At this point in his career, Ridley Scott has made nearly 30 feature films. That’s a lot, by any standards, and Scott’s willingness to take chances and push himself into different directions means that not all of them work. And yet, here he is, 78 years old, and still turning out remarkable, astonishing works that put other filmmakers to shame, as well as other works that at least show a director who refuses to play it safe.
Let’s start with The Martian, which reminded everyone that there’s a reason that Ridley Scott was once synonymous with great science-fiction. The Martian feels more like Alien than Blade Runner, but more than either of those, it feels like a master of his craft telling a story, and telling it well. Andy Weir’s novel was a lot of fun, telling the story of an astronaut stranded on Mars and his efforts to survive; what it lacked in craft, it more than made up for in intelligence, fun, and sheer readability. And in adapting the book for the screen, Scott takes the best parts of the book and holds them intact, while adding a visual style that brings the alien world of Mars to vivid life. In other words, it’s the perfect way of adapting the book – it keeps its strengths, but corrects for its weaknesses. And the result is an absolute treat – a fun, smart piece of science-fiction that satisfies both as pure entertainment and a great piece of storytelling.
My biggest worry about The Martian was whether or not the film would keep the science of Weir’s book, or if it would make an effort to dumb it down. Luckily, Scott trusts his audience, letting Matt Damon keep his video diary entries and counting on the inherent fascinating we have with people just doing things with their hands. The Martian invests us in Watney’s survival, yes, but it also counts on us to keep up with the science being performed – at least, in broad terms – and to enjoy watching people puzzle their way through scientific problems. It helps, of course, that Scott has such an insanely great cast to carry the load; Damon does a lot, of course, but Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jeff Daniels, Kristen Wiig, and a slew of others all do their part, conveying thoughtfulness, intelligence, and charisma that keeps us involved. More than that, they’re allowed to be funny, which can’t be overstated; the humor of the film keeps us going, and keeps it from turning into a dour piece of survivalism.
And, of course, there’s Scott’s fantastic style, which keeps everything together. From grainy video diaries to camera feeds, from sweeping shots of Mars to claustrophobic moments in a rover, Scott keeps things moving beautifully, reminding us at all times of the science involved in keeping Watney alive, but also of the fact that he is alone on an utterly alien world – and that there’s something truly beautiful about that. It all comes together beautifully, and if there are a couple of pacing problems it inherited from the novel (a mid-film setback on Earth feels like a bit of a narrative drag that’s shoved in, and slows things down a bit too much), it’s hard not to find yourself gripped by the events. And I defy you not to find yourself riveted by that finale. It’s a blast of a movie, and that rare case of a film that outdoes the book that inspired it. Rating: **** ½
From there, I moved back a few years, to a much less beloved piece of work. Like The Martian, Scott’s 2013 film The Counselor boasts an incredible cast of actors, including Michael Fassbender, Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz, Brad Pitt, Cameron Diaz, and a slew of others. And once again, there’s a connection to the world of books, although it’s a very different one: The Counselor was written by the incredible Cormac McCarthy, the author of Blood Meridian, No Country for Old Men, The Road, and more. It was his first screenplay, and the idea of Scott and McCarthy finally teaming up (they had been trying to get Blood Meridian made for years) sounds incredible.
Man, is it ever not.
There’s a great story somewhere in The Counselor, which tells the tale of a lawyer who gets involved with Mexican drug cartels and learns the price of stepping foot in that dark world. It’s rich material for McCarthy, who is fascinated by the evil and cruelty which men are capable of, and whose ability to capture horrific violence and savagery should find plenty of material to work off here. And given the cast that Scott has assembled, and McCarthy’s stark prose, it shouldn’t really be a surprise that there are some fantastic monologues and conversations to be had. Brad Pitt owns his role as a shadowy figure associated with the cartels, and his conversations with Fassbender are a treat, engaging with some of the film’s themes in a far more successful way than others. And while Bardem is playing his role to the hilt, he more or less works as well, giving us a caricature of a drug dealer that pales in comparison to the reality of the cartels.
The problem? Look, McCarthy does a lot well in his novels. He writes memorable scenes, he creates compelling characters, he writes great dialogue. But his books are more about mood and theme than they are plotting. And film needs more of a throughline, and The Counselor doesn’t have that. Exactly how Fassbender gets involved with the cartel is maddeningly unclear, as are the exact reasons why everything goes bad. And while it’s great that McCarthy writes roles for his female characters that gives them some interesting things to do, Cameron Diaz is woefully out of her element in the role, feeling like an actress who’s asked to do work she’s just not capable of. And given that the role shapes much of the action of the film, that’s a serious problem.
Even with all of that, Scott does everything you’d expect, delivering some truly astonishing sequences, and using the film’s sparse action to maximum, horrific effect. More than that, he lets his actors soak in McCarthy’s dialogue, letting them bring out the meaning and depth of the great author’s words. He can’t tie the script together, and he can’t make it all work. But he can take what he’s given and turn it into the best version of it that we could get. And if nothing else, you have to admire a director in his 70’s still taking risks to this degree, delivering something so wildly unconventional – and uncommercial – at a point where most directors just play it safe. It doesn’t work, but you have to admire that it certainly tries. Rating: **