The Lonely Planet | Episode 18

Posted October 20, 2015

Humanity's laws and best interests be damned, let's go to space and see what happens when one person (but maybe robot) is stranded on a planet (but maybe moon). Noah and Chance watched the biggest movie in the world, The Martian,and parlayed that into a discussion of 2009's Moon and 2008's Wall-E. Episode highlights include: a surprise visitor, Noah accusing Chance of being "a rube," and a discussion of Chance's written guide to Ridley Scott's later years, which you can read here.

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A Guide to the Last Decade of Ridley Scott

In 2005, Ridley Scott made the 12th-century Crusades epic Kingdom of Heaven. He also turned 67, an age befitting of retirement throughout much of the working world.

With time not on their side, most people this age want to soak in far-off vistas, reflect on their vast histories and spend time with the people closest to them. So too, as it turns out, did Ridley Scott. He just also wanted to make eight films in the next 10 years.

Last week, the Scottish filmmaker releases The Martian, and next month, he turns 78. After a $100 million opening weekend, The Martian is a bonafide hit. In addition to mostly winning over critics and sparking a slew of "would this even work" scientific accuracy pieces, the story of NASA astronaut Mark Watney (played by Matt Damon) stranded on Mars accomplished what so many Ridley Scott movies have done the last decade: get A-list movie stars paid, tell a conventional story of strength, and synthesize a foreign world in textures that flaunt their fictionality with aplomb.

Look back through Scott's filmography, and there's at least one major movie you've forgotten was him. With Scott's most bankable work behind him — GladiatorBlack Hawk Down — and his critically resounding work really behind him — Blade RunnerAlien — Scott's recent outings haven't all been box office smashes, and they definitely haven't all been praised by critics.

The eight films in that time span average out to a 47% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, right in the "something went both right and wrong here" range.

Kingdom of Heaven (2005)
A Good Year (2006)
American Gangster (2007)
Body of Lies (2008)
Robin Hood (2010)
Prometheus (2012)
The Counselor (2013)
Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014)

In the 21st century, Scott has been reliable for attracting star power, and for creating the uncommon set of circumstances, outside of franchises, where an audience can sense in advance, "Oh, yeah, that sounds like a huge movie."

And 78 is apparently no object, as Scott has interests toward adapting the Hugh Howey science fiction book Wool, a Prometheus sequel and in producing a Blade Runner follow-up.

Let's saddle up and look through the habits, relationships and techniques that gave us 10 years of an ambitiously mixed bag.

* * *

Badass-Establishing Cold Opens

Though no examples surpass the introductory scene of Maximus' generalship inGladiator, Scott's movies love opening with the main character already at peak operational level. Call it a show-me-what-you-can-do scene that happens outside the movie's expressed plot.

It's an artistic take on character-building, but artistic in the way starting a rock song with a lone guitar lick is artistic. Everyone knows what it means — a moment of exhibition before the obvious instruments come rumbling into earshot to play their standard.

Robin Hood opens the same way as Gladiator, proving Maid Marian is excellent at archery and Sir Robin is very capable in a siege. Then, there's Denzel Washington inAmerican Gangster's opening frames, shooting and immolating a man who presumably wronged his employer. Because the movie really wants you to know Frank Lucas will kill people. (At least until the parts where it really matters.)

 

 

Scott even digs the trick outside of action sequences. In A Good Year, instead of a European battleground, Crowe field marshals his way around a London stock brokerage, rapidly deflating and inflating the price of bonds. This proves that he's an achieving asshole, personally and professionally. And more artfully, given the Cormac McCarthy script, The Counselor begins with the title character (played by Michael Fassbender) begging for dirty talking in bed, foreshadowing he'll get into thrill-seeking over his head.

Of course, nothing tops the Engineer in Prometheus drinking the DNA poison and falling into the waterfall, proving that the movie's chief enemy is its audience understanding it.

* * *

Deep Love of the 2-Hour, 20-Minute Mark

Long-windedness is an issue for Ridley. You could attribute the lack of editing to the epic story stakes, Scott's reputation as a hard-headed director or the use of A-list actors whose screen time isn't easily discarded. Here's the lengths of his post-2005 movies:

Kingdom of Heaven (2005) - 144 minutes
A Good Year (2006) - 117 minutes
American Gangster (2007) - 157 minutes
Body of Lies (2008) - 128 minutes
Robin Hood (2010) - 140 minutes
Prometheus (2012) - 124 minutes
The Counselor (2013) - 117 minutes
Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014) - 150 minutes
The Martian (2015) - 141 minutes

And here, in descending order of severity, are the relative worst bloating offenders:

Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014) - 150 minutes - It savors the least dramatic parts of the Moses story (in turn, ignoring the complicated Moses/Ramses relationship), focusing a lot on guerilla fighting montage and the little boy who personifies God.

Robin Hood (2010) - 140 minutes - The fact that it's a Robin Hood origin story interested in actual English history yields endless plot.

American Gangster (2007) - 157 minutes - It seems frightened of cutting scenes where Denzel is waxing poetic to the Lucas family about capitalism or watching the Vietnam War on TV.

A Good Year (2006) - 117 minutes - It's not that long to begin with, but still stretches haplessly past the 90 minutes you'd "want" from a rom-com set in a French vineyard.

The Counselor (2013) - 117 minutes - It feels like three hours only because of Cormac McCarthy's dialogue.

The Martian (2015) - 141 minutes - It's hardly a slog, but the movie is packed into its protracted running time, zipping past establishing relationships in favor of some (still entertaining) science babble.

Kingdom of Heaven (2005) - 144 minutes - Given the cast and the territory covered, it mostly earns its epic sweep.

Body of Lies (2008) - 128 minutes - Fine.

Prometheus (2012) - 124 minutes - Fine.

* * *

World-Seeing, Not -Building

There's a moment in Body of Lies — an inauspicious War on Terror critique and entry into a series of 2000s movies where DiCaprio is tortured by himself and others — that stands out. In a Jordan-based CIA field office, DiCaprio's character is about to relieve a hapless station chief of his duties, mostly because the latter fails to think outside the patriotic box. While sitting through the chief's preamble, Leo flips open the head of a bald eagle desk figurine. It's empty, and he quickly and disinterestedly flips it closed. It's a not-so-subtle, but very quick, visual metaphor for the uselessness of national pride in the war he's been charged with fighting.

But that moment stands out because you wouldn't call Ridley Scott an exceptionally interested filmmaker. He doesn't build worlds through attention to detail. Rather, with his notoriously quick workrate and massive late-career camera teams, it's a visual style that presupposes the world is already there in broad strokes, by swooping through it. He'd rather soar above battlefields and pyramids than prod their outskirts and corners.

Enter The Martian, which fits perfectly into the filmography: a large and volatile scape, synthetically created by location and digital effects. The Mars-based storm and rover-driving sequences, echo the best visual moments of Prometheus, which also features a storm of minerals on a desolate planet. Scott's cameras act dramatically as guides through geographic emptiness.

Casting Strategy: Lean Into the Archetypes

History tells us Ridley Scott loves to cast movie stars hurtling headlong into type. Is there an actor that feels more worthy of Martian rescue, who exemplifies a certain good-humored American determination, than Matt Damon? Somebody save that guy.

In Scott's last decade, we've seen Liam Neeson as a paternal, lesson-teaching warrior (Kingdom of Heaven), Charlize Theron as an icy, greed-driven commander (Prometheus), Javier Bardem as a mumbling wacko (The Counselor), Cate Blanchett as a noble, spirited Maid Marian (Robin Hood), Leonardo DiCaprio as a jittery, roguish agent (Body of Lies), Orlando Bloom as a soft-spoken, inexperienced nobleman (Kingdom of Heaven) and, well, Christian Bale as Moses. This list of reinforcing casting tendencies stretches on and on.

But here's three performances in Scott movies that stand out for their own reasons:

Denzel Washington, American Gangster

The late Tony Scott — Ridley's brother, Scott Free Productions partner and fellow director — loved Denzel Washington. They worked together five times, and the final four times (Man on FireDeja VuThe Taking of Pelham 123 and Unstoppable) were all just showcases for Washington's ability to charm with violence or a barely believable working class persistence.

Ridley's turn with Washington depended on magnifying both qualities. American Gangster was Ridley's high grossing film of the last-decade run, standing out for having depicted Black American success and pride, and it lives and dies with its adoration for Washington on screen. While it doesn't much matter that the biopic's Frank Lucas bears little resemblance to the actual Harlem crime figure, American Gangster is a movie that adores Denzel so devotionally that the story and the other actors have no hope of succeeding. His adversaries are under-qualified. The characters who say they want to emulate him sound like lunatics. And Lucas' fall from grace happens so prescriptively, you don't actually believe it's happening. Rather, it'd be nice if he killed Russell Crowe's principled law enforcement character, and kept right on with his heroin empire.

It's a strange imbalance, too, because you've never seen another Ridley Scott movie, always plot-driven, cut its own legs out for a single performer.

Michael Fassbender, Prometheus

As the bleach-blonde android David, Fassbender plays spoiler to most characters, moods and pieces of plot momentum in Prometheus. He's picking up on the mischievously servile vibes of Ash (Ian Holm) and Bishop (Lance Henriksen) fromAlien and Aliens, respectively, and Scott's movies just don't have that many outright weird characters. We're talking the kind who take potshots about Alien abortions and quote Lawrence of Arabia to the confusion of those around him.

 

 

Fassbender's calculated brutality, but unreadable face, excellently mirror the central haunt of the movie. Rarely would Scott sign onto a movie that isn't spelling out its morals and intentions with swords and political platitudes. But despite its ambiguity, Prometheus managed in the age of franchise exhaustion what few of its contemporaries have. In Scott reframing the claustrophobic horror of the original movie as an encompassing god search, Prometheus sits there like its own monsters, waiting to be touched again.

Cameron Diaz, The Counselor

With, again, the disclaimer that Malkina was Cormac McCarthy's creation, Cameron Diaz's outré femme fatale is a rarity in 2000s Scott movies. She's a woman whose strength doesn't rest in a few motivational speeches to a male counterpart. And Scott's cameras and lighting do an imaginative two-sided job in fleshing out her evolving role in the Mexican drug cartel "thriller." (More like a "talker.") One on side, Malkina is the bizarro shock queen and poolside provocateur, before becoming a veritable Sith lord of playing every other criminal around her.

And, that's it. We haven't overlooked a single major star in late Ridley Scott movies.

* * *

Oh, Right: Russell Crowe

Hitching his wagon to Russell Crowe through the mid- and late-aughts tells the tale for the kind of movies Scott has mostly made. They were always going to be masculine, dark, traditional: the armor Crowe puts on when he steps in front of a camera. He is (was?) the kind of star with the shoulders to hoist movies that are going to hurt the people he loves, make him slog through mud and, maybe have no pulse otherwise. (Speaking of, he's just signed on for something called In Sand And Blood.)

In four consecutive titles from 2006 to 2010 (A Good YearAmerican Gangster,Body of LiesRobin Hood), Crowe continued with the honor-flavored passion Scott helped him lionize in Gladiator.

Robin Hood basically is the Maximus role, but without the fuel. (Plus, it apparently drove a wedge between Crowe and Scott.) In American Gangster, he's the only honest cop in New York City, to the downfall of his personal life. A Good Yearfocuses on him reclaiming his morality in the face of a lifetime of corruption.

Body of Lies is by far their most interesting recent collaboration, because it's a perversion of Crowe's character instincts toward righteousness. (Side note: This is what makes him so interesting in Aronofsky's otherwise flawed Noah, a director picking up on what an actor likes to do and wondering what will happen when it goes too far.) Body of Lies enters Crowe as CIA mouthpiece and decision maker Ed Hoffman, overweight and with a gray crew-cut, someone who can articulate the deep, pseudo-existential chaos of the War on Terror, but only to patriotic ends. He's the foil to DiCaprio, refusing to see the quagmire of US involvement in any relative way. It's memorable, in that the traits that fortify most Russell Crowe parts make him the villain.

* * *

Seeking and Creating Narrative Credibility

If we don't know them well enough yet, the types of movies we're talking about in this 10-year stretch are: medieval hero, astronaut rescue, selfish business man learns, gangster rises and falls, the War on Terror is awful, another Old Testament retelling. Scott's choices in script are the opposite of daring.

It's nothing he hasn't acknowledged, or reframed. He's "interested in these icons,"and purports that more that more can be done with the stories.

What's going on when audiences keeping showing up at these movies is a reciprocity of credibility. His recent films on these subjects aren't Apocalypse Nowto war and Goodfellas to gangster. Hell, the new ones aren't even Gladiator to sword and sandals epics. They don't add to the conversation in a meaningful way. But they reinforce, they bastion, these genre types in a way that pushes their images to the front of our recollection.

Is there acute cultural value in that? Not really. But in the realm of blockbusters, a sheen and a feeling of command are most of the battle.

You have to hope, as the director pushes 80, the path away from Robin Hood and Exodus is movies like The Martian, something based on a new text, capitalizing on a sense of wonder Scott can still visually concoct. Because when the Scott Free Productions trenchcoat man transforms and swoops into the dark for a final time, Hollywood will be without a director who's connoted, and more importantly, comprised the industry in a way few filmmakers still do.


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All The Movies We've Reviewed

101 Dalmatians
10 Cloverfield Lane
10 Things I Hate About You
127 Hours
22 Jump Street
47 Meters Down
Across The Universe
A Dangerous Method
A Few Good Men
Air Force One
A League of Their Own
Alien
Alien 3
Alien: Covenant
Alien: Resurrection
Aliens
American Animals
American Hustle
American Made
American Psycho
American Splendor
Annihilation
Armageddon
Arrival
A Simple Plan
A Single Man
A Star Is Born
Atomic Blonde
Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me
AVP: Alien Vs. Predator
Baby Driver
Baby Mama
Bad Company
Bad Lieutenant
Bad Moms
Bad Santa
Basic Instinct
Batman Vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice
Beasts of No Nation
Beauty And The Beast
Beetlejuice
Before Sunrise
Behind Enemy Lines
Below
Birdman
Black Hawk Down
Black Mass
Black Panther
Blade Runner 2049
Bleed For This
Body Heat
Bongwater
Boogie Nights
Bowfinger
Bridge of Spies
Bright
Bull Durham
Call Me By Your Name
Capote
Captain Fantastic
Catch Me If You Can
Chariots Of Fire
Chasing Amy
Child's Play
Christmas Vacation
Chuck
Cinderella Man
Clue
Clueless
Cocktail
Con Air
Cool Runnings
Crazy Rich Asians
Crimson Tide
Danny Collins
Dante's Peak
Dead Poets Society
Deep Blue Sea
Deep Impact
Deja Vu
Deliverance
Demolition Man
Dirty Dancing
Disclosure
Donnie Brasco
Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far On Foot
Drive
Dude, Where's My Car?
Dunkirk
Easy A
Eddie The Eagle
Ed Wood
Election
Employee of the Month
Erin Brockovich
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Event Horizon
Everybody Wants Some!!
Executive Decision
Ex Machina
Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them
Fargo
Fatal Attraction
Field Of Dreams
Finding Forrester
Flightplan
Flower
For Love Of The Game
Friday Night Lights
Game Night
Gangs of New York
Garden State
Gone Girl
Gone In Sixty Seconds
Grosse Pointe Blank
Hail, Caesar!
Half Baked
Halloween
Harold And Kumar Go To White Castle
Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban
Head of State
Heavyweights
He Got Game
Hellboy
Hocus Pocus
Hollywood Ending
Hot Tub Time Machine
How High
Howl
Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
Infamous
Ingrid Goes West
Inherent Vice
Inside Man
Inside Out
In The Land Of Women
In The Line of Fire
Into The Wild
Invictus
It
I, Tonya
Jaws: The Revenge
John Wick
Joshy
Jurassic Park III
Jurassic World
Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom
Kill Bill, Vol. 1
King Cobra
Kingdom Of Heaven
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
Lady Bird
La La Land
Leave No Trace
Less Than Zero
Lethal Weapon
Little Miss Sunshine
Looper
Love & Mercy
Love, Simon
Mad Max: Fury Road
Mamma Mia
Matchstick Men
Matilda
Midnight Special
Million Dollar Arm
Miracle
Mission: Impossible
Mission: Impossible - Fallout
Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol
Mission: Impossible II
Mission: Impossible III
Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation
Mississippi Grind
Mo' Better Blues
Mom and Dad
Money For Nothing
Monster
Moon
Moonlight
Moonrise Kingdom
Mr. Mom
Murder at 1600
My Cousin Vinny
National Lampoon's Vacation
Network
Never Say Never
Ocean's Twelve
Old School
One Hour Photo
Open Water
Orange County
Out of Africa
Part of Me
Payback
Peter's Friends
Phantom Thread
Picture Perfect
Practical Magic
Prometheus
Public Enemies
Purple Rain
Raising Arizona
Red Dragon
Red Eye
Red Sparrow
Remember The Titans
Reversal Of Fortune
Rock Of Ages
Room
Run All Night
Salt
Save The Last Dance
School Ties
Scream 2
Scrooged
Sharknado
Silence
Simply Complicated
Sleepaway Camp
Small Soldiers
Snakes On A Plane
Snowden
Solo: A Star Wars Story
Southside With You
Space Jam
Spawn
Spectre
Speed
Sphere
Spy
Stargate
Star Wars: The Last Jedi
State and Main
Step Up
Steve Jobs
Sully
Sweet Home Alabama
Tag
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
The Addams Family
The Big Chill
The Big Sick
The Bling Ring
The Brady Bunch Movie
The Campaign
The Cell
The Cloverfield Paradox
The Color of Money
The Disaster Artist
The End of the Tour
The Family Man
The Fast and The Furious
The Fighter
The Flintstones
The Fly
The Fog
The Fugitive
The Fundamentals of Caring
The Hateful Eight
The Hate U Give
The Holiday
The Hours
The Hunt For Red October
The Illusionist
The Indian In The Cupboard
The Insider
The Judge
The Jungle Book
The Last of the Mohicans
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen
The Lost World: Jurassic Park
The Martian
The Matrix
The Matrix Reloaded
The Matrix Revolutions
The Meg
The Mexican
The Mighty Ducks
The Mission
The Mosquito Coast
The Muppet Christmas Carol
The Natural
The Negotiator
The Nice Guys
The Night Before
The Pagemaster
The Perfect Storm
The Poseidon Adventure
The Prestige
The Queen
The Recruit
The Revenant
The River Wild
The Royal Tenenbaums
The Rules of Attraction
The Shadow
The Shallows
The Sixth Sense
The Social Network
The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three
The Thing
The Truman Show
The Watch
The Witches of Eastwick
This Is Where I Leave You
Thoroughbreds
¬°Three Amigos!
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Titanic
To All The Boys I've Loved Before
Tombstone
Traffic
Trainwreck
Tropic Thunder
Twister
Unfriended
Van Wilder
Varsity Blues
V For Vendetta
Volcano
Wall-E
Watchmen
Welcome To Me
While You Were Sleeping
White House Down
Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
Wild
Wildlife
Wild Things
Wild Wild West
Win It All
Without A Paddle
Wyatt Earp
Young Adult
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