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Ridley Scott: Environmental Engineer

September 30, 2015

Recalling two of Ridley Scott’s most iconic film environments in preparation for The Martian

Ridley Scott has a new movie coming out. It’s called The Martian and stars Matt Damon. Ridley Scott directing a film is always cause for excitement, but The Martian isn’t just any Scott Free production. It marks another visit to science fiction, a genre Scott contributed incalculably to early in his career.

Considering that Scott, 77, is most closely associated with his seminal sci-fi films, it’s at least a little surprising that he’s made so few of them. As of this writing, Alien (1979),Blade Runner (1982), and Prometheus (2012) make up the complete list. The Martian (2015) will be the fourth and a scheduled sequel to Prometheus would be the tentative fifth. Scott’s directorial career has been humming since the 70s, so the fact that Alien and Blade Runner still stand apart from most of his work is a testament to just how good they were and still are.

Ridley Scott is known as an intensely visual director. This is not to say that he has shortcomings with storytelling. Quite the contrary, as his well-documented tic of sketching storyboards for his films (with pencil and paper, natch) is his way of not only seeing, but immersing himself the stories he tells. Scott’s mastery of visual storytelling has allowed him to engineer some of the most memorable film environments committed to celluloid. You could say he’s been terraforming our imaginations since the late 70s.

Alien, Scott’s first foray into science fiction, boasts a multi-layered environment, each equally stark in its own way. The iconic title shot features a tiny ship floating through space. The enormous silence of space is patently terrifying. The film’s tagline reads, “In space, no one can hear you scream,” and that sentiment is laid out pretty clearly as soon as the film starts.

We are then treated to roving, voyeuristic shots of the sleek, white, futuristic interior of the spacecraft Nostromo. The interior of the craft is sterile, but menacing, bathed in shadow. The low light can surely be justified by a desire to maintain energy efficiency onboard the ship, but boy, is it ever ominous.

There are two distinct onboard environments on the Nostromo. There is that neat retro-futuristic side, but the vessel has a dank, hellish side too. The bowels of the ship are loud and steam-filled. It’s sweaty and uninviting down there, even when uninhabited. Through the environment of the ship alone, we know quite a bit about the characters. Despite the fact that they are traveling in outer space, their sophistication is only a veneer for the unskilled labor in which the resident crew is participating.

While every shot aboard the Nostromo is jam-packed with world-building detail, the ship arguably pales in comparison to the surface environment of LV-426, the fateful planet the crew is bound to investigate. Upon exiting the Nostromo, the crew are greeted coldly by a swirling, gusting dust storm. They navigate to the now infamous downed craft—known sublimely as “The Derelict”—the interior of which is manufactured, and yet unmistakably inhuman.

Combining these layers in Alien, Scott managed to create an environment as harrowing as the titular beast itself. This is a major factor in how Alien was able to maintain near-unbearable suspense with hardly any footage of the monster. As great as Sigourney Weaver and the Xenopmorph are, the environments of Alien are every bit as important to the film’s longevity. And as perfect and re-watchable as Alien is, it was really just a warm-up for Scott’s greatest filmic achievement.

In terms of production design and world-building, has any science fiction film planted its audience more squarely in its world than Blade Runner? There’s no need to break down various environments with Blade Runner, because they’re all blended into a seamless, yet infinitely varied melting pot.

The dialects, the architecture, the rain, the food, the transportation, the crowds, the clutter. Those jaw-dropping cityscapes. The habitats of Blade Runner are all thoroughly realized and lived-in. Ridley Scott may have drawn heavy inspiration for Alien from 2001: A Space Odyssey, but Blade Runner has seemingly been aped by everyone else and just as often.

There are a smorgasbord of great reasons to revisit both Alien and Blade Runner, but next time you sit down to watch one of them, don’t forget to really watch the majesty of the images on screen.

Based on the premise of The Martian, there would seem to be potential for another great visual feast directed by Scott. Matt Damon plays astronaut Watney who must scrape and use every last bit of his considerable ingenuity to survive after being stranded on Mars. The barren, unforgiving nature of an uninhabited planet holds great potential, especially in the hands of Scott. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t looking forward to this one.

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