At age 77, Ridley Scott is one of the busiest producer/directors working in both film and television. Steven Spielberg may be his only rival in terms of a production factory. Ridley Scott’s first credit of substance was directing The Duellists back in 1977. He followed that with Alien and a few years later, the amazing Blade Runner, and a major film career was off and going. He also directed Thelma & Louise. He also directed many TV commercials including the one for the Apple Macintosh computer that looked like Orwell’s 1984 world. The one word I’ve always used to describe Ridley Scott is stylish. His films look impressive visually and when he is on the game his films pulsate with complex action and heavy drama. A word I would not use is subtle for Ridley Scott’s cinematic approach. His films are typically unrelenting in graphic violence and nasty characters.
Alfred Hitchcock was the first film director who described his filmmaking technique as “composing in the camera.” This was decades before the invention of CGI and the use of special effects that we now take for granted. Today, the term is more likely “composing in the computer” because complicated effects heavy films must be visually created using computer animation as the basis for how sophisticated computer generated images are built, painted and modeled.
Although Alien was the first of the large-scale visual productions for Scott, Blade Runner took his art to a new level. More than three decades after its debut, Blade Runner has a visual pallet that is still impressive, if admittedly old school by today’s standard. Without Blade Runner, The Martian would not exist, and I wouldn’t be writing this blog.
Read any of my other film blogs and you know that I am not a fan of most CGI heavy films. For me, computer generated effects are a tool to be used in creating atmosphere or specific actions that cannot be realistically produced. With the blending of the video game and film industries, CGI is not longer a character in films – it is frequently the film. I enjoyed Blade Runner, but I feel that Scott has become too dependent on it as a filmmaker, as his late brother Tony Scott tended to do in creating the Top Gun style of fast, music pumping style of film editing. This style, while fresh at the time and momentarily effective, was over the top and became known as the MTV look because it was the style used in creating music videos. Feature films are not supposed to be music videos. Too much of a good thing becomes a bad thing.
Once in awhile, Ridley Scott truly surprises me. A Good Year is such an example. Teaming with frequent collaborator Russell Crowe, A Good Year is a low-key, quirky story of finding one’s heart. No bloodshed. No CGI. Real characters, real story, real heart.
Now, The Martian. I had mixed feelings about seeing this film although I like Ben Affleck’s best friend Matt Damon. He’s Mr. Versatile, a grittier version of Tom Hanks. Damon is such a hard worker and a nice guy; and not afraid to take a supporting role in a good film. In The Martian, he is the star, but the story is about so much more than when he’s on screen. Damon is now 45 but he does not really look it. He has played younger and he’s played older characters. He has the charisma and presence to carry a film by himself, much like Tom Hanks did in Castaway. Damon only shares the screen with other actors for a few scenes; otherwise it is just him and Mars.
The Martian is very much a science film. Is everything they do based in science or does it just make a really good story? The film takes place when we have made a manned mission to Mars, built a small station there, and have the ability to get our people safely back. Martian storms create the need to quickly evacuate the planet and the result sets the story in motion. There are really two stories: one is a story of survival; and the other is one of rescue. Each story is a series of challenges and solutions, leading to a dramatic finale.
Is The Martian Ridley Scott’s best film? The reviews have been very positive and quite complimentary of Scott’s direction. The reviews of the scientific accuracy have been positive too, and while the film (and source book) is fiction, many of the “solutions” are thought to be scientifically feasible. Most of Scott’s films of the 15 years are of the variety of Prometheus, Robin Hood, American Gangster, Kingdom of Heaven, Black Hawk Down, Hannibal, Gladiator and The Counselor. I’ve seen all of these and disliked most of them. Heavy-handed and lacking in movie warmth is how I would describe all of these. With the exception of the A Good Year. and some of his television series work, he’s created very little that I find embraceable, although his films perform well at the box office.
Despite my lack of love for much of his work, Ridley Scott is a master of his craft and is a strong visual storyteller. When he strips his story of clichés and pulls back his CGI paintbrush, he is able to let the story breathe and let some realism into his characters. I’ve never been known to say, “I want my MTV.” And I never will. Give me some old fashioned filmmaking, like Scott embraced with The Martian, and I’m a happy film viewer.