Movie Review – Martian, The
Director : Ridley Scott
Year Of Release : 2015
Principal Cast : Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Michael Pena, Kate Mara, Sean Bean, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Donald Glover, Benedict Wong, Mackenzie Davis, Eddy Ko, Chen Suo, Naomi Scott, Nick Mohammed.
Approx Running Time : 142 Minutes
Synopsis: During a manned mission to Mars, Astronaut Mark Watney is presumed dead after a fierce storm and left behind by his crew. But Watney has survived and finds himself stranded and alone on the hostile planet. With only meager supplies, he must draw upon his ingenuity, wit and spirit to subsist and find a way to signal to Earth that he is alive.
Cast Away 2: Galactic Boogaloo.
Acclaimed director Ridley Scott’s return to outer space following the lacklustre response to Prometheus sees Matt Damon spend a few hours of film time stranded on Mars, our closest celestial body aside from the Moon. Essentially a survival film, The Martian’s hypothetical scenario plays out with the technical veracity of Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, although in terms of pure story it exceeds McConnaughey’s mission by an order of magnitude. While not quite 2001: A Space Odyssey, at the very least The Martian does for the Red Planet what Red Planet, Mission To Mars, or Last Days On Mars couldn’t achieve.
Following a storm-related incident during a manned mission to Mars, astronaut and botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is left behind on the planet by his Ares II crewmates, led by Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain). Thought dead, Watney is in reality still alive, and although initially unable to communicate with NASA back on Earth, devises a way to remain alive by growing potatoes, creating water, and, as he puts it, “sciencing the shit out of [the situation]”. Eventually, when a keen-eyed observer back on Earth discovers Mark is alive, the race is on to find a way of rescuing him before he does succumb to the ravages Mars might throw at him. NASA Director Ted Sanders (Jeff Daniels), together with mission director Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), media liaison Annie Montrose (Kristen Wiig), Ares II flight director Mitch Henderson (Sean Bean) and JPL scientist Bruce Ng (Benedict Wong), devise plans to send another mission to Mars to rescue the stranded human; naturally, things go wrong and Watney is forced to endure stress beyond all limits – the ticking clock of his survival continues to run.
The Martian is based off Andy Weir’s 2011 novel of the same name; with a screenplay by The Cabin In The Woods director Drew Goddard, The Martian excels as a human exploration of life and survival against the odds. There’s a vague tonal similarity with 127 Hours (which, if you can believe it, also featured an appearance by Kate Mara), but given the scope on which The Martian operates poor old James Franco woulda long since hacked off his arm while Watney was still growing potatoes early in the movie. Goddard’s screenplay is really rather funny, using humour through adversity to generate both character and audience investment via the juxtaposition of distance, isolation and minimal habitable conditions. Censorship expectations for the film meant they could only use the word “f@ck” once, and they do in the most wonderfully cathartic moment – every other use of the word is implied, which is actually funnier than saying it outright. Oh, and the song playing over the closing credits? Perfect choice, Ridley. Perfect.
The years Watney is stuck on Mars (he’s up there for quite a while) is compressed through Scott’s use of sonar-ping interstitials defining time (a cool motif considering the nautical themes the film weaves in, late in the story) and Damon carries his sections of the film in a resigned, nonchalant “well, it could be worse” way that strikes as all-too-human, particularly when people are in peril. The concern NASA have for him is palpable throughout the film, led by Jeff Daniels’ taciturn agency Director, Ted Sanders, who supplies the film’s relatively reasonable assessment to the mission that saving five and losing one is better than possibly losing all. However, like any good story, we’re not here for reasonable, so naturally Sanders’ considered option is thrown out the window by the Ares II’s crew – Chastian is accompanied by the Winter Soldier himself, Sebastian Stan, as well as the aforementioned Kate Mara, Michael Pena and Askel Hennie – who decide to slingshot around Earth to return to Mars and perform the rescue, against NASA’s explicit instructions.
Aside from its obvious humanist themes, The Martian works brilliantly as a technical thriller, the vast gulf of space and its inherent inhospitable nature creating a nail-biting sense of living on the edge; particularly during the film’s latter-third rescue-plan operation, which operates on a Gravity level of tension, Ridley Scott uses all his skill as a director to make it legitimately exciting, but also realistic inasmuch as the film uses actual science to deliver plausible depictions of space travel. Similarly to Gravity and Interstellar, the most cutting-edge thinking about travel to Mars, as well as scientific grounding for orbital geophysics and all manner of other stuff I know little about, is brought to bear on The Martian’s technical realism, and in doing this Ridley and his team have grounded the movie as “possible”, science-fact rather than sci-fi fantasy.
Part of what makes Ridley Scott such an interesting director – other than the projects he chooses to make – is his visual acumen; regardless of what you think of his films as narrative exercises, there’s no escaping the brilliance of his imagery. What Scott hasn’t been able to do in his most recent films, such as Prometheus, A Good Year, The Counselor, or even Exodus, is connect with audiences at a level beyond what one might term an “art-house” mentality. Exodus’ spectacle was trumped by a feeling of inadequacy over the decision to remove the “faith” aspects from an iconic biblical story (God is pretty much a hallucination, if you follow Scott’s version), The Counselor was beset by characters so wholly unlikeable, and a plot so unbearably destitute it became impossible to “enjoy” the film in any manner, and Body Of Lies, which featured both Russell Crowe and Leonardo DiCaprio in peak form, failed to ignite anybody’s imaginations. To my mind, the last truly exceptional Ridley Scott film was American Gangster, a dramatic powerhouse that still lingers in my brain now that I think on it. To that point: perhaps modern Ridley Scott is at his best when delivering a film that isn’t so much a passion project (see The Counselor) or a big-bang box-office juggernaut (Exodus etc), but rather when he’s working spectacle and character into the same film; The Martian isn’t so much a “hey look at all my CG and visual effects” as it is a study in Matt Damon’s survival against impossible odds and how a person might react similarly.
The Martian is an intimate painting, on an enormous canvas.
Damon is excellent and solid in the role of Mark Watney. Although he’s never really given any backstory whatsoever (does he have family? What kind of films does he like? Any peccadilloes?) and is in retrospect a fairly bland, benign character, the stripping of Watney back to simply an Everyman archetype allows the rest of the film’s character work to shoulder much of the heavy lifting. I’m loathe to admit it worked, because generally films of this nature work best when the audience feels for the central character (Tom Hank’s performance in Cast Away, for example, excelled in this area) but the way Ridley and Goddard give the weight of hope to the NASA and Ares II personnel and thrust Watney into simply surviving, rather than emoting some manner of philosophical truth, gives yet another juxtaposition to counterbalance the established seriousness of the situation. On a subconscious level, perhaps we don’t need to know anything more about Watney other than the little we’re given (he’s a botanist, and that’s about all we know of his history throughout the film); I’m not sure why, but The Martian never suffers because Watney isn’t fully fleshed out.
Back on Earth, the film is carried by Chiwetel Ejiofor in a fairly insecure performance as Vincent Kapoor, although he provides the majority of the “phew” reactions as Watney’s survival plays out. Jeff Daniels is as close to a Bad Guy as The Martian concedes, as NASA director Teddy; as the voice of reason and advocacy for sacrificing one for the safety of many, it’s as genuine a performance by a top level official as you’ll see, even if he’s resigned to the fact that he’ll be perceived as the antagonist purely at an emotional level. Smaller roles to Kristen Wiig – wasted as a media liaison who seems to exist purely as ballast to a bloke-heavy cast – and Sean Bean, who nearly sneaks a meta Lord Of The Rings reference in at one point (God, that was a wasted opportunity by Ridley Scott!), as the voice of emotional heroism in the Ares II’s advocacy, give the film a sense of “all-star” casting, but nobody feels out of place in terms of sheer star power overriding a nuanced, believable performance.
Between Earth and Mars, on the Ares II, Chastain leads from the front as the commander of the mission, only she’s less Ellen Ripley than trailers might have you believe; Chastain’s Melissa Lewis is the kind of commander you want: forthright, accommodating, decisive and inclusive all rolled into one. Once a decision is made, she goes with it, even if the decision is an impossible one. Kate Mara’s “onboard tech guru” part is fairly one-note, and Sebastian Stan and Askel Hennie drift across in the background as faces without personality (generally), but the addition of Michael Pena is a welcome one to bring a sense of restrained levity to the trans-planet voyage. Between this and Marvel’s Ant-Man, Pena has certainly re-established himself in the big-budget productions for 2015.
In terms of the behind-the-camera talent, the film deserves an Oscar for cinematography, if nothing else. Lensed by genius Polish DOP Dariusz Wolski (all five Pirates Of The Caribbean movies, Dark City, Tim Burton’s Alice In Wonderland, and all Ridley’s films since Prometheus), The Martian looks astonishing, particularly the sequences up on Mars, which were filmed at Wadi Rum, in Jordan. Ridley Scott’s crisp, colour-corrected imagery is the stuff cinema buffs salivate over, as the red-hued desolation of Mars’ surface contrasts against the soft, metallic-blue evocation of Earth’s grasping, womb-like embrace. If we fail to see Wolski snag an Academy nomination it will be a significant injustice. Less likely to see Oscar will be composer Harry Gregson-Williams, a composer I’m a huge fan of (his work on both Shrek 2 and Arthur Christmas are among my favourite film scores ever), whose work here is thoroughly unremarkable. To the point I don’t remember much about it at all; I guess if I was to rewatch this one and reappraise it with some focus on the score specifically, I might think otherwise, but at first blush I don’t actually remember a key theme or musical motif at all, so I’m hard pressed to say it’s a “good” score.
The Martian is a terrific piece of popcorn cinema entertainment. It’s unassuming in its substance – the plot is eminently simple, and the stakes crucially high – and the cast more than hold their own where required, Damon particularly. I’m inclined to think the steady slope downwards in Sir Ridley’s filmography over the last decade has began to trend back upwards; this ain’t no Alien or Blade Runner, but then nothing else is. For such a high-concept film it remains decidedly low key, an aspect I think which surprised a good many people who saw it. Lacking ostentation or the portentousness of Exodus’s supposed solemnity, The Martian is a welcome return to form for Scott, a film-maker who continues to surprise and engage no matter the material.
Now, if only we could stop having to go save Matt Damon.
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