If nothing else, Hannibal proves that nobody can prettify prosaic drivel like Ridley Scott, Hollywood’s most reliable hired gun. Yet the seven early works in the Screening Room’s retrospective reveal that his standing as a visual innovator is based on a rather limited set of tricks. The strategic clutter, stark backlighting, and whole forest fires’ worth of smoke that provide his signature look have grown tedious with overuse, not least for their imitable qualities; even the current crop of Chevy truck commercials could be his handiwork. Far more intriguing is Scott’s attraction to stories that pivot on grandiose heroics and the stoic bond between men—and masculinized women—under pressure. His fondness for garish sentiment and reliance on unrestrained hamminess (who else would dare cast Michael Douglas and Andy Garcia in the same movie?) make him the sole purveyor of an outlandishly baroque brand of macho camp.
The Duellists, his clunky feature debut, serves as prototype for this aesthetic, while Alien shows how rewarding it can be when applied with a wicked sense of humor. Scott permanently and pointedly altered sci-fi cinema with this inspired potboiler and broke all the monster-movie rules by showcasing what was typically hidden (rent flesh) and concealing what was almost always shown (the creature—in this case, H.R. Giger’s phallo-vaginal bug). His sumptuous follow-ups, Blade Runner and Legend, are bloated and narratively dodgy by comparison.
Haphazard career choices aside, Scott’s game-for-anything ethic and undeniable technical skill add up to more than just guilty fun. Thelma and Louise, and to a lesser degree, G.I. Jane (sadly not on the Screening Room lineup), are unusually sly projects for a male A-list director, even if each bogs down in thematic muddle. Scott also has an unusually high ratio of ambiguous and downright “unhappy” endings on his résumé. On the flip side, there are those absurd, Sax Rohmer-esque Asian stereotypes in Black Rain, which now seem less inflammatory than Reagan-era senile, and the whole of 1492: Conquest of Paradise. Last year’s Gladiator, a leading Oscar contender, was only marginally better. Steven Soderbergh, take note: The law of averages catches up with even the shrewdest of freelancers.