No director paints a landscape quite like Ridley Scott. All of his best works, and even some of his weaker ones, pull the audience into the environment alongside the characters, taking the breath away with pictorial beauty. Below are some of my favourite landscapes from Scott’s movies.
The Duellists (1977)
The ending of Ridley Scott’s first feature film is breathtaking in its melancholy outlook. Having battled Keith Carradine’s D’Hubert in a series of duels for several decades during the French Napoleonic War, Harvey Keitel’s Feraud is left an empty shell of a man after the former comes to own his life due to the outcome of their final battle. The sunlight which flickers across the French countryside now holds a powerful metaphorical significance: the politics of the time are changing, heralding a new era and revealing the cruel insignificance of Feraud’s own life.
Blade Runner (1982)
The startling opening of Blade Runner is no mere scene-setter: it defines the themes of the movie. One of the most influential shots in science-fiction history, Scott sets the template for what is to follow. There’s the perpetual black cloud dripping acid rain down onto Harrison Ford’s frazzled protagonist Deckard; the belching, industrial flame stacks blotting out any semblance of humanity; and the skyward reaching buildings indicating a multi-cultural society that has grown out of control, all set to the eerie hum of Vangelis’ groundbreaking electronic score.
Thelma and Louise (1991)
Arguably Scott’s finest character-driven movie, and probably his funniest, most compassionate effort, Thelma and Louise draws on that most mythic of ideas: the American road trip. Both Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis go on the run in their blue 1966 Ford Thunderbird after shooting dead a rapist, and the American landscape becomes another integral character on their journey, by turns expansive, wistful and nostalgic. It all culminates in that classic bittersweet finale in the Grand Canyon when the two women drive to their deaths, probably the most moving moment in any Ridley Scott film.
Never underestimate a director who can conjure a realistic historical backdrop out of nothing. Gladiator’s Colosseum scene drew much acclaim for the way CGI embellished the limitations of the practical set but the return of treacherous Emperor Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) to ancient Rome is even more jaw-dropping. The CGI in this instance is more extensive but so seamless is it that we really do feel like we’ve been transported back in time. It’s a testament to Scott’s eye for detail that the landscape feels so visceral and authentic, not to mention his artists’ eye for composition (our eyes drawn down the promenade towards the mighty Colosseum just like the characters in the scene).
Kingdom of Heaven (2005)
Kingdom of Heaven suffers a bit due to a miscast Orlando Bloom in the central role and an exhausting length but the physicality of the sets is as good as anything in Ridley Scott’s canon. Of particular note is the extraordinary attention to detail paid to the Jerusalem set: just like in Gladiator, we are pulled into the setting and made to believe we’re eavesdropping on a real slice of history. It’s just a shame that this time, the film lacks the required emotional investment necessary to make us care about what’s going on. Kingdom of Heaven is a triumph of craft, if not of story.