While the 1982 release of director Ridley Scott’s third feature film, BLADE RUNNER, was considered a box office disappointment, it could hardly be called a failure. His next move would be a return to the commercial world that made his name— a capitalization off his surging cultural capital, rather than a retreat to a safe place where he could lick his wounds. Indeed, the two works readily available from this period — a music video for Roxy Music’s “Avalon” and Apple’s “1984” Super Bowl ad — evidence the artistic growth of a director operating at the peak of his powers.
ROXY MUSIC: “AVALON” (1982)
Scott’s 1982 music video for “AVALON”, off of Roxy Music’s album of the same name, is made notable by virtue of its existence as the director’s only contribution to the music video medium. The track is a lush, downbeat ballad that exudes material luxury, so Scott responds in kind with a series of decadent, sumptuously-shot tableaus of rich people caught up in the thrall of vacant boredom. From a visual standpoint, the piece is immediately identifiable as Scott’s work, boasting expressive lighting, silhouettes, an ornate and highly-detailed backdrop, and confident camerawork that echoes the luxe mise-en-scene. What’s less identifiable is his intent, as the tone that comes across is downright… creepy. It’s as if an origin prequel for THE PURGE decided to ape Alain Resnais’ LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD (1961). There’s a quietly unsettling, leering vibe to the whole thing— whatever the opposite of a voyeuristic experience is — and the more I think about it, the more I grow to like the concept of it. The somber, bored rich people grow increasingly aware of our presence, looking at us directly with stares that feel exponentially confrontational… or maybe I’m just reading into it a little too much. There’s also an owl thrown in there for good measure, which seems to serve little purpose other than nodding back to BLADE RUNNER. Scott’s only music video injects a nuanced complexity into an otherwise simplistic 80’s hit, becoming something of a comment on the song itself rather than a visual echo of its lyrics or style.
APPLE: “1984” (1984)
At the risk of laying down some hot takes, there’s a strong argument to be made that Scott’s commercial career is even more successful than his filmography of theatrical features. If one were to make such an argument, Exhibit A would undoubtedly be his 1984 spot for Apple, which has since gone on to become one of the most influential, recognizable and iconic commercials of all time. The spot that introduced the Apple Macintosh computer to the world, “1984” paints a vivid picture of a dystopian future ruled over by a looming dictator seen only on a giant television screen while legions of identical followers obediently watch his fiery, droning speech. Into this picture storms a virile Olympian who flings a giant sledgehammer into the screen, destroying the dictator’s face and freeing his followers from their hypnotic spell. The expressive lighting and highly-detailed production design point to Scott’s signature, while establishing the template for future commercial directors like David Fincher to follow. Scott’s affection for strong heroines gives “1984” an added resonance— on a surface level, she stands out by virtue of being a vibrant, muscular and confidant woman in a sea of pale, atrophied, faceless men. Her presence also points to a further sprawl of complex ideas, like democracy (as embodied by an Amazonian Lady Liberty) laying waste to fascism, or the sophistication of the feminine form reinforcing the evolved design ethos that would make Apple a computing giant. That Scott is able to convey so much thematic subtext and world building in a mere 60 seconds is a testament to his innate understanding of the medium and his staggering power as a visual storyteller.
It sees strange, or perhaps even disingenuous, to talk of marketing campaigns as cultural touchstones, but truly inspired advertising has the ability to transcend its commercial, capitalistic ambitions and become Art. Scott’s “1984” spot is one of the rare few to resonate at this level, cementing itself as arguably the zenith of the director’s commercial filmography.