“Ridley Scott hasn’t made a good film since Blade Runner” is a phrase you might hear a lot. It’s not true but it’s out there.
As Scott drops his 24th feature film, Alien: Covenant, talk has once again turned to his directorial legacy and the frustration some fans still have with anything beyond his early sci-fi work. It may be true that if Scott had stuck to sci-fi after those early successes he would have had a less inconsistent and even more lucrative creative life. He has steadfastly refused, though–at least until recently and his new era of Alien prequels–to be a predictable filmmaker.
Scott’s career, even in its early days, is one of the most diverse and fascinating of any of the household name-level filmmakers to come along in the last 50 years. It ranges from sci-fi noir brilliance to broad comedy to historical epics aplenty. There are masterworks, films of frustrating mediocrity and even an outright dud or two, but it’s always been an interesting ride.
So, as the world prepares for Covenant, let’s have a look at Scott’s entire illustrious career, from worst film to best.
24. EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS (2014)
Ridley Scott made historical epics before Exodus. He made films about faith before. He even made films about men who lose their power only to find a different kind. So what went wrong here? One hopes he didn’t forget how to make such a film or run out of ways to make it interesting. Everything in Exodus, though, creeps right up to the line of interesting only to then retreat from it. We suppose Christian Bale and Joel Edgerton playing Egyptians is interesting but not in a good way. On the upside, it’s quite pretty. But what Ridley Scott film isn’t?
23. THE COUNSELOR (2013)
The Counselor, like its predecessor on this list, is not a good film. But it’s definitely not dull. It’s hard for a film to be boring when it features Cameron Diaz dry-humping a sports car but there’s so much to pick through even beyond that. The costumes, the weird Cormac McCarthy dialogue, Javier Bardem’s antics, the pulpy violence. The list goes on. It’s a fascinating hot mess that only a pair of geniuses (McCarthy and Scott) could come up with. Alas, a hot mess is still a mess.
22. BODY OF LIES (2008)
Scott made two films about tension and warfare in the Middle East within three years of each other. We’ll come to the other one much later, becuse Body of Lies is easily the weaker of the two. On paper, it feels like a hit: Russell Crowe and Leonardo DiCaprio as a pair of U.S. intelligence operatives with different outlooks on the world’s most complex and contentious region. In execution, though Scott’s an able technician as always, it feels rather cold despite all that desert heat.
21. ROBIN HOOD (2010)
Visually, Robin Hood is a pleasantly gritty depiction of Medieval England with some lovingly shot action. Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett are strong leads. Oscar Isaac is a wonderful villain when he’s allowed to be. The film as a whole, though, is plodding, tonally mismatched and a bit overambitious. It attempts to both retell the origin of the title character and root him in very real English history. Its reach for both is admirable but it ultimately grasps neither.
20. SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME (1987)
Someone to Watch Over Me is…fine. The concept–a working class detective (Tom Berenger) falls in love with the Manhattan socialite (Mimi Rogers) he’s assigned to protect–is fine. The cast, including a scene-stealing young Lorraine Bracco, is fine. The neo-noir visuals are fine. That’s really the best thing to be said about the film. There’s nothing here that a half dozen other films haven’t done better. Still, it’s not a bad way to spend 90 minutes.
19. PROMETHEUS (2012)
The wave of fan disappointment that accompanied Prometheus’ release may have impacted its placement on this list but the intervening five years haven’t been kind to it either. It’s a film of tremendous ambition, both visually and thematically. Noomi Rapace and Michael Fassbender are an able onscreen team and its attempts to build on the Alien mythology are genuinely interesting. All that said, it remains a tremendously underwhelming experience full of stilted dialogue, strange decisions and half-baked ideas.
18. 1492: CONQUEST OF PARADISE (1992)
Scott’s chronicle of Columbus’ voyage to the New World, anchored by a bombastic lead performance from Gerard Depardieu, is a fascinating film. Visually, it’s absolutely gorgeous, full of complex location shots packed with extras and practical period sets. One wonders if Scott made the film just to prove he could, much as Columbus was determined to prove his trip across the ocean blue wasn’t utter folly. The final product is a competent epic with a few breathtaking moments but the film never finds its true heart.
17. HANNIBAL (2001)
The first sequel in Scott’s career, and still the only direct sequel, Hannibal admirably attempts to instantly set itself apart from its predecessor. While Silence of the Lambs was a gritty horror-thriller, Hannibal attempts to be a violent romantic opera. Visually it succeeds spectacularly. Scott films the streets of Florence with true flair and beauty. Its efforts to be different, though, ultimately make it a poor sequel and only a moderately successful standalone film. Seeing Scott roll up his sleeves and get elbow-deep in gorgeously filmed brain tissue is still great fun.
16. ALIEN: COVENANT (2017)
Unfortunately, Covenant is another underwhelming return to the Alien franchise, though the effort has more rewards in store than Prometheus. Scott strips things down a bit from the last film, maintaining an epic visual style while getting more intimate and overtly horror-driven. That gives the film a bigger heart, thanks primarly to Katherine Waterston, Michael Fassbender and Danny McBride. It also allows for some wonderfully orchestrated moments of gore and, like Alien, detailed but subtle worldbuilding that invites curiosity with every shot. It’s not a total loss, but it still could have been so much more.
15. A GOOD YEAR (2006)
Scott doesn’t do comedy often and this is his one and only brush with the romcom, a subgenre that’s near-impossible to do well. Sadly, there’s nothing very surprising about A Good Year. You can kinda see where the film is heading all along (to be fair, you can with a lot of romcoms), and nothing about it defies any of those expectations. You get the sense that Scott might have made the film just to document that he can competently deliver a romcom. And fair play to him, he did. Sure, Nancy Meyers or Nora Ephron might have made a better version but A Good Year is a perfectly fine little crowd-pleaser.
14. G.I. JANE (1997)
Viewed 20 years after its release, G.I. Jane loses a lot of the edge provided by its marketing. Even its most intense moments aren’t all that surprising or shocking to 2017 eyes. Certain choices, like the song used when Demi Moore shaves her head, are even a little disorienting. The film remains pretty damn engaging, though. The training sequences are still brutal, it still jacks up your heart rate in all the right moments and Viggo Mortensen still steals every scene he’s in.
13. BLACK RAIN (1989)
Imagine Ridley Scott took all of the neon noir powers he got from Blade Runner, then stripped out the sci-fi and the big questions about the nature of humanity. Then you’ve got Black Rain, a thriller about two American cops (Michael Douglas and Andy Garcia) on the hunt for an escaped yakuza boss in Japan. It’s not earth-shattering but it looks great and it’s got some very satisfying buddy cop moments mixed with gritty ‘80s violence.
12. LEGEND (1985)
Legends simple fairy tale story will always leave something to be desired, as will certain of its performances (Hi, young Tom Cruise!). Visually, though, it is one of the most transportive experiences in the Ridley Scott canon. Almost nothing, even now, looks like an artifical construct on a soundstage. And the third act, featuring Tim Curry’s remarkable Lord of Darkness (a combination of performance and makeup effects you’d be hard-pressed to replicate even now), is simply breathtaking.
11. BLACK HAWK DOWN (2001)
Black Hawk Down catches justifiable heat for its incomplete depiction of the true story it’s based on and for its depiction of Somalians as a largely faceless mass of villains. The 16 years since its release haven’t done anything to ameliorate those criticisms. As a raw depiction of a vicious, seemingly endless single battle, though, it is a remarkable achievement. Scott is known more for epic setpieces than second-by-second action. Here, he proves he can do both.
10. THE DUELLISTS (1977)
Scott’s first feature, about two men battling each other across the years and nations of Napoleonic Europe, holds up surprisingly well 40 years later. It’s a little emotionally cold (as are many of his films) but the strong lead performances of Keith Carradine and Harvey Keitel remain magnetic. It’s fun, it doesn’t overstay its welcome and the climactic showdown is still a gorgeous pulse-pounder.
9. KINGDOM OF HEAVEN (2005)
You might be thinking that Kingdom of Heaven is too high on this list, but go back and watch it again, specifically the longer Director’s Cut that gives the film its proper epic length and depth. The theatrical cut has its moments, but when Scott is allowed free rein to just let the film unfurl it becomes a sumptuous dramatic delight. There are still weak spots, but the ensemble cast might be the best Scott’s ever assembled and the Siege of Jerusalem is the most superb battle sequence in his career. It’s not his best epic, but it’s far better than early viewers remember.
8. WHITE SQUALL (1996)
Because his filmography is so diverse, it’s hard to pick a single film that deserves more attention than it got. If you have to pick one, though, this should be it. White Squall is like Dead Poets Society on a boat, complete with an energetic young cast and a fantastic Jeff Bridges in the mentor role. Scott builds all the right heartwarming coming-of-age rhythms, then lets it rip for the thrilling, heart-stopping title storm sequence. This film is a buried gem, one you should take time to dig up.
7. AMERICAN GANGSTER (2007)
The very idea of Scott stepping onto Martin Scorsese’s New York crime turf for one film is transfixing. That it ends up working so well almost feels like a bonus. For his take on the period mobster drama, Scott chose the biggest story he could while still limiting himself to a single major player: The tale of a man so fixated on success and excess that he crossed an ocean and returned with bricks of pure heroin. Denzel Washington is great in the title role, Russell Crowe does some of his best work and the whole picture is just immensely satisfying, especially for a film that doesn’t immediately scream “Ridley Scott.”
6. THE MARTIAN (2015)
After Prometheus, Scott set out to prove he could still make winning sci-fi with this much more lighthearted Mars adventure and it absolutely works. The Martian will never be as groundbreaking or influential as Alien or Blade Runner and it’s certainly not the most challenging thing he’s done but the film just oozes charm and wonder. It’s an unabashed dose of a fun in a career that often leans toward darkness.
5. MATCHSTICK MEN (2003)
Matchstick Men is Scott at his most playful and it’s just as delightful now as when it was released. There’s a relaxed quality to it that many of his films just don’t have. You feel it in the cast (nothing says “relaxed” like putting Sam Rockwell in your movie), in the soundtrack and in the cool color palette that dominates many of the scenes. It feels contradictory that such a loose, fun film is about such a tightly wound career criminal (Nicolas Cage’s Roy) but that’s exactly why it works. Scott takes the idea of having fun with this film seriously and it pays off beautifully. In a career with a lot of cold films, this is one of the warmest.
4. GLADIATOR (2000)
Scott made historical epics before Gladiator and he’s made them since, but this is his highest expression of the genre. From a distance it can feel like what might end up as middling Oscar bait. Upon watching it again, though, it still really works. It might be the mostly visually kinetic movie Scott’s ever made and not just because of the high frame rates used for some of the action. He took notes from the great directors of epics who came before him and used everything in his toolkit to make a dynamic, rewatchable movie packed with gorgeous shots. He and Russell Crowe breathed life into what could’ve otherwise been a cynical costume drama. Despite its predictable narrative, Gladiator still draws blood with all the right emotional daggers.
3. THELMA & LOUISE (1991)
Like Stanley Kubrick before him, Ridley Scott is a masterful cinemtic technician whose films can feel a bit bloodless. Often it can appear as though Scott is incapable of achieving the big movie heart of a Steven Spielberg or a Robert Zemeckis. Then he goes and does something like Thelma & Louise. Propelled by a brilliant Callie Khouri script and two brilliant performances by Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon, Scott proves just how much warmth and tenderness he can pack into one film. Even after knowing the legendary ending for decades, this film is still capable of jerking out tears. And somehow, Scott also captured the majesty of the American West on his first try. It’s an all-around masterpiece.
2. ALIEN (1979)
Alien is just perfect. It’s one of those amazing cinematic storms where everything works so well and you don’t know if it was the combined force of genius or pure dumb luck. So you just roll with it. The synchronicity of ideas is there from the very first frame, and it just keeps going right up until the credits. The casting, the marvelously working class script, the dirty space aesthetic and the H.R. Giger biotech hellscapes all work in perfect concert. It’s a wicked gem made all the more spellbinding by the lingering questions its relatively small story leaves, which explains why the franchise has endured even amid diminishing returns. After nearly four decades, the haunted house in space is still spooky as hell.
1. BLADE RUNNER (1982)
As a culture, we’ve never really been able to let go of Blade Runner and not just in terms of trying to make a sequel happen. Like the more-human-than-human Replicants at the heart of its story, we just keep wanting more time with it. Even Scott himself couldn’t be pried away, tweaking the film with new edits up until the release of “The Final Cut” a decade ago. It’s a film that invites fixation, from the opening shot of fire over the spires of 2019 Los Angeles to that origami unicorn at the end. It’s not just that it’s one of the most visually magnificent films of the last 35 years, though it is. It’s not just that it has a great cast, though it does. It’s not even that the story is so immersive as to have developed theories within theories over the decades, though it inarguably has. There’s a mesmeric effect in Blade Runner. It’s like some kind of extra sense kicking in. Even when you’re able to detach and watch objectively, admiring the technical precision, it’s still there to pull you back into a trance. It’s something that goes beyond good filmmaking. It’s magic of the kind that only the greatest filmmakers can conjure. No matter how confounding or debate-inducing Blade Runner has proven to be over the years, we wouldn’t keep coming back if that magic weren’t there. So, Blade Runner was, is and perhaps always will be Ridley Scott’s finest work.