“I’m a yarn teller. My job is to engage you as much as I can and as often as I can.”
This simple declaration of intent comes from the brilliant Ridley Scott, long celebrated as one of Hollywood’s premier directors. From extraterrestrial terror to fantasy to crime, Scott’s work spans genres and decades.
In this installment of our series on great creative communicators, we look at how Ridley Scott enjoys the reputation he does: a consummate designer and true cinematic professional.
With a career that includes such mega-movies as Alien, Blade Runner, Legend, Thelma & Louise, G.I. Jane, Gladiator, Black Hawk Down, American Gangster, Prometheus, The Martian, and Alien: Covenant, it’s easy to see why Scott enjoys the reputation he does. Seemingly unconstrained by genre, era, or finance, Scott continues to produce genre-defining pictures with star-studded casts. Let’s look at the principles and techniques behind some of Scott’s landmark works.
Alien (1979) was Scott’s second film, after the period piece The Duellists (1977), but remains possibly the most significant film of his career. Its story follows a seven-person crew of what the filmmakers dubbed “space truckers” who find themselves at the mercy of a malevolent extraterrestrial. Featuring Sigourney Weaver’s breakout performance as the indomitable Ellen Ripley, Alien reimagined what science fiction could look like.
Then, in 1982, Scott gave sci-fi another makeover with Blade Runner, a cyberpunk neo-noir about a hardboiled detective tasked with hunting down rogue synthetic humans. This time showcasing the talents of Harrison Ford, Scott gave Blade Runner the earthbound version of Alien’s world. It’s a place of flying cars and abandoned tenements, neon advertisements and never-ending rain—futuristic, but tired, broken, dirty.
A Visionary Director
You could say that all film directors are visually focused, but Scott’s attention to strong visuals is unparalleled. “People say I pay too much attention to the look of a movie,” he once said, “but for God’s sake, I’m not producing a Radio 4 Play Today, I’m making a movie that people are going to look at.”
This sentiment reveals more than just Scott’s visual fixation—it shows some design thinking in his approach. Design thinking is the process of product design and manufacturing that begins with an empathetic understanding of audience needs and desires. It causes the director to think about what “people are going to look at” before anything else.
And when it comes to what people look at, Scott provides a consistent approach to visuals that drives engagement and retention in equal measure. Let’s start with his framing.
Scott loves to show scale and extreme long shots. This allows him to display the grandeur of his massive sets, both interior and exterior. It lets him contrast massive structures and geographical features with tiny, seemingly insignificant characters.
Scott’s love of showing scale and deep framing works on several levels. It renders his characters tiny, sure, but it also reinforces the messages that underlie most of his work: humanity’s place in the universe, faith, and the attempt to understand the unknowable. The precise statement this framing makes on those messages? Have faith, or don’t, but don’t ever convince yourself that you’re the center of the universe.
What Does it Mean to be Human?
Scott’s theme of humanity’s place in the universe (and of what truly makes us human) also finds visual representation in his distorted human forms. Still using just his two early sci-fi films as examples, both Alien and Blade Runner feature near-human forms. They engage the audience and unsettle them at the same time.
The titular alien resembles a jet-black, skeletal human form with exaggerated limbs, an elongated head and a wicked tail. This creature, eventually called the xenomorph, has been beloved as both terrifying and oddly beautiful from 1979 through its most recent incarnation in Alien: Covenant (2017).
Both the Alien films and Blade Runner also prominently feature synthetic characters. They are characters who were not born but made and programmed. These characters also drive audience engagement by being almost human. They talk almost like humans, and act almost like humans. However in the moments where we don’t, we’re captivated by the disparity. It forces us to ask just how unusual their behavior really is.
Scott’s films also utilize the principle of surprise to great effect. Surprise drives the engagement Scott wants to continually increase, so he plots his films unconventionally to surprise his viewers again and again. Alien takes almost an hour to involve an alien. It puts the audience on the balls of their feet waiting for the action to jump out at them. And when it does, the alien’s introduction is nothing if not shocking.
Blade Runner puts much of its surprise at the end. Is detective Deckard a Replicant? Just how bad are these Replicants, really? Scott knows his viewers expect a certain kind of story, so he inserts surprises throughout to subvert their expectations and amplify their engagement.
Even outside of his famed science fiction work, Ridley Scott’s messaging, majestic visuals, and surprising turns remain consistent. Gladiator features massive coliseums and crowds contrasted with stunningly close, intense fight scenes. American Gangster has moments of shocking violence punctuated throughout as its real-life crime saga unfolds. Both retain Scott’s preoccupation with human nature.
Thelma and Louise uses its stunning conclusion to ask if human nature even requires living. Legend gives its devilish villain unnervingly human desires and (in the director’s cut, at least) rewrites a fairytale romance with one that’s unexpectedly platonic.
We can describe Scott’s message throughout his work with the same adjective he hopes to apply to his audience: curious. It’s not the “humanity for humanity’s sake” that Rod Serling spoke of when asked to explain his reason for creating; instead, Scott is more interested in raising questions.
He doesn’t need to answer whether or not Alien: Covenant’s Walter is capable of love or not. He just wants to suggest the issue, and let the audience decide for themselves. For, after all, even if a robot can love, it’s still not human… right?
Ridley Scott is an entertainer, concerned with attracting audiences and engaging them as much and as often as he can. His films, however, have become genre classics and audience favorites because their design principles—message, visuals, framing, story, surprise—are brilliantly employed to create a lasting cinematic memory. Scott, in his own words, thinks his job is engagement; he downplays his ability to create a highly retainable message.
“I don’t ever blink, honestly,” the director once said. Given his affinity for memorable, message-reinforcing visuals, he might be telling the truth.