Over the course of his 40-year-long career, Ridley Scott has managed to do things no other director has ever accomplished. His groundbreaking work on films like Alien and Blade Runner forever changed the scope of science fiction, influencing numerous films, television shows, comic books, video games, and anime that followed.
A bold visionary, Ridley Scott movies have grand scale, exploring numerous existential themes, such as mortality, fate, faith, artificial intelligence, and technology, and characters' complex relationships and ability to bond with one another, such as a distant father and his daughter (Matchstick Men) or the friendships that exist between soldiers (Black Hawk Down).
In a career that has spanned over four decades, Scott has directed some of the most well-known movies of modern cinema, as well as releasing some films that were, admittedly, far from great (don't even get us started on the heartache that is Robin Hood). From Scott's career-defining sci-fi films to some of his latest cinematic efforts, enjoy this roundup of Ridley Scott movies, ranked from best to worst.
1 – Alien
Alien follows a space crew who answer a strange distress signal, encountering a hostile alien lifeform that soon breaks loose on their ship and begins hunting them down one by one.
One of the most iconic sci-fi movies ever made, Alien continues to earn acclaim for its slow-paced, methodical approach to horror with sudden instances of shocking violence. At its heart, Scott took an already terrifying idea (going out in the middle of space with nothing but a few walls separating you from the infinite cold, silent, dark space) and made it all the more horrifying by adding in a hostile alien who has acid for blood, razor-sharp teeth, and a breeding method that involves infant aliens bursting out of a victim's chest.
2 – Blade Runner
Ridley Scott sure likes to make multiple edited cuts of the same movie. Just as it would be the case with virtually every one of his films that followed (Kingdom of Heaven, Legend, Black Hawk Down, Gladiator, The Martian), Scott's groundbreaking neo-noir dystopian film Blade Runner has seen an almost overwhelming number of alternative cuts and edited versions (seven, in total). The central story present in each edit is the same: Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is an expert detective tasked with identifying and “retiring” — I.E. killing — hyper-realistic androids who have become self-aware. Assigned with hunting down a group of military-grade, ultra-intelligent androids, Deckard confronts the morality of his job and his complex feelings towards an android he develops romantic feelings towards (Sean Young).
Scott's 2007 The Final Cut is the definitive version of the film. The version that Scott had complete creative control over, The Final Cut represents Scott's original vision for Blade Runner, full of smog-clouded streets clogged with people, monolithic neon-lit buildings, and an in-depth exploration of technology, mortality, artificial intelligence, and human emotion.
3 – Gladiator
On paper, Gladiator doesn't bring anything new to the Roman Era sword-and-sandal historical epics of the 1950s' that it's heavily inspired by (movies like Spartacus, Julius Caesar, Ben-Hur, etc.) However, the modern filmmaking techniques Scott brings to the table and the increased amount of adult themes he explores in the movie (realistic violence, more explicit content) helped establish a new era for the genre, paving the way for updated historical epics set during the Roman and Greek eras like 300, Troy, and Alexander.
None of those movies came close to capturing the same acclaim that Gladiator did. The film stars Russell Crowe as the accomplished Roman general, Maximus, whom the Emperor, Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) favors as a potential successor. When Aurelius's son, the unstable Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), hears this, he kills his father, and orders Maximus and his family eliminated to secure his inheritance as the new emperor. Escaping from the new Emperor's forces, Maximus is captured and sold into slavery, eventually becoming a gladiator in the Colosseum, all the while plotting his vengeance.
An old-fashioned story of revenge, full of fantastic sword fights and battle scenes in and out of the Colosseum, the modern style Scott brings to this film is what really set it apart and makes it enjoyable, full of terrific framing and tight shots juxtaposing the close-quarters combat with the vast stadium seating of the arena.
4 – Matchstick Men
Perhaps the most underrated movie of Scott's career, Matchstick Men ranks among Scott's funniest movies to date. A dark comedy based on the Eric Garcia novel of the same name, Matchstick Men follows a pair of small-time con artists, veteran conman Roy (Nicholas Cage) and his protégé Frank (Sam Rockwell), who is still learning the trade from his far more experienced partner.
While they run a successful operation, Roy's mental health (including severe OCD and agoraphobia) soon disrupts their work, forcing Roy to seek the help of a psychiatrist who believes Roy's problems can be fixed by reconnecting with his 14-year-old daughter who he has never met before (Alison Lohman). In a lot of ways, Matchstick Men feels like a spiritual successor to Paper Moon.
5 – Thelma & Louise
While Thelma & Louise does receive a lot of attention and praise, it's not the first movie that immediately comes to mind along with other Ridley Scott movies. Following the titular duo played by Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon, Thelma & Louise focuses on two friends who embark on a long journey across several states while being hunted by the police for murder.
A modern-day road movie equivalent to Bonnie and Clyde with a story delving more into friendship and feminist values, Thelma & Louise had been applauded for its exploration of a female narrative, going on to win numerous awards, including an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, as well as Academy Award nominations for Best Director and Best Actress (Sarandon and Davis).
6 – Black Hawk Down
A war film based on the nonfiction book of the same name, Black Hawk Down dramatizes the 1993 U.S. Army raid in Mogadishu that saw a combined force of Army Rangers and special operations personnel attempting to restore a secure government in Somalia and provide food to starving civilians. The movie features a huge ensemble cast of actors, with notable appearances from Josh Hartnett, Ewan McGregor, Eric Bana, Tom Sizemore, William Fichtner, Sam Shepard, and Jason Isaacs.
While the film faced some slight backlash for its historical inaccuracies, Black Hawk Down had a positive reception, and won two Academy Awards, Best Film Editing and Best Sound.
The film opens with about thirty minutes of exposition and setup, and the rest of it is pretty much nonstop shooting and explosions. (Although it presents such things with much more taste and emotion than typical shoot-‘em-ups like Rambo. Watching it, you end up wincing or flinching every time a bullet almost hits one of the main cast, and feel legitimate sadness when one of the soldiers is killed).
7 – The Martian
After a string of films that underperformed critically for about 10 years, Scott returned to his peak form with his 2015 hard science fiction project, The Martian. Based on the best-selling novel by Andy Weir, the film follows a lone astronaut (Matt Damon) left behind on Mars by his team. As he struggles to survive on his own, he also tries hard to contact Earth, hoping they'll be able to send rescue before it's too late.
The faithfulness to the source material that Scott took adapting Weir's novel could've been a disaster, with audiences' eyes glazing over at the scientifically-accurate discussions of space travel or hearing Damon talk about the botanical logistics of growing potatoes on Mars. Yet Scott manages to shuffle between three fascinating plotlines (Damon's survivor story, his team coming to terms with abandoning him and then resolving to save him, and NASA trying to figure out a way to bring him back) in a way that keeps the plot chugging forward.
It's a welcome addition to Scott's science fiction projects, and while it may not be as suspenseful or engrossing as Alien or Blade Runner, it still makes for a very interesting watch.
8 – Kingdom of Heaven
There's a critical distinction to make between the Kingdom of Heaven theatrical cut and Kingdom of Heaven: The Director's Cut. Like many of the director's other released movies, Scott oversaw the production of a few edited versions of this film, with the far less entertaining, shorter version being the one shown in theaters. Whereas the theatrical cut is a choppy mess full of poorly defined, inconsistent characters and an overall story that's hard to follow, Scott's director's cut expands the main narrative in the best way imaginable.
In 12th-century Europe, a blacksmith (Orlando Bloom) travels to Jerusalem to defend the Holy City against the Muslim Sultan, Saladin. On par with Scott's other historical epics, the three-plus hour director's cut stretches the film's storyline into a masterpiece, chronicling the lengthy journey of a humble commoner (Bloom) struggling to come to terms with his faith, as well as showcasing the conflict that might exist between individuals of varying religious beliefs.
Orlando Bloom doesn't quite have the charisma to take the lead on a film of this size and subject matter — coming off flat and with a subpar emotional range — the movie manages to redeem itself by excellent performances from supporting cast members like Liam Neeson, Edward Norton, Eva Green, Jeremy Irons, Ghassan Massoud, and David Thewlis. Just make sure to watch the director’s cut of this one — don’t settle for anything less.
9 – The Duellists
Scott's newest film, The Last Duel, seems to have more than a few similarities to his directorial debut, The Duellists. Based on a short story by Joseph Conrad, The Duellists tells the story of a pair of Napoleonic Era French officers (Harvey Keitel and Keith Carradine) who continuously duel each other multiple times over the years.
Released when Scott was 40-years-old, The Duellists is a movie clearly based around the style of Stanley Kubrick's earlier Barry Lyndon on a notably much smaller scale (Lyndon was three and a half hours, whereas The Duellists is an hour and forty minutes), but on its own, The Duellists manages to be a largely entertaining film and a very impressive debut work. Included are themes that would become central points of interest that Scott continued to explore in later movies, such as the meaning of life and general concerns about mortality (there's an excellent scene where Keitel's character's life flashes before his eyes as he nearly loses a duel). It's a decent period film that also illustrates another of Scott's interests (historical films) that would again become a recurring area of interest for Scott to flesh out further in his filmography.
10 – The Last Duel
Scott’s best film in years, The Last Duel tanked at the box office. (Due to low theater attendance owing to the pandemic, it earned a mere $30 million against a $100 million budget.) Financial performances aside, The Last Duel is an inspired medieval epic that makes fantastic use of its cast and nonlinear presentation, with many critics likening it to Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 classic, Rashomon.
In the late 14th century, veteran knight Sir Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) challenges his squire (Adam Driver) to a duel after Sir Jean’s wife (Jodie Comer) accuses the squire of assault.
Another entertaining historical film from Scott, The Last Duel might not have as grand a story as Gladiator or Kingdom of Heaven, but its fragmented plot line and shifting perspectives results in a film that’s unique to Scott’s filmography.
11 – American Gangster
If there’s one genre Scott specializes in, it’s the historical epic. Even though many of these films offer a sensationalized slice of real-world history, the movies themselves are captivating enough to earn their prestigious place in Scott’s filmography – something that can be said about his 2007 biographical film, American Gangster.
Taking advantage of America’s growing involvement in the Vietnam War, Harlem gangster Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) smuggles vast shipments of illegal substances into New York, prompting the F.B.I. to investigate his criminal activities.
As with most of Scott’s films, the historical accuracy of American Gangster is dubious at best. Yet, like Kingdom of Heaven or The Last Duel, Scott manages to use a real-world figure to create a dramatic film, serving as an homage to the Universal gangster epics of the 1930s and ‘40s.
12 – House of Gucci
A movie as sleek and stylish as its titular characters, House of Gucci isn’t a very strong film from Scott, the finished film falling more so into campier or melodramatic territory than anything Scott has worked on before. In spite of this tonal weakness, the movie’s impressive lineup of actors more than redeem the movie’s lesser qualities.
Marrying into the wealthy Gucci family of fashion designer fame, the opportunistic Patrizia Reggiani (Lady Gaga) attempts manipulating her weak-willed husband (Adam Driver) to seize control over his family’s business empire.
With a cast that includes Lady Gaga, Adam Driver, Jared Leto, Jeremy Irons, Salma Hayek, and Al Pacino, there’s no denying House of Gucci’s cast is anything but noteworthy. As it is, every actor does an admirable job playing their historical counterparts, each of them disappearing into their roles as the larger-than-life members of the Gucci family. However, it’s the acting alone that makes House of Gucci worth seeing, with Scott offering little in the way of a compelling story to rope audience members in and keep them engaged.