Ridley Scott: Back To The Future

Ninety million dollars in two weeks……not bad for a 75 year old filmmaker who continues to astonish with his technical prowess. Ridley Scott’s futuristic sci-fi horror film PROMETHEUS saw an impressive $50 million take at the U.S. box office this past weekend, on top of the $40 million it has made overseas. The film, Scott’s first foray into science fiction since the iconic BLADE RUNNER (1982), opened a week earlier in Europe, Asia and Australia/New Zealand, making it part of a new trend of opening blockbuster pics outside of the United States first. Cynics might say that this is because the word of mouth and expected critical response are deemed less than stellar (it is true that the reviews in the U.S. were moderately tepid) but the truth is that big budget films now make more of their monies outside the United States and Canada than in it, so you will see this kind of release pattern happen more and more for certain kinds of blockbuster epics. However one may debate the merits of PROMETHEUS, there is no question that its current success is a milestone in the career of its director/producer Ridley Scott, who turns 75 in November. Known for his atmospheric, detail-crammed visual style, he has become a major influence on many other directors, although he is not always a critical favorite or an awards recipient. He was nominated three times for the Oscar for the films THELMA AND LOUISE, GLADIATOR and BLACK HAWK DOWN, but has yet to win (although he does have two Golden Globe and BAFTA awards). He is perhaps best known for the ALIEN films, which were major box office winners and reignited the international appeal of science fiction after a long dry spell and his chef d’oeuvre, the highly visual morality tale BLADE RUNNER,  a film that has been re-released so many times, each with a definite director’s cut. After several stops and stars in his career, he now re-emerges with PROMETHEUS with a kind of trilogy to those two films, in which futuristic technology still is at odds with human foibles.

Scott’s path to the heights of the film world was hardly pre-ordained. Born in the coastal town of South Shields, England, he was raised in an Army family, meaning that for most of his early life, his father was absent.  His was an itinerant childhood, with the family constantly moving, living in (among other places) Cumbria, Wales and Germany. He eventually graduated from the West Hartlepool College of Art, earning a design diploma. He went on to study at the Royal College of Art, contributing to college magazine ARK, and helping establish the college film department. In 1963, he went to work at the BBC as a set designer on popular television series but eventually, he and his brother expanded into making television and cinema commercials, which were widely seen and helped establish them as visual stylists. It was only a matter of time before films came beckoning. In 1977, he was given the chance to direct his first feature film, THE DUELLISTS. Shot in Europe, and set during the Napoleonic Wars, the film followed two French offices (played by Keith Carradine and Harvey Keitel) whose quarrel over an initially minor incident turns into a bitter extended feud spanning fifteen years. While praised for its authenticity and atmosphere, the film was a box office failure. For his next project, he wanted to emulate the fantastic success of the film phenom STAR WARS. ALIEN (1979), a gripping sci-fi epic with psychological overtones and amazing special effects, became an international sensation, making Scott’s name as one of the leading directors of the period. The film was unique in the genre in that its lead action hero was a woman (played by Sigourney Weaver). This feminist slant expanded the sci-fi epic beyond its boys-only base to intrigue female viewers. His next project was even more revolutionary……..BLADE RUNNER (1982) was an adroit, visually compelling morality tale also set in the future that was based on sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. Starring Harrison Ford, BLADE RUNNER was initially a commercial disappointment because it lacked the dynamic action sequences of ALIEN and because its ambience was quite dark and brooding. The film is now regarded as a classic and is often cited as one of the most influential films for the next generation of film artists.

In 1984, Scott directed a big-budget television commercial to launch the Apple Macintosh computer. The spot first aired during the 1984 Super Bowl, and then in movie theaters across the globe. Some consider this as a watershed event event in television and cinema advertising. His follow up feature film LEGEND, a fantasy project starring Tom Cruise as the film hero in a world of princesses, unicorns and goblins, did not find a major audience and was deemed a hollow film experience. In 1987, he switched gears to make the realistic romantic thriller SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME, starring Tom Berenger and Mimi Rogers, and BLACK RAIN (1987), a police drama starring Michael Douglas and Andy García, shot partially in Japan. Both achieved mild success at the box office. He scored again in 1991 with THELMA AND LOUISE, an unlikely feminist buddy drama that starred Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon, that won him his first Oscar nomination as Best Director. The momentum did not quite carry over with the next few projects, including the historical epic 1492: CONQUEST OF PARADISE starring French superstar Gerard Depardieu as Christopher Colombus (???); WHITE SQUALL, an ill-fated sailing film starring Jeff Bridges; and the commercial G.I. JANE with star Demi Moore in a buzz cut. Lightning struck again, however, with the historical epic GLADIATOR, a risky project considering that “swords-and-sandals” films were definitely out of fashion. However the film, starring Russell Crowe, was an outsized commercial hit, and won Oscars for Best Picture and Best Actor, along with a slew of technical awards. While he was nominated again as Best Director, Scott did not go home with the prize.

The following years saw an eclectic mix of projects, including HANNIBAL (2001), a sequel to the Oscar winning THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBSBLACK HAWK DOWN (2002), based on a  group of stranded American soldiers fighting for their lives in Somalia, which secured Scott his third Best Director Oscar nomination; MATCHSTICK MEN (2003), a smaller, human-sized drama starring Nicolas Cage, Sam Rockwell and Alison Lohman; and the Crusades-set KINGDOM OF HEAVEN (2005), which was embraced overseas but rather clunked in its U.S. release. Scott teamed up again with GLADIATOR star Russell Crowe for A GOOD YEAR (2007), based on the best-selling book about an investment banker who finds a new life in Provence that was decidedly prescient about the economic collapse about to come. The late 2000s were not especially kind. He was a director for hire on the period film AMERICAN GANGSTER (2008), based on the story of real-life drug kingpin Frank Lucas, with a script by Oscar winner Steve Zaillian and starring Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe;  the espionage thriller BODY OF LIES (2009) starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe; and a revisionist adaptation of ROBIN HOOD (2010), which starred Russell Crowe as Robin Hood and Cate Blanchett as Maid Marian. As has continued to be the case, the film did better overseas than it did in the U.S. domestic market. In PROMETHEUS, a team of scientists journey through the universe on the spaceship “Prometheus” on a voyage to investigate alien life forms. When they become stranded on an alien world, their struggle to survive becomes the ultimate struggle for mankind’s survival. The film, which stars Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Charlize Theron, Idris Elba and Guy Pearce, renews central themes present in the ALIEN and BLADE RUNNER films, including the presence of human-like androids who have a central conflict between their “humanity” and their “utility”.  In this sense, PROMETHEUS is a kind of summing up for the director, although it is hardly his only future project. IMDB lists him attached to at least half a dozen others, as director, writer or producer, meaning that the Scott magic may continue well into his 80s. In what may not be science fiction, his best work may in fact lie in that indeterminate future.

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