With the upcoming release of The Fabelmans, Steven Spielberg is once again in the spotlight. The director is, rightly, regarded as a legend of cinema, sitting among the pantheon of the greatest directors of all time. That isn’t hyperbole. His filmography contains some of the best movies ever made, across a wide range of genres: Jaws, Schindler’s List, Jurassic Park, Saving Private Ryan, and so much more.
Perhaps the most impressive ability in Spielberg’s repertoire, however, is that in the search for artistic merit, he hasn’t had to sacrifice sheer entertainment value and accessibility. Throughout his long career he has managed to combine his own style and flair with commercial success, and is the highest-grossing director of all time. Whatever the genre, the director has managed to inject each entry into his filmography with that quintessential Spielberg quality.
No other director has managed to leave such an indelible mark on the development of modern cinema. That is, except for Ridley Scott.
Like Spielberg, Scott’s long legacy is varied and rooted in the development of technical filmmaking. And, like Spielberg, Scott’s output contains some of cinema’s most titanic achievements. Moreso than Spielberg, perhaps, Scott has taken genres and turned them on their head. Blade Runner is, still, the definitive science fiction movie. Only a year before it, Alien reshaped horror movies with its intriguing cocktail of genres.
Of course, to compare these two giants of cinema, or their individual movies, is a fool’s errand. The best filmmakers, and even some of the worst, create art and the appreciation of art is subjective. But someone has to say it, and it might as well be me. Though the clamouring cult of Spielberg will protest, Scott’s filmography is (whisper it) the superior one.
This isn’t about the qualities of individual movies. Rather, it is about sheer entertainment. Take, for example, the post-2015 filmographies of the two directors. Scott is credited with The Martian, Alien: Covenant, All the Money in the World, The Last Duel, House of Gucci, and the upcoming Napoleon. Meanwhile, Spielberg’s list consists of Bridge of Spies, The BFG, The Post, Ready Player One, West Side Story, and The Fabelmans.
Neither is a perfect run of movies: far from it. Looking at Scott’s, House of Gucci is a mess, while his latest Alien movie, Alien: Covenant is some sort of Alien-Prometheus hybrid. But, both are ambitious efforts that aim for more than they could ever possibly be, and that fail just as much as they succeed.
The same can’t be said for Spielberg’s recent output. Looking at his last six movies, they’re either bordering on Oscar-bait, dripping in his trademark schmaltz, or are simply nondescript. There are, also, duds. Ready Player One is a forgettable, paint-by-numbers entry, while family movie The BFG falls into the worst excesses of his style. Only West Side Story offers something new, and is any sort of genuine challenge – but the musical is an anomaly, and an exception.
Spielberg has settled into a quaint, cutesy, phase of his career. The focus on historical drama movies, biopics, and adaptations is not befitting of a filmmaker of his stature, when he surely has so much left to give. Zoom out, and this is emblematic of a broader trend throughout Spielberg’s long and celebrated career. Though he has flitted between genres, and achieved huge commercial success without having to rely on franchises, the director has taken fewer and fewer risks.
Taken individually, Spielberg’s movies are brilliant more often than not. Even when they rely on the worst excesses of his mawkish style, they can often transport you and enthral you like few other filmmakers have the ability to do. That is the power of Spielberg’s directorial voice.
However, whether it’s adventure movies, kids movies, biopics, or even horror, you typically know what you’re going to get from a Spielberg flick. Bucket loads of sentimentality, and overt themes around family and innocence. You rarely leave a Spielberg movie feeling surprised, and whatever their individual merits, his movies are increasingly predictable.
Scott’s movies, and his entire filmography, is not predictable. In fact, his catalogue is a punch-drunk, glorious mess. Only Scott could go from the majesty of Blade Runner to the failed fantasy movie Legend. And even now, in his mid-80s, Scott continues to press forward with challenging pictures.
For all its flaws (and there are plenty) House of Gucci was a breathless whirlwind. The Last Duel too, one of the most underrated movies in modern cinema, was a huge technical achievement and pulled off sensitive and nuanced storytelling about an emotive and complex subject. It should have been one of the highlights of this latest phase of Scott’s career. And, who doubts that his next film, the historical drama movie based on a true story of Napoleon with Joaquin Phoenix in the lead, will be anything other than an entertaining tour de force?
Movie by movie, Spielberg’s filmography has the higher standard. The filmmaker has churned out classics in every genre. But taken as a whole, the great director’s filmography is noticeably two-dimensional. Ridley Scott, on the other hand, has the highest highs with Alien, Blade Runner, Gladiator, and Black Hawk Down. Many a filmmaker could conjure up an adaption of The BFG, or West Side Story: but no others could have made Scott’s best movies with the same success.
His career is defined by wild swings, gambles, and risks. Often – maybe too often – they don’t pay off. When they do, though, they’re genre defining, and even when they miss, Scott’s movies relish challenge and innovation.
Going into a Ridley Scott movie, it’s almost impossible to predict what you’re going to get. The same can’t be said for a Spielberg movie, and from the start of his career to now, his filmography is doused in an inescapable sense of predictability.
So, while Steven Spielberg has undoubtedly made some of the best movies of all time, there is virtue in unpredictability. Ridley Scott, and his filmography, remain deliciously unpredictable.