A revolution in the sci-fi genre: Ranking Ridley Scott’s 15 best films in order of greatness
“And anyway, it’s only movies. To stop me I think they’ll have to shoot me in the head.”– Ridley Scott
Over an astounding career of 40 years in Hollywood, Ridley Scott’s flame of creativity and imagination is still burning. A meticulous and masterful director, Scott has had a tumultuous journey which has seen him flip between making incredible and pioneering films to sloppy and critical failures. However, he has left an indelible mark in the cinematic legacy and continues to add to so; his wide range of imagination has resulted in ground-breaking and revolutionary films that have changed the course of cinema, especially sci-fi.
Born on November 30, 1937, he was raised in a military family. Scott’s films explore mortality and death in great detail. He later alluded it to his brother’s death by saying he “liked the idea of exploring pain…When he was ill, I used to go and visit him in London, and that was really traumatic for me.” His interest in sci-fi began at an early age due to the huge impact left on him by the works of H.G. Wells. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Stanley Kubrick’s legendary 2001: A Space Odyssey changed his life, as he later explained: “Once I saw that, I knew what I could do.”
While The Duellists marked Scott’s debut into Hollywood (again, inspired by Kubrick), it was not until 1979 that he directed his revolutionary masterpiece Alien. “Once I saw that I knew what I could do,” he once commented. Scott, who believed in doing what “you haven’t done”, said, “I think if I’m going to do a science fiction, I’m going to go down a new path that I want to do.” The new Alien film is on its way, but the production is stalled due to the pandemic.
With several masterfully crafted “bonafide classics” in his sack which stood the test of time due to the ingenious and creative methods employed, Ridley Scott, at 83, remains one of the most influential sci-fi directors to have had a substantial effect in reshaping the genre. As we wish the maestro a very happy birthday, we take a look at 15 of his most influential films of all time:
Ridley Scott’s 15 greatest films:
15. A Good Year (2006)
Unsuccessful London banker Max Skinner bequeaths his deceased uncle’s vineyard in Tuscany, a site of innumerable childhood memories. However, his alleged long-lost cousin from California stands as an obstacle in his path, claiming her share of the property.
Although the scenery is beautiful, it “is a fine example of a top-notch director and actor out of their elements, in a sappy romantic comedy lacking in charm and humour”. Since Russell Crowe lacks the natural comedic genius, he seems lost. Scott’s cinematography is excellent but fails to leave a major impact on the audience.
“ A man should acknowledge his losses just as gracefully as he celebrates his victories.”
14. Body of Lies (2008)
CIA officer, Roger Ferris, is in Iraq tracking an elusive terrorist Al-Saleem. Ferris and his associate Bassam are at odds with his boss, Ed Hoffman, while they try and succeed in their mission.
The film with its cliched narrative failed to impress critics as it was a movie where “the rules of trust and mistrust are wholly familiar”. As a conventional spy thriller, Body of Lies was “an A-list project with B-game results” that depended entirely on Leonardo DiCaprio and Russel Crowe’s incredible performance for its success, while having no real merit of its own. Crisp and slick, DiCaprio won audience praise for his role of Ferris in the movie.
“You know what? I AM thinking straight. You’re not, all right? You can’t because you’re a million fucking miles away. I’m here, Ed, every day and I see the unnecessary travesties of this war that you political fucking bureaucrats only look at pictures of! So don’t you dare tell me I’m not fucking thinking straight!”
13. The Counselor (2013)
Texan lawyer, known as ‘The Counselor’, has won it in life with a beautiful and loving girlfriend and a successful career. However, his greed motivates him to move forward with an ill-advised drug deal which includes Westray, nightclub owner Reiner and his crazy sociopathic girlfriend, the seductive Malkina. As the deal spiral out of control, both the Counselor and his girlfriend are in fatal danger.
Although the film received vehement criticism by the public and the critics, it has become a cult favourite due to Scott and McCarthy’s grim and sick portrayal of pride and hubris. Perverse and thrilling, the film features splendid performances, especially from Michael Fassbender and Cameron Diaz. The violent blend of murder, sex and greed is accentuated by themes of necrophilia and manipulation which shock the audience to their very core. The Counselor’s doomed fate lies beyond his control and marks the brutality of fatalism in this film.
“Men are attracted to flawed women too of course, but their illusion is that they can fix them. They just want to be entertained. The truth about women is that you can do anything to them except bore them.”
12. Hannibal (2001)
Based on Thomas Harris’ novel, the film is based on the eponymous protagonist Dr Hannibal Lecter, notoriously known for his cannibalistic practices. Mason Verger, an affluent child predator who was paralysed and disfigured by Lecter, seeks revenge and appoints FBI Agent Clarice Starling to catch the doctor. As the plot progresses, Starling realises that Lecter is elusive and evades arrest easily by dint of intelligence and wit.
Starling and Lecter share a complicated relationship. Anthony Hopkins is phenomenal as Hannibal and Julianne Moore provides a perfect balance and support. Gary Oldman as the vicious mason verger is sinister and lusting for revenge, which ultimately leads to his downfall. With Harris’ permission, Scott changed the ending because he “couldn’t take that quantum leap emotionally on behalf of Starling. Certainly, on behalf of Hannibal—I’m sure that’s been in the back of his mind for a number of years. But for Starling, no. I think one of the attractions about Starling to Hannibal is what a straight arrow she is.”
” People don’t always tell you what they are thinking. They just see to it that you don’t advance in life.”
11. White Squall (1996)
To teach them discipline and fortitude, Captain Christopher Sheldon embarks on a journey on board ship school ‘Albatross’ along with a group of boys. However, the boys learn the real reason when they are caught in a sudden freak storm and have to fight for survival together.
A doomed voyage that brings out the camaraderie and discipline amidst the hardy group of teenagers resonate a Dead Poets Society on the ocean. While the performances lack the enigma as presented in Peter Weir’s film, Scott manages to bring out the claustrophobic horror during the sea storm. It is terrifying to watch the flooded ship and the relentless testing of the boys’ psychological and physical limitations. Although it was a box office disappointment, it is remarkable for Jeff Bridges’ tough performance as the “Skipper” and Ridley Scott’s “visceral, exciting direction”.
“You can’t run from the wind, You trim your sails, face the music, and keep going.”
10. Prometheus (2012)
Having found clues to mankind’s origin, a team of ambitious explorers from Earth venture into the unknown, led by Doctor Elizabeth Shaw and Charlie Holloway. However, Shaw and Holloway are conflicted over faith, where the former hopes to find benevolent God-like creatures while the latter hopes to debunk spiritual myths. Unbeknownst to them, a perilous journey with unthinkable terrors lie in their path.
With “haunting visuals”, splendid grandeur and “compelling performances”, Scott’s film is a wonderful quasi-prequel to Alien. As a “fastidious android” David, Michael Fassbender is alienated from humanity and his phenomenal on-screen presence adds to the thrills of the film. A wonderful blend of wonder and awe juxtaposed to the omnipresent theme of body horror is dealt with masterful perfection.
“There is nothing in the desert and no man needs nothing.”
9. American Gangster (2007)
In what are Russell Crowe and Denzel Washington’s first-ever leading roles, they deliver phenomenal performances, cementing their legacy in Hollywood. Josh Brolin and the rest of the supporting cast are splendid as well. Scott borrows heavily from films like Scarface, The Godfather, Goodfellas and more, deriving inspiration from tropes in gangster films, blaxploitation films and that of a level-headed crime lord. The gripping narrative is complemented by dynamic on-screen presences and the visual grandeur exuded by the performances of the two greatest actors in the history of cinema.
Based on the true story, the film revolves around Frank Lucas, after he establishes a prosperous Harlem heroin import business after the death of his leader Bumpy Johnson. He ensures his position by forming loyal allies in the New York Mafia. The plot is also centred on Newark cop Richie Roberts who is ostracised for his honesty. Heading the joint narcotics task force with the federal government, he is determined to bring the drug lord down.
“This is my home. My country. Frank Lucas don’t run from nobody. This is America.”
8. Matchstick Men (2003)
In this black comedy film, Roy Waller is a depressed con artist suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder. As he and his partner Frank are about to undertake a potential swindle, it is thwarted and further complicated by the arrival of Roy’s estranged daughter, Angela who wants to subsequently learn the ‘business’.
Ridley Scott’s experimentation with light and shadows work wonders here as it accentuates Roy’s frenzied mind. Roy and Angela’s relationship, which could have been cold and distant, is warm and gooey and adds to the likeability of the film. Scott seems to have found some common ground with his OCD-driven protagonist as a meticulous director. Praised for its “sly, biting sense of humour” and “emotionally satisfying” elements, Scott’s film is “worth every cent” of the amount paid for the tickets.
“To some people, money is a foreign film without subtitles.”
7. The Martian (2015)
After a fierce storm, the astronauts strand Mark Whatney on Mars, presuming him to be dead. As Whatney fights for his survival in the hostile environment, living off meagre supplies and using his ingenuity and spirit to sustain himself, NASA works relentlessly to help him bring home. His fellow crewmates hatch a daring plan of their own to rescue him.
As the whole world comes together in bravery to see Mark Whatney, the audience watch Matt Damon’s finest on-screen performance unravel before their eyes. It is realistic and does not romanticise the idea of a foreign planet. It discusses the real problems associated with invading other planets and a kind of a horror flick which is funny, gripping and intense at the same time. Whatney’s dramatic journey and Scott’s extraordinaire makes this film a success, almost magical and eccentric.
“ I am definitely going to die up here…if I have to listen to any more god-awful disco music.”
6. The Duellists (1977)
Set in the Napoleonic age, the hot-headed and irrational Lieutenant Feraud challenges the level-headed and mild Lieutenant d’Hubert into a duel which marks the beginning of a long time enmity. They keep duelling with each other time and again to preserve their dignity; these disagreements span several years and are nothing but pointless.
An impressive debut by Scott, the film has been often compared to Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon due to the common trope of duels. It is entertaining and hauntingly beautiful with rich, luxurious images of the Napoleonic age. Refreshing, the performances are incredible, and Ridley Scott has been praised for his fine eye for visual aesthetics, factually correct period recreations and more. With some of the best sword fights in the history of cinema, The Duellist has received high praise from Michael Webb who said, “The film has the pictorial beauty and rich period sense of ‘Barry Lyndon,’ but adds the narrative drive and passion that Kubrick’s film lacked.”
“I knew a man who was stabbed to death by a woman; gave him the surprise of his life.”
5. Gladiator (2000)
Maximus is a powerful and benevolent Roman general who is loved and adored by all, including Emperor Marcus Aurelius. When the Emperor chooses Maximus to ascend the throne over his son Commodus, consumed by jealousy, the latter kills his father and then Maximus’ family; Maximus is reduced to the position of a common gladiator. He fights in those games, thirsty for revenge; his subsequent popularity in the arena poses a massive threat to the stability of the throne.
An expansive look at Rome’s gladiatorial combat circles portrays the horror and the claustrophobia underlying the empire. Death looms large and pervades the screen. Crowe’s “brutish sensitivity” add raw charm to his character as the brooding Maximus, lusting for revenge. His “steely, soulful performance”, and the spine-chilling battle sequences, as well as the profound emphasis on mortality, have pushed Gladiator to the top of the list.
“Brothers, what we do in life echoes in eternity.”
4. Black Hawk Down (2001)
Based on Mark Bowden’s book of the same name, it focuses on the US military raid in Mogadishu in 1993. The plot revolves around the 160 US soldiers sent to bring supplies to the starving population while destabilising the government, the highly trained Somalian forces bring down two helicopters and the elite soldiers must strive hard to survive while enduring vicious attack.
A visceral and thrilling portrayal of war, Scott’s ‘superb technical skill’ elevates the plot and focuses on the collective effort towards survival. The use of shakycam adds to the tense atmosphere; the nightmarish situation is brought to life and the audience can almost feel the palpable fear and horror in the men’s eyes. The overt spillage of guts and blood add to the atmospheric horror. Evan Thomas summed it up perfectly by saying, “Though it depicted a shameful defeat, the soldiers were heroes willing to die for their brothers in arms…The movie showed brutal scenes of killing, but also courage, stoicism and honour. The overall effect was stirring, if slightly pornographic, and it seemed to enhance the desire of Americans for a thumping war to avenge 9/11.”
“Once that first bullet goes past your head, politics and all that shit just goes right out the window.”
3. Thelma and Louise (1991)
Louise is an independent waitress and goes on a fishing trip with her friend, the gentle housewife Thelma. However, their flight takes a sinister turn when Louise shoots and kills a man who attempts to rape Thelma. Subsequently, they are on the run where they encounter (and Thelma falls in love) with the enigmatic thief J.D.; a kind and sympathetic detective advice them to turn themselves in for good.
Having won an Award for Best Original Screenplay, it had received six nominations. Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis deliver outstanding performances. It is a story about friendship and two strong central women characters (Hollywood, hope you are listening) take a stance to defend each other against the chauvinist society. A landmark of feminist films, Scott’s direction receives special praise as he juxtaposes their friendship against the murky and ominous deeds they are compelled to commit. The tragic ending scene is iconic; funny and heartbreaking at the same time with a dash of violent action, Scott’s film is one of the best comebacks in the history of cinema.
“You shoot off a guy’s head with his pants down, believe me, Texas ain’t the place you want to get caught.”
2. Alien (1979)
In space, the crew on-board the commercial space vessel Nostromo receive a distress call from an alien vessel. As they investigate the mysterious transmission, they encounter a hive colony of alien eggs; when one of the eggs get disturbed, an alien organism leaps out and attaches a crew member, sending him into a coma. Soon the other members realise that their spaceship has been invaded by some dangerous otherwordly organisms, the aggressive and eponymous Alien.
Revolutionary and intense, Scott’s film was way ahead of its time where the final girl survives by dint of resilience and wit. Scott is gifted with the potential to make perfect sci-fi horrors. He meticulously weaves in the atmospheric horror wherein the fear of dying exceeds the fear of the phenomenon itself. Despite three sequels and a prequel, the 1979 classic stands out from the rest. The tagline itself was terrifying enough to send the viewers into a state of impending panic and terror: “In space, no one can hear you scream.”
“ Final Report, the commercial starship Nostromo. Third officer reporting. The other members of the crew—Kane, Lambert, Parker, Brett, Ash, and Captain Dallas—are dead. Cargo and ship destroyed. I should reach the frontier within six weeks. With a little luck, the network will pick me up. This is Ripley, last survivor of the Nostromo, signing off.”
1. Blade Runner (1982)
A popular cult film, known as the “all-time best science fiction films”, Blade Runner is a perfect example of a neo-noir film. Morally complex and intense, this film is unconventional with its jaded hero Holden’s mission lacking the element of heroism, a messiah-like villain who is trying to protect his villain as well as a wasteland with racist cops and ethnic problems galore. All the characters are plagued by existential crises and their terror and fear of being forgotten after death brings them together. In the futuristic metropolis, the people are conflicted over empathy and duty.
Harrison Ford is a phenomenal on-screen presence. Scott’s postmodernist approach to the dystopic and cyberpunk has been often seen in relation to several literary texts. Scott has defined the film as “extremely dark, both literally and metaphorically, with an oddly masochistic feel”. Trying to examine humanity, Scott puts forward a masterpiece that shall be cherished by generations.
“Quite an experience to live in fear, isn’t it? That’s what it is to be a slave.”