy about the depths of his quite "human" experience. We're left to soak in all of Scott's tremendous imagination to contemplate the meaning of existence once again.
As he would refer himself, J.B. Browne is a half "foreign devil" living with anxiety relieved by purchase. HK-born Writer/Musician/Tinkerer.
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