Book review: Ridley Scott – A Retrospective

One consequence of the sad death of filmmaker Alan Parker last July, is that at least now the status of Sir Ridley Scott, as the grand old man of British cinema is now pretty much unchallenged. For, make no mistake, while there are undeniably many other great British directors around –  Sam Mendes, Christopher Nolan,  Edgar Wright, Ken Loach, Mike Leigh, Mike Figgis and Danny Boyle amongst them – no one else has been producing quality films since the 1970s in quite the way Scott has.

There are similarities between Parker and Scott. Both came to filmmaking as a result of careers in advertising. Scott was successful enough to be a millionaire by the time he was thirty and received acclaim for his famous nostalgic ‘boy on a bike’ Hovis TV commercial. Both made there directorial debuts at almost the same time: Parker with the unique and ambitious ‘kids’ only’ gangster musical, Bugsy Malone in 1976, Scott with the period drama, The Duellists in 1977 starring Keith Carradine and Harvey Keitel.

There are plenty of differences too, however. Scott’s life and career was blighted by the deaths of his two brothers, Frank who died after suffering from skin cancer and Tony (himself a very successful director, of Top Gun amongst many others) who committed suicide following a cancer diagnosis in 2012.

Parker and Scott also directed very different kinds of films. Ridley Scott has never directed a musical or a film with a very young cast as Parker often did. Parker, in turn never did a science fiction film or an historical epic. Although some of Parker’s films (such as Mississippi Burning or Evita) are set in the past, none are set outside the 20th century as more than half of Scott’s are.

Finally, after Bugsy Malone, Parker enjoyed a twenty year heyday with numerous commercial and critical successes in the 70s, 80s and 90s including Midnight Express, Fame and The Commitments but directed nothing good after that. Scott, in contrast, really only made two big successes in the 20th century: Alien and Thelma and Louise. All of his other 1980s and 1990s films were essentially flops. But despite being five years older than Parker and into his early sixties by  the year 2000, the 21st century has given Ridley Scott a new lease of life. The last twenty years have seen him produce many of his biggest successes including the Oscar-winning triumph, Gladiator, Hannibal, Black Hawk Down and The Martian.

As this sumptuous and beautifully illustrated coffee-table book from film expert, Ian Nathan reminds us, he has directed at least three of the best science fiction films of all time, as well as many other great ones. The sheer power and horror of Alien (1979) has never been equalled. Both this and Blade Runner (1982) have elevated the science fiction quality level forever, the second of these not really sufficiently appreciated until the 1990s. Some of his ‘minor ‘films such as White Squall (1996) and Matchstick Men (2003) are undeniably worth revisiting and even where the results have occasionally fallen short of expectations (see, perhaps, 1492: Conquest of Paradise or A Good Year), Scott certainly be faulted for a body of work which is always interesting, ambitious and which has occasionally resulted in some of the greatest films ever made.

To quote the title of one of his less successful films: he remains a Legend.

Ridley Scott: A Retrospective.

By Ian Nathan.

Published by: Thames & Hudson.

Could Gravity be the first science fiction film to win the Best Picture Oscar?

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Today sees the announcement of this year’s Oscar nominations. But with all the questions raised by this year’s unusually strong field of contenders (12 Years A Slave, American Hustle, The Wolf of Wall Street and Philomena amongst them), one question remains more tantalising than any other: could  Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity becomes the first science fiction film to secure the coveted Best Picture Oscar?

It would certainly be a first. For while sci-fi films have been the recipient of countless technical and science fiction awards, the genre despite (or perhaps because of) the big box office it has generated, has generally been viewed with lofty disdain by the Academy of Motion Picture, Arts and Sciences throughout its eighty five year history.

Even the advent of higher quality sci-fi at the end of the Sixties changed little. Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Planet of the Apes (both 1968) went unrecognised in the Best Picture category. The latter was even based on a novel by Pierre Boulle, the French author who had previously penned the source material for the multi-Oscar winning Bridge on the River Kwai. But it was all to no avail. Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange was nominated in 1971, although its science fiction content was generally overshadowed by controversy over its violence.

Then, in 1977, a new hope. Star Wars was nominated for Best Picture. True, it was beaten for the main prize by Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (a fairly unusual case of a comedy winning. This has only happened three times since). But with sci-fi entering a new period of high quality in the next decade (Ridley Scott’s Alien and Blade Runner and James Cameron’s Aliens and Terminators), did this mean the genre would finally receive its due?

Alas, no. the Eighties was also a period in which the Academy went out of its way to award worthy films (Amadeus,  Out of Africa, Driving Miss Daisy) rather than those that were necessarily entertaining. Sigourney Weaver got a nomination for Aliens. But nothing from the genre has won since.

What has changed? Well, for one thing, 2004 saw the final part of the Lord of the Rings saga, The Return of the King carry off the Best Picture statuette. No, that is not a science fiction film and yes, Daniel Radcliffe is right to complain none of the Harry Potter films were ever nominated in the big categories for anything. But it feels like a start.

Then, in 2010, James Cameron’s blue creatured 3D space epic Avatar came tantalisingly close to Best Picture glory, only for gritty (and, frankly, overrated) Iraq drama The Hurt Locker to seize the crown.

Also, we seem to be enjoying another era of high quality sci-fi courtesy of The Huger Games films, Ender’s Game and Elysium.

And finally, Gravity has received a wealth of critical acclaim rarely bestowed on a film of the science fiction genre. Even Alien and Blade Runner never received such praise at the time of their release.

Whether Gravity ends up carrying off the greatest prize at the awards ceremony in March, or not, it has certainly struck a blow for this critically unsung genre. We shall have to wait and see.