In a career that spans nearly forty years, Ridley Scott has directed so many arresting and visually memorable movies, and in such a wide variety of genres, that it doesn’t seem to matter what projects he takes on, he’s pretty much guaranteed an audience when they’re released. He’s a meticulous, well-prepared director who likes to do as much as possible practically, though is more well-known for two movies whose use of CGI made them more successful than they perhaps would have been without it. The movies in this list have made over $3 billion at the international box office, so you can see why he’s a much sought after director, and never seems to take a break between movies. In his seventies now, he’s still preparing and making movies with the same energy and passion that he had nearly forty years ago. Let’s hope most, if not all, of his future projects are as successful as the ones listed below.
NOTE: Figures for Alien (1979) and Blade Runner (1982), two movies you would have thought would make the list, are sadly unavailable.
10 – Body of Lies (2008) – $115,097,286
Terrorism in the Middle East, and the murky involvement of the CIA, are the focus of Scott’s taut thriller which reunites Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe for the first time since Sam Raimi’s The Quick and the Dead (1995). It’s a complex piece of work with many subplots and layer upon layer of political expediency and moralising adding texture to the movie’s more overt thriller elements. If it doesn’t succeed entirely then it’s not for want of Scott trying, and there’s a standout performance from Mark Strong that overshadows the work of both DiCaprio and Crowe – and that’s saying something.
9 – Black Hawk Down (2001) – $172,989,651
Scott has always had a penchant for true stories, and Black Hawk Down, the tale of one hundred and twenty-three elite US soldiers making an incursion into Somalia and then finding themselves battling against a much stronger Somali force than their intelligence was aware of, is no exception. Scott brings an impressive sense of realism to the movie, and the fighting sequences are as intense as you’d expect, but what makes this movie work is the way in which Scott and screenwriter Ken Nolan manage to make the audience care about each and every one of those one hundred and twenty-three soldiers as if we’d known them all our lives.
8 – Kingdom of Heaven (2005) – $211,652,051
Unfairly maligned when it was first released, Kingdom of Heaven is a sprawling epic set at the time of the Crusades that feels like it was made to (belatedly) cash in on Scott’s success with Gladiator (2000). Happily, this is its own movie, and while some of the politicking of the time is overlooked in favour of too many battle scenes, Scott keeps things relatively simple and coaxes a better-than-expected performance from Orlando Bloom. That said, if you want to see the movie, choose the three-hour Director’s Cut instead of the theatrical version.
7 – American Gangster (2007) – $266,465,037
Another true story, this time centred around the life of drugs kingpin Frank Lucas (played by Denzel Washington), and set in the Seventies, American Gangster sees Scott reunited again with Russell Crowe, and holding back on the visual flourishes in order to tell a dramatic story on its own terms. It’s not quite the sweeping historical epic that its run time would have you believe, but it does feature strong performances from its two leads, and the clever tricks of Lucas’s trade make for fascinating viewing.
6 – Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014) – $268,175,631
You can see the attraction for Scott in a movie based around the rivalry between Moses and his “brother” the Pharaoh Ramses, but thanks to a script that seems to have been patched together at short notice, Exodus: Gods and Kings is a dramatic mess that can’t even elicit good performances from Christian Bale and Joel Edgerton, and also features some of the least convincing (i.e. ropiest) CGI seen in recent years. A misfire then, but Scott still manages to invest the movie with his customary, and always worthwhile, attention to detail.
5 – Robin Hood (2010) – $321,669,741
Less of a swashbuckling approach to the Robin Hood myth than a retread (in part) of Robin and Marian (1976), Scott’s fifth collaboration with Russell Crowe aims for earthy realism, but in doing so, fails to include a lot of what makes the myth so popular and entertaining. Scott marshals the visual elements with his trademark flair but can’t seem to inject any energy into Brian Helgeland’s too-respectful script. This leaves the movie feeling uneven and less than engaging, and the relationship between Robin and Maid Marian (played by Cate Blanchett) seems more matter-of-fact than truly romantic.
4 – Hannibal (2001) – $351,692,268
Scott’s first sequel (and so far only one, until Alien: Covenant comes out next year) sees him inherit the services of Anthony Hopkins but not Jodie Foster as Hannibal details what the cannibal doctor did next. There’s an over-abundance of style that should seem out of place but somehow works, and though Julianne Moore struggles as Clarice Starling, nevertheless Scott imbues her scenes with Hopkins with a delicate mutual dependency that gives the storyline some much-needed depth. And then there’s that scene at the end…
3 – Prometheus (2012) – $403,354,469
When it was first announced that Scott was returning to the world of Alien, and with a prequel at that, fans of the series wept for joy. Alas, Prometheus left audiences with more questions than they had answers to, and in particular, what on earth happened that it turned out so badly? Scott may know the answer to that one, but his insistence on practical physical surroundings aside, this woeful exercise in late-bloom franchise expansion lacked subtlety, a coherent script, and featured a drab performance from Noomi Rapace – all things that Scott didn’t appear to have a solution for.
2 – Gladiator (2000) – $457,640,487
They said the days of sword-and-sandal epics was dead, that audiences didn’t want to see those kinds of movies anymore, where the hero had bigger breasts than the heroine, and the sets wobbled if anyone went near them. Thankfully, Scott and co-screenwriters David Franzoni, John Logan and William Nicholson had other ideas and the result is a triumphant reminder that when Scott is on top form there’s very few directors who can match him. Stirring, impressive (the scenes in the Coliseum really do buzz with excitement), with a handful of terrific performances and a sense of its own destiny (along with its lead character), this is high concept movie making at its best.
1 – The Martian (2015) – $630,161,890
Despite his being known as a director of science fiction movies, The Martian is only Scott’s fourth outing in the genre, but thanks to a near-perfect blend of drama, comedy and thrills, along with a standout performance from Matt Damon, this tale of an astronaut stranded on Mars and needing to stay alive until a rescue mission can reach him, is gripping, tightly structured, and a few narrative concerns aside, absolutely commanding. That it’s Scott’s most successful movie so far is perhaps not so surprising given the subject matter and Damon’s performance, but when you consider this was made very quickly indeed, it’s a tribute to Scott and his cast and crew that it turned out as well as it did.