Don’t Like: Ridley Scott (But It’s Complicated)

Ridley Scott is regarded as a great filmmaker. He certainly is intelligent enough. He’s made some films widely regarded as classics and even a best picture winner. Granted that best picture winner was Gladiator, but more to the point he’s widely respected. He’s even made one of my favorite movies of all-time: Alien. It’s just absolutely a perfect film that completely elevated both the horror and sci-fi genres at the same time. That being said, I don’t really like the rest of his films. Maybe Alien was just perfectly suited for his gifts and disposition (I still maintain he could make a fine Halo Film, which would be tonally similar). Looking at his filmography, you see clear periods of both “good” and “bad” work. But within every single one of these films (minus Alien), there are a few tangibles/intangibles that I find completely amiss.

First: I hate the cinematography in his films. Absolutely hate. They have the strangest, most oddly didactic framing, which is not only distracting, but dehabilitating to the film’s energy and momentum. Going back through the years you see a clear path of his cinematographer wasteland. Most great directors work closely with one or two cinematographers (for short DPs) in their career. Ridley Scott has had about a dozen and that doesn’t even include the early work (where you’re given some DP haphazardly). A distinct visual style and constantly changing DPs usually means one thing: the director likes to control all the shots and the DP never works with him again. I can’t speak for certain on that matter at all, I’m just saying that’s usually the case.

Looking at these DPs on a case by case basis, you see some trends. The worst offender might be John Mathieson who shot Gladiator (good action, bad framing), Matchstick Men (a light, fluffy movie shot like a dour holocaust film), A Good Year (He should never be allowed to make a romantic comedy again), Kingdom of Heaven (lazy), and especially Hannibal (what i consider the worst shot movie of my lifetime). There was Hugh Johnson (tee hee) who shot GI Jane (ahahaha) and White Squall (actually not bad for what it is), or as I call them the bastard studio-stepchildren of Scott’s career. I still can’t get over the fact that the director of Alien made GI Jane. It would be like Terrence Malick stepping into make Remember The Titans. Then there was Adrian Biddle who shot the grossly over-bloated 1492 and surprisingly well-written Thelma and Louise (I rank as Scott’s 3rd best effort. Weird, I know).

What about the two Scott I don’t mind? First off, Blade Runner is overrated. That could be it’s own essay but I’ll simply say it’s not nearly as interesting or poetic as people make it out to be. But, it’s shot really well and has great design. Thank DP Jordan Crenonwith for that. But he never worked with Scott again and went on to do nothing of note. And one of my favorite films ever, Alien? Shot by Derek Vanlint who went on to do basically nothing at all. It’s amazing. That can’t be the full story of his career. He shot ALIEN, and then went on to do Dragonslayer (1981) and The Spreading Ground(2000)? THAT’S IT???? Why aren’t I hiring this guy????

So I don’t like the cinematography, is that really a breaking point? Sometimes. It can completely undermine the effectiveness of a film. The events happening in Hannibal should have been ass-sweatingly intense. Instead it’s shot like a lullaby. There’s guttings, brain surgery, face slicing, and even pigs eating people, but it’s all completely ineffectual because there’s no intensity. And that IS Scott’s fault. The cinematography is part of the films whole construction and when the very intent of a scene is diluted in that construction it is a failed scene. And many of his scenes simply fail in their goals. His cold, unblinking dourism is a perfect mood setting for the horror/sci-fi world of Alien, but he brings that same tone to all his films. And this is a guy intent on genre jumping constantly. It’s odd considering how ill-suited he seems for the task.

Quick Note: I have yet to see American Gangster and I’d still very much like to as I think it could be something in his wheelhouse.

To his credit, he does one thing extremely well. All his films have brilliant production design across the board. Part of that comes from his commercial and design (duh) background. He’s also tremendously intelligent and I could listen to him for hours on end talk about film. He’s got a real conceptual understanding for the medium, but it only appears to be from and audience capacity. I feel like many of his ideas are good in theory, but it’s mostly just lost in the translation. It’s kind of a shame.

In the end, he’s not bad. His films are always not for a lack of effort, he gets good actors, and major wide releases. They’re usually more interesting too. In fact, I’m probably more inclined to watch his movies over the crap that fills the theaters. I’m just always disappointed that they aren’t better films. That’s the Ridley Scott story.

Maybe it’s all just because of his brother, who is undoubtedly the worst filmmaker alive. Seriously, Tony Scott, I like Uwe Boll movies better. I can at least laugh at those.

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One Response to Don’t Like: Ridley Scott (But It’s Complicated)

  1. cumulo says:

    Old topic, but Mathieson didn’t shoot A Good Year – French DP Phillipe Le Sourd did. Also, the guys who you’ve got doing “nothing at all” have had incredible careers in commercials, like Scott. Hugh Johnson has shot and directed them for over 20 years, for example.

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