If George Lucas can be considered the father of the science-fiction blockbuster movie, Ridely Scott, a brilliant film-maker in his own right, who professes to have been deeply influenced by Lucas, might be rightly considered the father of the modern space-gothic movie. This distinction comprises only a slice of Scott’s overall career, but it is a significant slice.
While Lucas defined what many consider to be the epitome of America’s romantic imagination and optimism, Scott at least partially defines American romanticism and optimism tempered by an existential awareness, and by an unflinching confrontation with the “real world” which exists in tandem and in conflict with the dreams-capes as represented in Scott’s films. This tension is present in the four films which concern our present discussion and finds application in both genre and non-genre concepts.
In this way, Scott’s real world/fantasy world conflict bridges a gap between science fiction films, Alien and Bladerunner, and “mainstream” films Thelma & Louise and Black Hawk Down. Scott’s contribution to American film-making can be summarized by five central qualities which are evident throughout his film-making career and are evidenced in the four films relevant to the present discussion. These qualities are: anti-commerciality, social relevancy, strong (and violent) female characters, a blending of realism and surrealism, and an existentially driven romanticism which stresses the human capacity to overcome adversity and tragedy.
Scott is often an overlooked “answer” to the grandiose films of his era. That he was inspired by Star Wars to make films of a dramatic and spectacular quality, but that he does so more with story and conflict and theme than with special effects is a testament to his boldness but it is also a centerpiece of his overall aesthetic which unites realism with ideal imagery, surrealism, and dream-scape imagery.
By examining each of the points ore closely in relation to the four films, it becomes much easier to appreciate the full thematic and aesthetic accomplishments of Scott’s masterpiece, Bladerunner, which can be considered a “signature” work which embodies Scott’s art at its highest expression. Despite Bladerunner’s poor box-office performance, Scott’s anti-commercial tendencies are likely to be disputed or outrightly dismissed by many; however, a film like Thelma & Louise has little in the way of a genuine predecessor, least of all one with a track-record of enormous commercial success.
Similarly, Black Hawk Down is the story of a failed American military mission in Somalia and bucks the strong Hollywood tradition of showing an heroic vision of war. Alien was released at a time when Star Wars had redefined the science-fiction genre in film, exerting a massive influence toward science-fantasy and spectacle on the screen. Scott’s film is a meditative, spooky, mostly silent voyage in space. The tag-line for the film was “In space no-one can hear you scream.
” Scott’s masterwork Bladerunner was a box-office and critical flop upon its release and stood as a radical reworking of an obscure science-fiction novel titled “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? ” The anti-commercial aspects of Scott’s work extend beyond box-office revenue to cultural commentary and social critique. Of the four films under discussion, Scott’s social relevancy is most evident in his non-genre films, Thelma & Louise and Black Hawk Down.
In the latter film, Scott examines the true-life story of “the loss of a “mere eighteen soldiers”; his film is “designed to get us beyond[… ] academic abstractification, to give us moral proximity to suffering, to the physicality of violence” and his searching directorial eye finds excellent use for realism in this film. Scott’s movie takes the viewer into the “events, exploring the interactions between humans and technology in the battlefield,” and this intimate view brings Scott’s recurrent theme of strength beyond tragedy into hard-edged almost documentary-style focus, (Lacy, 27).
While Black Hawk Down examines the impact of violence on social harmony and on the individual lives of male combatants, Thelma & Louise, no less violent nor less socially relevant than Black Hawk Down, envisions the modes of violent conflict in society from the perspective of strong female characters. Although criticized in many quarters for fashioning a tale which is not true to womens’ experience, Thelma & Louise is intentionally non-realistic and represents a mode of near-fantasy, where reality and heroic myth merge.
Scott’s own comments on modern film-making reveal some of the logic behind his wide-ranging techniques and approaches, blending acute realistic detail with mythic fantasy: “I think movie making has just become more expert in the face of these subjects, with different camera angles and different techniques: they demand a more detailed way of looking at things,” (Lacy, 27). Where the violence of Black Hawk Down was received by critics and audiences as an unflinchingly realistic appraisal of the consequences (and futility) of certain kinds of military interventions , the violence in Scott’s earlier film Thelma & Louise was viewed negatively
as fantasy wish-indulgence. Critics failed to recognize the film’s underlying motifs; instead, “Thelma and Louise which was judged, and found wanting, as an account of women’s lives. The standards of truth against which popular films have been judged, standards which rarely admit the complexity of terms like fantasy, can also operate to silence the other stories to which they attempt to give a voice,” and this ability to fuse fantasy with realistic detail is Scott’s great genuis as a filmmaker, (Tasker, 8).
This fusion is evident at its most profound expression in Scott’s most accomplished film Bladerunner. As in Thelma &Louise, Scott brings elements of the action-film to Bladerunner but like Thelma & Louise the action paradigm is given a twist by the pairing of a male-female “buddy” team in Deckert and Rachel. Similarly, there is a question as to whether Deckert is himself a replicant. To this extent, Scott’s “action cinema depends on a complex articulation of both belonging and exclusion, an articulation which is bound up in the body of the hero and the masculine identity that it embodies.
These dramas of belonging and exclusion mobilise discourses of national, racial and gendered identity through intimate fictional groupings such as the platoon, the police squad or the buddy relationship,” and in the case of Bladerunner and Thelma & Lousie, the “intimate” fictional groupings indicate a social awareness of those whom society may have tried to forget or overlook. (Tasker, 8). Scott’s ability to weave a dream-scape of images through his “realistic” aesthetic is brought to it greatest height in Bladerunner.
This space-gothic masterpiece shows that Scott is basically what might be termed as an existentialist romantic as a film-maker, an unusual combination and one which fuels his films with unparalleled tension between wished-for fantasy and seemingly unchangeable reality. In each of the four films discussed, the line between fantasy and reality is crossed usually indicated by a tragedy or crises, so that Scott’s ultimate vision includes characters heroically attempting to snatch their dreams from a dystopian or near-dystopian world, where tragedy becomes a catharsis to the attainment or partial attainment of individual happiness.