Ridley Scott doesn’t have a monopoly on space, but sometimes it can feel that way (even though Alfonso Cuarón likely made the definitive space movie of the past decade). He’s the founder of the Alien franchise and awkward purveyor of new Prometheus brand too – some of the biggest intergalactic movies in pop culture history have come at his hand. With The Martian, Scott returns to familiar stomping ground, although the movie is almost unrecognisable as one of his. Last year’s Interstellar was a solid punt at stealing his crown, but was too bloated and too focussed on bogus science to be interesting for much of its runtime… Scott’s fixation with combatting that, might have steered the movie too far in the opposite direction.
Based on the novel of the same name by Andy Weir, The Martian is Robinson Crusoe in space; Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is a modern day proxy, an ordinary sort of bloke who finds himself stranded on an alien world, left by his team in the midst of a mission-ending storm. He is presumed dead and then spends his days until their return solving one menial problem after another, just to stay alive. Scott and producer Simon Kinberg are so fixated with scientific realism though, so impressed with humanity’s ongoing ability to innovate and endure, that it derails the first half of the movie. Scene after scene sees Damon explaining scientific process into a camera and then CUT to a scene showing what was just explained. It’s all very interesting but it’s not like watching a film at all; with a light and bouncy soundtrack provided by Henry Gregson-Williams (of Shrek fame) it comes off more like a WatchMojo clip, or an expensive remake of lunchtime Discovery Channel filler. In other words, there is no attempt made to capture the psychological impact such dire circumstance must enact upon a person, nothing much of consequence, just one problem laid out and solved after another.
“The tone smacks of a family drama on Sunday afternoon BBC 2”
A significant deficit of tension or peril across the whole film is worsened by the tone of the movie. Scott’s house style is space-with-grit; the mood on the Nostramo was gloomy and taut; but The Martian is a goofy and really rather funny movie. The jokes land and land hard, but at the same pretty much neuter any dramatic impact the film might otherwise have had. Its fine if Scott wishes to make a more family orientated action-flick and Watney transpiring to be optimistic in the face of adversity was a refreshing break of stereotype – but the consistency of the jokes so encompass the whole film that it’s hard to take much of it seriously; the tone smacks of a family drama on Sunday afternoon BBC 2, rather than a dynamic and convincing blockbuster.
That being said – The Martian is an entertaining movie. Scott’s direction, although rather bland, over lit and clinical when away from Mars, sees some stunning cinematography on the red planet. The use of NASA was inspired, for a scientific gravity is established by its presence and references made to well renowned real-life-missions are thrilling. The politicking and PR dilemmas back on Earth, though a small portion of the film, are some of the best moments too. When the action gets rolling in the film’s second half and forces the whole story to snap into a more emotive and committed tone, The Martian radically picks up. The final set piece is great work from Scott, combining sound scientific theory and nail biting action to much more satisfying effect.
The supporting cast of the film also does great work; Chiwetel Ejiofer stands out as NASA’s Mars Chief, and he lends some gravitas to the film’s more emotive portions. The script separates Watney from his crew far too fast to establish more on screen chemistry but Jessica Chastain and co do well at filling in the history between them and the weight of their loss. Damon is the shining star though – effortlessly charismatic even when being used as an exposition voicebox, and the stronger material he gets to work with, he imbues with the exact sort of isolated anguish that the whole film should have pushed harder.
The Martian is something of a partner to 2014’s Interstellar; the comparison is an easy but fair one in the way that they’re two halves of a good movie: their failures being the opposite’s successes. While Nolan’s epic was grounded and emotive, its plot got lost deep inside a black hole. The Martian could not be faulted in that regard, but humour and science was prioritised over dynamic film making and true, investable character work. Without all of these, a film cannot be truly successful. Exciting new filmmaker J. C. Chandor nailed the formula much better in 2013’s sublime All Is Lost, which saw Robert Redford alone at sea in a sinking vessel, solving one problem after another, battling for his life. It was exciting and funny and it felt real. The Martian may have stayed committed to the science, but emotionally, psychologically, ‘real’ was left on another planet.
Liam Inscoe – Jones