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Are You Not Entertained? – A Ridley Scott Retrospective

Ridley Scott must be thanking his agent right now, boasting the third highest grossing opening weekend of all time with Hannibal (2001), the fiercely anticipated sequel to The Silence of the Lambs. He also achieved a whopping 12 Oscar nominations for the sword ‘n’ sandals epic, Gladiator (2000). This rigorous British filmmaker seems to be sitting on top of the world these days, but he’s no mere overnight success. For nearly 25 years, Scott has been creating vivid fantasy dreamscapes for the mass audience.

The seven film Ridley Scott Retrospective, running from February 23 through March 1 at New York City’s Screening Room, demonstrates the extreme highs and lows of Scott’s career. (However, the humiliating Gerard Depardieu debacle, 1492: Conquest of Paradise, is thankfully excluded. I wonder if Scott is thanking his agent for that one.)

This former BBC set designer made an unimpressive debut with the atmospheric but ultimately tepid Napoleonic face-off between Keith Carradine and Harvey Keitel in The Duellists (1977). He quickly established himself as having an eye for larger-than-life visuals. This became his trademark signature: pretty pictures with empty narratives. Not everyone presumes Gladiator, a Mad Max knock-off in a toga, to be deserving of its Best Screenplay nod.

In 1979, Scott transformed the simplistic premise of ‘Ten Little Indians in Space’ into a memorable Planet of the Womb with Alien, grafting a clever hybrid of sci-fi and horror. The cavernous spaceship makes for a refreshing, otherworldly variation on the haunted house. For years, copycats have desperately attempted to recreate Scott’s rich Gothic atmosphere, but it’s no easy feat topping the grisly birth sequence when that wet alien baby clawed its way through John Hurt’s ribcage.

The brilliant H.R. Giger created a memorable insectus malignus of oily flesh and razor sharp teeth, but Scott earns his due by keeping this creature mostly in the shadows. (Would that those implied horrors carried over to Hannibal!) There are rare, fleeting glimpses of this Lovecraftian bogeyman’s size and shape until its final confrontation with a nearly naked Sigourney Weaver. This slime-encrusted predator has already raped fellow crewmember Veronica Cartwright offscreen (interpret her screams as you will). Is it a screen allegory of the sexual predator or merely a crass exploitation of Weaver’s hot body? You decide.

Not all of his works were so exquisitely baroque. Legend (1985) is an embarrassing stab at the Tolkeinesque Quest, featuring pointy-eared Tom Cruise as an elfin adventurer inhabiting a landscape seemingly inspired by Lucky Charms cereal. While there are no Leprechauns in sight, a feast of green clovers, purple diamonds, unicorns, dwarves, and high adventure is rammed down our collective throats. The story, such as it is, gets overwhelmed by garish sets and costumes. All of Scott’s weaknesses as a director can be catalogued in this faux-grand disaster.

At least that film makes an impact, which is more than can be said for Scott’s routine police procedural, Black Rain (1989). The plot: Michael Douglas plays an intense American cop in Japan. There’s a lot of rain, some decent skyline shots — and, um, that’s pretty much all there is to tell. Oh yeah — and a major supporting character gets disemboweled by some sword wielding motorcycle hitman.

For all his pseudo-feminist posturing with Thelma and Louise (1991), Scott is all about the male ethos. His protagonists (even the women) represent unbridled heterosexual machismo. Thelma and Louise (well personified by Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis) wind up playing roles traditionally reserved for men, two good ol’ boys hopping into a car and blowing shit up. Weaver (Alien) and Demi Moore (G.I. Jane, strangely absent from the retrospective) are similarly transformed into masculine symbols as vivid as Crowe’s Gladiator and Harrison Ford’s Blade Runner. There’s no room for feminine sensitivity when it’s time to kick ass. This ploy manages to reduce character development to ground zero, but is that why we visit any of Scott’s landscapes? He’s never been a master of subtlety.

At his best, Scott’s work is a travelogue of brave new worlds, most memorably in the cyberpunk landmark, Blade Runner (1982). This hazardous rain city interpretation viewed futuristic Los Angeles as a dystopian, polluted nightmare of skyscrapers and overpopulated streets. In Scott’s director’s cut (which removed private dick Ford’s monotonous studio imposed voice-over), the climax of this brutal series of replicant/android assassinations hits a precisely correct note of dread.

Working from a great script co-penned by that specialist in moral ambivalence, David Peoples (Unforgiven), there are too many vivid scenes and ever-quotable dialogue to relay here. I’ll stick with the monologue of replicant Roy Batty (a surprisingly effective Rutger Hauer) showered in illuminated rain: I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe – all those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. At least this time around, Ridley Scott was there to capture them.

In recent years, Scott has grown increasingly lazy with his staging of action sequences. Gladiator‘s opening battle is filled with a muddy hodgepodge of fluttering camera speeds and herky-jerky spins. Often, it’s nearly impossible to deduce the logistics of a scene. The same is true in Hannibal whenever Anthony Hopkins goes into cannibal attack mode, covering inept choreography with blurred cinematography.

Ridley Scott may be bringing in the bucks and earning critical accolades from the peanut gallery, but he has a long way to go before he proves he’s more than a two-trick pony. From his exhaustive resume, only Alien and Blade Runner have what it takes to withstand Roy Batty’s prophetic and merciless test of time.

Next up for this auteur of lavish spectacle: Black Hawk Down. A team of elite soldiers drop into Somalia and raise some hell. Sounds like art house fare to me!

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