Skip to content

How Ridley Scott invented the 1980s

Inevitably Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood, which I went to see last night, was Gladiator crossed with Kingdom of Heaven – but with the embarrassing mistake of Orlando Bloom dead-headed. Though actually I found myself missing Bloom’s lightweight charms. Robin Hood is even more boring and pretentious than both of Scott’s ponderous epics combined (which is an achievement of sorts).

Except that is for the entertainment provided by Russell Crowe’s idea of a northern English accent – a mixture of Harry Enfield Scouse and Brad Pitt Irish, with some Kiwi mumbling thrown in.

Much worse than Robin Hood though is the news that Ridley Scott is going back to the future by making not one but two 3D prequels for his masterpiece Alien. The prequels will make scads of money of course, but almost certainly at the cost of making you think you didn’t like the original very much after all.

It needs to be said: Ridley Scott can’t make great or even particularly good movies any more. Mostly because almost no one can. We live in an age when movies don’t really matter any more. There’s nothing sacred about widescreen when everyone has one in their front room, and a widescreen HD camcorder in the bedroom. Which is of course why Hollywood as a whole wants to go back to the future and convince us that we need to see movies in souped-up 1950s 3D.

In a sense, Scott dramatises this sorry development more poignantly than any other contemporary director, because, as this appreciation (below) published in 2005 shows, his films used to matter more than most – literally inventing an epoch that we’ve yet to properly escape from. The 1980s.

And also because his films helped bring about that world in which pretty much all films are forgotten before we’ve even seen them.

Men at Arms

Alien egg

First he predicted our dark and soulless future in ‘Alien’ and ‘Blade Runner’. Then he opened our eyes to a new, softer kind of man and a harder kind of woman. Now Ridley Scott has turned his attention to the Middle East with a film set during the Crusades. But if his work has always been prophetic, says Mark Simpson, what is he trying to tell us this time?

(Independent on Sunday, 24 April 2005)

Generally speaking, I’m not terribly interested in film directors.

At least, not living ones. I don’t rush out to see so-and-so’s latest; I watch films that have nice trailers (and am usually as disappointed as everyone else). But the British director Ridley Scott, whose new Crusades epic The Kingdom of Heaven is out next month, is different. I usually make a point of seeing all of his films, even the unwatchable ones like 1492: Conquest of Paradise and GI Jane.

Why? Because Scott’s films don’t only tell us about the world we live in today. They are that world.

It may be a sign of the degradation of our culture, or it could just be my brain, but amongst other terrifying things about our future, Ridley Scott’s first blockbuster Alien (1979) seems to predict reality TV: a bunch of people sealed off from the world, a sense of being watched, a Hobbesian battle for survival in which only one person comes out alive, and very bad table manners. When I re-watched the film recently I noticed that the spherical room where the ship’s giant computer (called “Mother”) is consulted even looks like the Big Brother diary room.

Like reality TV, the purpose of Alien seems to have been to put humans in an inhuman environment and find out what being human was really all about. There is a great deal in Alien that proved eerily prophetic. What’s striking about the film now is how it hasn’t aged; the vacuum of space has preserved it perfectly, which is rather more than can be said for the legion of non-Scott directed sequels.

Perhaps this is because Alien invented the 1980s – a decade that none of us has actually escaped. And Ridley Scott, who was born in 1937 and grew up in Teesside, was perhaps more than anyone its visual architect.

In Alien the world of scary opportunity beckoning from the other side of the 1970s is apparent. The crew bicker over shares and bonuses, and in fact they only investigate the distress beacon and seal their doom because a clause in their contract means The Company will rescind their share entitlement if they don’t. It’s every man and woman for themselves. In the same year as a champion of the free market emerged as the victor at the British polls, the sole survivor of the Darwinian struggle unleashed on the Nostromo turns out to be a tough, bossy iron lady (though without the handbag or the hairdo).

The female of the species, Scott seems to be telling us, is more deadly than the male.

Consider also that crewmate Kane, played by John Hurt, is orally raped by a face-hugging organism with testicle-shaped lungs, impregnating him with the monster that kills him gruesomely and then goes on to massacre his crewmates. All this, years before Aids, the great terror of the 1980s, had even been named. Kane, it turns out, not Gaetan Dugas, was patient zero.

Like Aids itself, the symbolism of Alien (designed by Ron Cobb and H R Giger) went very deep. Part of the reason why it is such an extraordinarily arousing film is that it’s horribly Freudian. The entrances to the alien spacecraft are giant vaginas. The hatches in the ventilation shaft are clenching steel sphincters. And then there’s the creature itself, with its huge penis-shaped head and phallic-jackhammer tongue that drips with a threading, translucent fluid as it unsheathes before penetrating its victims.

For many years before he started to make films Scott had worked as a director of adverts. And advertising knows about Freud and about desire – in particular, that our desire is actually something that stalks us. Advertising of course tells us to say ‘yes’ to desire, because in doing so we are saying yes to advertising, which then uses us in its own sweet way. Alien gives us a glimpse of what an “id” world fuelled by consumerism, competition and appetite might look like. That world has arrived. The eggs in the hold of the alien vessel contained the future. Or, at least, embryonic reality TV contestants.

But perhaps the most prophetic part of Alien is its bleakly beautiful look. Every detail is closely controlled by former art-director Scott (who also shot around 80 per cent of the movie himself: “My performance,” he once said of his films, “is everything you see on the screen”) and his trademark high-contrast background and low-lit foreground makes everything seem desirable. Even the Nostromo’s dazzlingly complicated self-destruct mechanism becomes something you feel your home is really missing.

“Its structural perfection is matched by its hostility,” the Science Officer (Ian Holm) famously says about the creature in Alien – something that could be said of several of the lead characters in Scott’s other famous films: the replicant rebel Batty in Blade Runner, Lt. Jordan O’Neil in GI Jane, Maximus in Gladiator. Scott’s early interests in the Nietzschean superman are put on display in the shop window here, helping to make Alien so much more than just “Jaws in space”.

Blade Runner (1982), set “early in the 21st century”, is almost a kind of sequel to Alien. (It was based on Philip K Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?; as with almost all of his films, Scott is not credited as a writer on Blade Runner.) It shows a chaotic, isolated, cool and cold world of surfaces that could have produced the Nostromo. In this world of signs, people have become artefacts. Replicants. And the famously “layered” technique Scott used to create a believable future actually helped to bring that world about – then trademarked it: almost every major sci-fi film since makes reference to it. We may not have flying cars yet, but the globalised, mediated, soulless, virtual world it portrays is here right now.

Perhaps the most prophetic scene has turned out to be the one in which replicant “retirer” Deckhard (Harrison Ford) explores a photograph via a computer, going around corners and examining reflections in mirrors to catch a glimpse of a sleeping, partially dressed woman.

Even in the pre-digital age of the 1980s, film, advertising and music were fast replacing human memory. The fake memories implanted in the Blade Runner replicants to make them think they’re human are like the fake memories implanted in us all by pop culture – and Ridley Scott films. Perhaps the film’s greatest achievement is the way it manages to evoke a sense of ersatz nostalgia. The simulacrum of being human.

We now live in a world where so many memories are being manufactured in so many different formats and media that we really don’t have enough room for them. Like today’s ads and pop music, films are designed to be forgotten before you’ve even finished watching them to make room for the next implant. Blade Runner, seen next to something inconsequential like Minority Report, would be much too rich a diet for today’s audiences.

Scott did such a good job of imagining what the 1980s would look like that, after Blade Runner, the 1980s had no further use for him. The film was a critical and commercial failure when it was released (though now it regularly makes lists of the top 10 best films and has earned millions in video/DVD sales). Scott’s next three films, Legend (1985), Someone to Watch Over Me (1987) and Black Rain (1989), were hardly noticed. It was not until Thelma & Louise in 1991 that he hit paydirt again.

Despite or perhaps because of its ostensibly serious subject-matter – two women on the lam after shooting dead a rapist before consummating a suicide pact – Thelma & Louise is something of a hen-party movie, complete with a baby Chippendale in the form of a young, lithe Brad Pitt in his first major role as the hitch-hiking cowboy who gives Geena Davis a night of six-packed passion and then steals Susan Sarandon’s life savings. For much of the previous decade, ads had been addressing women with the codes of gay softcore pornography, reprogramming them to treat men as commodities and pursue their desires – and associate feminine freedom with consumption.

Even more appropriate then that Thelma & Louise should take the form of an ironic rehash of that notoriously male homoerotic genre, the buddy movie.

Pitt appears here as an early sighting of a simulacrum of masculinity that is now dominant, a pleasingly-made hospitality replicant known as the metrosexual (though Pitt is a particularly annoying example: I found myself agreeing with Harvey Keitel whose character in the film complained: “This guy is beginning to irritate me” – and this was just Pitt’s first big movie…).

Interestingly, Scott’s brother and business partner Tony, who also has a background in advertising (and pop promos), made the film Top Gun (1986), which lit the afterburners for Tom Cruise’s career by portraying military life as a gay porn shoot.

With Thelma & Louise Scott succeeded in setting the tone for the Nineties, but once again his success undid him: his other Nineties movies Conquest of Paradise (1992), White Squall (1996), and GI Jane (1997) met with muted responses. GI Jane (alias Ripley – played by Demi Moore – Joins the Army) is a fictional tale about a woman who tries to complete an elite, all-male, hellish training course; it is not so much a feminist film as another example of Scott’s Nietzschean tendencies: the Will to Power. The sadistic DI asks at the end of every new torment, “Are you ready for the next evolution?” Clearly audiences were not. (Though even as I write it has been announced that a woman is taking the Parachute Battalion training course.)

The most memorable moment in the film, where Demi tells the DI who has threatened to rape her to “suck my dick”, is a self-conscious reference to Thelma & Louise, where the rapist’s use of the line prompts Louise to shoot him. But by this time audiences probably thought Scott was quoting Madonna.

Perhaps the failure of GI Jane persuaded Scott that, after three decades of unprecedented change, what people wanted was nostalgia. Maybe he himself, now in his sixties, was tired of the changes that he had helped to bring about. Gladiator (2000), was Scott’s first hit since Thelma & Louise, and the first sword-and-sandals epic for nearly 40 years (spawning several others, none of which repeated its critical or commercial success). It seems to reject the brave new androgynous world and retreat to more reassuring, manly sentiments. A very well-made film to be sure, but it’s difficult though not to feel like you’re being sold something dodgy – like one of the fake photographs/memories in Blade Runner. It’s rather like Scott’s most famous and memorable UK ad: the boy on his bicycle on cobbled streets to the strains of Dvorak selling us tasteless, industrially-made bread as something timeless and authentic (it even seems to use the same golden filters).

Like noble, self-sacrificing Maximus’s (Russell Crowe) vision of being reunited with his family as he lies dying in the Colosseum, Gladiator is a sepia-tinted reverie of masculinity, selling back to us what capitalism has already alienated us from. It is, however, a spectacularly convincing world.

Maximus’s nemesis, Emperor Commodus (Joachim Phoenix), is selfish, cruel, unmanly, perverted, posturing – in other words, representative of the contemporary world. Wittingly or not, Gladiator provided the ideological-sentimental palette for Bush’s successful election campaign in 2000 against the “corrupt’ and “immoral” Clinton legacy. (Bush turned out to have much in common with Commodus’ populist posturing in the Colosseum: such as his Op Gun moment on a US Navy aircraft carrier – a photo opportunity that referenced Tony Scott’s classic Eighties flyboy movie.)

Gladiator has other portents in its entrails. The famous opening of the film, the awesome, flaming forest battle sequence – “at my word, unleash hell” – seems to have anticipated, or prompted, the “shock and awe” opening to Bush’s own blockbuster, Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Scott has mentioned in interviews several times that he very nearly joined the Royal Marines after attending art college but was persuaded to go back into education by his father, an officer in the Army. Black Hawk Down (2002), based on the events in Mogadishu in 1993 when two US Army helicopters were downed and in the ensuing fire fights 19 American soldiers died, seems to be Scott’s paean to his lost/alternative world of male camaraderie and esprit de corps.

Black Hawk Down isn’t just Scott’s lost world, however, but ours too. Cynicism is everywhere. Talking about civilians who think soldiers are drunk on war, a grunt in the film complains: “They don’t understand. They don’t know it’s all about the man next to you. That’s all there is.” This fraternal love is very physical – so physical that it’s beyond sex; a point underlined by a scene in which a soldier has to root around in his wounded buddy’s pelvis for his severed femoral artery in a (fruitless) attempt to stop him bleeding to death.

It’s a harrowing, brutalising and moving film, and quite possibly Scott’s best for two decades, certainly a far more realistic movie than, say, Pearl Harbor – or Top Gun.

But the gory glory of war is precisely what gives Black Hawk Down its glamour. It seems that its gorgeously shot (again that golden filter) heroic realism, and the almost pornographic detail of the SFX mutilations, may have helped prepare the American public for the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Originally slated for a 2002 release it was rushed out a few weeks after 9/11. American audiences, reeling from the civilian casualties at the World Trade Center, and understandably looking for someone to punish, must have been relieved to see American men who were actually trained for battle in the firing line instead. Mogadishu may have been a disaster, but Black Hawk Down turned it into America’s Rorke’s Drift.

In other words, another memory implant. (Ironically, given what was to happen in Iraq, some critics attacked the film at the time because it seemed just one long, shocking, confusing, endless battle.)

Maybe Scott regretted the way Black Hawk Down was interpreted. Or maybe he calculates that a contemporary Hollywood film set during the Crusades needs to portray Western intentions in the best possible light. Whatever the answer, his new epic Kingdom of Heaven goes so far out of its way to show war as a terrible last resort, to emphasise respect for Islam and to advance tolerance in the “multicultural” world of the medieval Middle East, that the whole thing gets lost in the woolly undergrowth. The Blairite preachiness of the film and its patronising cod-history leaves you longing for a bloodthirsty massacre. Whatever happened to Scott’s Nietzschean/Darwinian tendencies? Whatever happened to all those alien eggs? Surely one must have survived? How did we end up, 26 years later, with this Care Bear of a Crusades movie?

One of the major problems is that the film’s star, Orlando Bloom – who plays an orphaned blacksmith who becomes a great swordsman and defender of Jerusalem – is too much of a modern pleasing simulacrum of masculinity for us to believe in as a hero. But then, that is the nature of the world that Scott made for us. Whatever the reception for Kingdom of Heaven, it is clear that, for Scott, historical epics are the new science fiction – his escape shuttle from the eternal Eighties.

Now that the future has arrived, and has proved inevitably to be something of a disappointment, the past is the place to colonise. And it is the science of CGI which makes that fiction possible. Scott may not have joined the military, but he has become a general, even if most of his men are virtual ghosts.

The memory implant he has given us with Kingdom of Heaven is, like his earliest movies, a visually stunning and entrancing world. It may be a manufactured memory designed to make living in the present, uncertain world more possible and peaceful – to help us sleep more soundly, like an android dreaming of electric sheep.

But even if it were twice the picture it is, then it would still, in this digital, Blade Runner-lite world, be just as disposable as all the other implants out there.


This essay is collected in ‘Metrosexy: A 21st Century Self-Love Story

Become a patron at Patreon!

17 thoughts on “How Ridley Scott invented the 1980s”

  1. I would’nt dispair Mark . Inhumans are definitely being maufactured at a mad rate; Once they perfect the virtual worlds that computer tecnology promises you’ll be “wagon’s ho” on the human world part; although I’m seeing a paradox hidding in your digital bushes.

  2. Hard saying what that would be; probably some post apocalyptic vision like Carmac McCarthys “The Road”. People were eatting one another.

    Actually humans have done a great job of screwing up the best of conditions since the purported Garden of Eden. Maybe that’s just the crappy paradigm that got all of this current manuevering going.

  3. I think that it’s awesome that on far lower budgets but cretainly witha concern for aesthtic content fine work is coming from Europe. American arrogance is certainly driven by the PR departments of media companies push to stockholders. Recent studies show that people’s metabolism and brain electric activity are 14% lower watching T.V. than when they are asleep. I’m sure there is a similar effect with
    flims. I can honestly not go to movies any more with out getting cross and walking out. Everyone got bent out of shape by “Avatar” which is a children’s movie (small children.)..

    The social planning behind this would stun Orwell. The people in charge let people dumb out in their free time so that they will work harder and longer for less when actually awake.
    God help the stock market if anyone thought in their spare time.(give them cake).

  4. I think I’ll take your advice re the European movies, Mark. Or just watch old Hollywood ones. There was a time, post Star Wars, when blockbusters were interesting even if only in a perverse what-does-Big-Money-think-makes-us-hard? fashion. But it’s over.

    It’s the hallmark of our age that Hollywood movies no longer tell us anything at all – not even about Hollywood. They’re completely empty of any meaning whatsoever. Which is a kind of achievement, but not one worth paying £8.50 for (plus £2 for those crappy 3D glasses).

  5. addendum:
    I don’t think that non-Americans can begin to comprehend the distain that most Americans have for so caled “art films” i.e. films that say something or have any content. The best of European films are confined to college dungeons and small artsy venues. Scott is trying to stay abrest of the herd. Anti-intelectualism is part of the American nightmare,.

  6. You say an aweful lot there Mark of interest-indeed volumes. Central to a lot of this developement though, it seems very safe to say that the medium is definitely the message; Ridly Scott is only a catalyst.
    I still recall that the “new age ” in American cinima was introduced by Star Wars, George Lucas’s adventure into special effects; something which to Americans is still a classic, because of its use of technology to attain the “epic” sense in the tiny expanse of a computer screen. Despite the use of humanoids and cyborgs, their was still a dash of corny humanity and the use of hords of muppit-like characters for the kids.
    Nonethe less, written up in all the major “Time’ type middle class magazines was the miracle of technology to produce what would other wise be allbeit impossible. Images of the goliath spaceships override any sense I have of plot particularly- the classic strudgglre of the forces of Good against the Dark forces (ref. the” axis of evil” :Geo Bush : )

    Along with that, came the team work model of cinematic “art” :the product of a gang of technitions. with not real brain to lead the way. In fact I recall a friend of mine who had gone into screen writting telling me , once hestarted working in Hollywood that even the writting of screen plays is almost never the product of one hand, or mind but the effort of a number of different nameless people who contribut to different parts.

    Much of what we end up seeing -the epic or whatever is only the work of a group of computer techs. Rarely is anything really photographed. Recall the sea full of Greek ships decending on Troy, spread out across the Mediteranian, the wonder of which is that they didn’t even have one full boat to start with but just digitised the whole thing.

    Consider that, while in “Heaven” Scott had Saladin leading a leagIon of 250,000 Saracins, in reality he only had 25,000. The movie got credit for it’s ‘stunning cinamatography and jaw dropping battle sequences. To say the least most of ths was concocted in a machine. Of course, one ca not imagine a less likely hero than Bloom. Pageboy material, albeit cute, ad a good actor , it’s doubtful that he could realy lift one of those knightly swords..

    THe point of all this being that I don’t think that it’s Ridley , or any directors fault. The problem is with Americas love afair with technology and their scorn for individuality.

    See a European movie. They rely on plot and good acting.

  7. Looking up The Omega Man on Netflix now…. I probably saw it on TV as a kid in the late Seventies and unconsciously modelled myself on it.

  8. straightonlyinbed

    Reminded how nothing new is ever new, because I realize that I only imagine the ignorant masses burning down repositories of civilization as a scene from “THE OMEGA MAN”, got me thinkin’

    Doesn’t Charlton Heston, in THE OMEGA MAN, combine proto metrosexuality of the 1960s hippie male, with the insecure brutality of the de-sexed 1980s male? Not only mirrors in his dystopian apartment (a high riise lair, like a yuppified upwardly mobile homo’s or any straight consumerist’s dream home above and within the fashionable city), he even has giant CCTV monitors to look at himself all night long, ostensibly to be reminded of humanity, while he languishes as the last non mutated man on earth, but he later admits, “I’m a narcissist”.
    Pumping a phallic machine gun into, quite literally, people who are ignorant and inferior BECAUSE THEY’RE UGLY.

    And he’s a well read, cultured scientist who goes alone to the movies to “cry”, all girlishly.


    Who REALLY invented the 1980s? Ridley Scott? or some nobody named “Boris Sagal”?
    I’m sure even the simpsons’ halloween parody is well recalled, as the most 1980s-like thing possible.

  9. straightonlyinbed

    Scott is too superficial, yes sir, and too fey a personality to withstand his own creations and re invent himself.

    His originality was in adapting a sixties fashion magazine and art film aesthetic to (near) plotless scripts.
    So he was never exactly an original, originating, genius.
    Blade runner saves its literary pomp by lifting text, literally, from the original literary work. But Ford’s lost little look is of some commoner unhappily become art gallery wanderer, drunk on imagery but incomprehending. So he shoots the paintings. And it looks GREAT!
    Having brought the slickest pop art look to blockbusters and been so successful at sparing the world from dominance by corny-hoaky disaster flicks, aesthetic hypnosis took over, permitting no original energy. Like a dog chasing his tail, Scott started to imitate the disintegrating style he’d originated, copying his inferiors as their filial work saturated the market.
    That’s just what you get for being too artsy.
    So it’s no wonder that by now, and at his ADVANCED AGE, he just makes movies to look like all the other crap out there today. He’s not just an inferior mensch like Harrison, chasing and fleeing the supermen of his fantasies, he’s an elderly Ford, a wino in the projector lights. He can’t find the supermen anymore. They’re slimy little boys or tired, fat pigs. Cataracts? Glaucoma? Dimming of the light?

    This isn’t to excuse him, of course. All these potential artists who have let themselves degenerate should burn in hell forever. If not for leaving us high and dry in the flood of ignorant fascism, then for subjecting us to more trailers that promise only disappointment.
    It’ll probably end with the burning down of high art museums, just to forever sever the link to great art.
    And then the Bata shoe musee des beaux arts will finally sell a ticket, many many tickets, “influencing” our aesthetic for the better. On its virtual gallery website as in its marble tombs around the world.

    Enjoy Scott while he’s still around, if you like him. The next “look” will be watered down metrosexuality or from directors whose main influences are married-people-bedroom-porn (including married-gay-bedroom-porn is a given, because they’re “people” too, after a kind) . Of course I don’t really believe this.

  10. Sasha: I’ve not seen the director’s cut. More than willing to believe that the studio butchered it like… a marauding crusader.

  11. The director’s cut of “Kingdom of Heaven” is a lot better than the theatre release. Scott insisted 20th-Century Fox recut the film after Scott was done, and they butchered it. The story flows a lot better with the director’s cut, and character motivation is clearer. But if you don’t like Bloom’s performance, well, nothing will save it I guess. Bloom had a lot of potential after the Rings trilogy; I don’t know why he can’t seem to live up to it.

  12. Yes, it was much better than Alexander. But alas, that isn’t saying a great deal. You’re right of course that it was brave of Scott to go against the grain of Hollywood ‘raghead’ attitudes. On the other hand, it would have been very reckless to make a film about the crusades at all at that time that didn’t treat Saladin with some sympathy. Scott does have an interest in history, which is something to be commended. It’s just a shame that his historical films generally aren’t very good.

  13. I think that, even you Mark, would grant that “Kingdom” was an improvement over “Alexander” and god knowns what other “historical” disastors have been contrived of late. At least Saladin was portrayed with some sympathy: not as the motly “raghead” Americans would really have preferred. Scot was more or less true to a certain amount of historical fact, give or take a few thousands of men
    No doubt the reason that it wasn’t such a box office hit was his reluctance to present the Arabs as a bunch of deranged terrorists. We don’t expect much in films anymore; American that is.

    You have to remember that without the occasional film no one would have any sense of historisity at all.

Comments are closed.