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.
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 — Gladiator, Black Hawk Down — and his critically resounding work really behind him — Blade Runner, Alien — 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)
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.
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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.
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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.
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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 Fire, Deja Vu, The 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.
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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 Year, American Gangster,Body of Lies, Robin 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.
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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.