The face of modern science fiction in Hollywood has been shaped largely by a relatively small collection of once youthful filmmakers, including Stanley Kubrick, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, and, perhaps the most influential, Ridley Scott. Erupting onto the scene in his early forties as the director of two of the most historically significant science fiction films of all time, (Alien (1979) and Blade Runner (1982)), Scott quickly established himself as a grand pioneer of the genre.
Yet despite redefining a cultural form that had long been relegated to the space-age pulp of Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon, Scott abandoned science fiction as abruptly as he adopted it, leaving in his absence an abundance of pretenders to his throne. Resorting to either homage (Dark City (1998)) or outright plagiarism (The Fifth Element (1997)) to fill the void left by Scott, the filmmakers inheriting the genre found themselves perpetually under Scott’s enormous shadow.
But now, twenty-seven years removed from the genre that made him (or did he make it?), the British-born director-producer, like the legendary King Arthur, finally returns home with his newest celestial opera, Prometheus. Yet, while the science fiction genre has changed significantly since Scott’s heyday, so too has the director’s artistic style, which, beginning in the 1990s, underwent one of the most drastic rehauls in film history. Markedly grander in scale and more overt in theme, Scott’s later work bears little resemblance to the intimacy and mystery of his 1980s oeuvre, leaving many fans wondering how seamlessly or successfully the transition back to science fiction will be for the changed director.
Fascinated at an early age by paranoid Cold War Era science fiction movies like The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and The War of the Worlds (1953), Scott (74) acquired the ambition to be a filmmaker largely due to his personal investment in the genre. Cutting his teeth as a director of commercials, Scott gained instant notoriety for his understated yet engrossing first feature, The Duellists (1977), which won Best Debut Film at Cannes. Lauded for its beauty and starkness, Scott’s chronicle of two Napoleonic officers’ lifelong feud established him as a unique visionary with a distinctive style. Employing sparse dialogue, Scott’s work generated emotional resonance from the subtle nuances of his actors’ performances, which were supplemented by haunting ambient sounds, evocative locales, and breathtaking cinematography.
While covering an entirely different subject, this uniquely atmospheric form of filmmaking remained constant in Scott’s iconic sophomore effort, Alien (for which he won a Saturn Award for Best Director). A screaming success at the box office, the film (which centers on the efforts of the spacecraft Nostromo’s crew to survive an intrusion by a hostile extraterrestrial) propelled its director to stardom, thanks in large part to Scott’s creative way of updating the classical haunted house formula to an outer space setting.
In making Alien, Scott rewrote nearly every rule established for science fiction. Unlike conventional “alien-versus-human” films of the ’50s and ’60s that saw hordes of humanoid creatures attacking in full view of the audience until ultimately being vanquished by an attractive male lead, Scott’s work proved minimalist, focusing instead on a solitary elusive beast that freely devours an entire squad of untrained humans from the shadows, despite being grossly outnumbered. The hero of the story (if one could call her that), is the unheralded warrant officer Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), who in the end doesn’t defeat the beast so much as endure it by navigating through the dirty interiors of the Nostromo (a far cry from the shiny spaceships of Atomic Age films like Forbidden Planet (1956)). In Alien, accordingly, Scott emphasizes a bleak contradiction to the idealized image of technology and the individual that became the hallmark of science fiction films of the ’50s.
In addition, Scott broke from the convention of establishing of a clear protagonist by highlighting a group dynamic and took cues from independent director John Cassavetes by employing a more naturalistic performance style devoid of the melodrama that had characterized the science fiction films of his youth. While clearly influenced by his predecessors (Alien itself is a loose remake of It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958)), Scott’s languorous tempo and delicate direction aided his efforts to elevate science fiction out of the realm of creature features and into the realm of high art.
While not producing the rich franchise that Alien did, Scott’s next feature, Blade Runner, proved to be his most influential and imitated work. Adapting Philip K. Dick ‘s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), Scott conceived of a dystopian future that was both referential to the past (borrowing elements from both German Expressionist films like Metropolis (1927) and film noir) and entirely unique. A central text in the advent of the cyberpunk movement, Blade Runner depicted a future where advanced technology led not to the salvation of society but to its moral disintegration. Following Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), the reluctant hunter of runaway android slaves, who begins to question both the humanity of machines and his own personal identity, Scott’s film mesmerized audiences with its neon-bathed cityscapes, motion billboards, flying cars, and alienated denizens. Having the distinction of being a rare big-budget blockbuster with thematic complexity and deliberate pacing, Blade Runner has gone on to shape inalterably the landscape of science fiction.
At the top of his game as one of the most powerful science fiction visionaries after the release of his groundbreaking Orwellian 1984 commercial for Apple Macintosh, Scott suffered his most crippling hit when his foray into dark fantasy, Legend (1988), was dismissed as a commercial and critical flop.
Almost immediately after Legend, Scott’s work began to display a shift in tone and aesthetic so drastic that it lacked even the remotest resemblance to his previous titles. Instead of subtlety and silence, Scott’s works were kinetic, loud, and predicated on rapid editing. In addition, the trademark intimacy of his works was replaced with broad-scope grandiosity, and his ambitious and challenging elements were replaced with overtness. Instead of continuing to defy conventions and expectations, Ridley was suddenly satisfying them.
Establishing Scott Free Production Co. with his brother, director Tony, Scott began directing a series of buddy movies (Thelma & Louise (1991)), military dramas (Black Hawk Down (2001), G.I. Jane (1997)), and rejuvenated sword-and-sandal epics (Gladiator (2000), Kingdom of Heaven (2005)), which shared a decidedly non-provocative execution. While lamented by lifelong enthusiasts of his parse, artistic style, Scott’s shift to mass appeal marked the most successful stage of his career. Despite a few glaring flops in Robin Hood (2010) and A Good Year (2008), Scott often hit box-office gold with films like Hannibal (2001) and American Gangster (2007), both of which grossed over $100 million. In addition, his work in this stage saw him nominated for his first three Academy Awards for Best Director – Thelma & Louise and Black Hawk Down and Gladiator, for which he won. Despite such accomplishments, even Scott’s most celebrated films have failed to live up to the enduring legacy carved by his earlier works.
While there’s no shame in working within different genres (Howard Hawks and Stanley Kubrick made careers out of it), few filmmakers in history have exhibited the seismic shift in tone and aesthetic quite like Ridley Scott, which makes his return to science fiction such a point of intrigue. The veteran is trying to catch lightning in a thirty-year-old bottle, conflating a blockbuster style more befitting of historical period pieces than companions to science fiction horror flicks, with the evocativeness of his younger days. Compounding this combination with the immense gamble of setting a film in an established universe while omitting the most marketable aspect – the aliens – it becomes clear that Prometheus could be a pivotal point in Scott’s career.
While it’s becoming more common to see filmmakers reenter science fiction at later stages of their careers, as has been the trend with contemporaries like Spielberg and Cameron, Scott returns to the genre with a vengeance because the vast majority of his scheduled works are science fiction. After considering directing a futuristic adaptation of the board game Monopoly, Scott is currently set to helm film versions of Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War (1974), Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), and a sequel to Blade Runner. With so much invested in this renaissance, then, it’s essential for Scott to amalgamate the two disparate periods of his career into a harmonious whole. With a career that has taken an unconventional return to its roots, Scott will have to disprove the old adage that “you can’t go home again.”