Ridley Scott’s been especially prolific over the last few years, with his newest film The Martian opening less than a year after Exodus: Gods and Kings, and these are large-scale movies we’re talking about. However his recent output has been inconsistent at best, tending to vary between dull epics (Robin Hood, Exodus) and highly divisive movies (The Counselor, Prometheus). The Martian fits neither category, a true return to form, it’s easily his most crowd-pleasing movie since Gladiator, and arguably even his best since Blade Runner.
Prometheus to me was a textbook example of a film that was very well directed yet poorly written. It was full of problems on the script level that Scott’s incredible visuals couldn’t outdistance. Here he has no such trouble, as he’s working with one of his best scripts in some time. Adapted by Drew Goddard (The Cabin in the Woods) from the self-published sci-fi novel by Andy Weir, The Martian is a story seemingly waiting to be brought to the big screen, and Scott proves himself just the man to do it.
Set in a near future, The Martian begins during a manned mission to Mars when a freak storm separates astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) from his crew. Fairly presuming him to have died, the crew abandons their planned two-month mission and heads off back to Earth. He has survived though, and now finds himself stranded on Mars.
Immediately, what separates The Martian from other ‘survival movies’ such as the recent All is Lost or Gravity is it’s tone. While Watney does briefly consider his mortality, and his situation is drastic, he never despairs, this is not some bleak struggle for survival.
He’s an optimist and importantly a scientist who’s determined that he is “not going to die here”. The Martian’s lightness works tremendously well to its advantage; the film is packed full of laughs, but none of these ever undermine the severity of Watney’s situation. In fact, maintaining his sense of humour may be what’s keeping him going. It’s really to the film’s credit how it manages to balance these opposing sides. Damon himself does not provide a voice-over but records his progress in frequent video diaries which prove to be considerably more entertaining than one might assume. Damon always holds the screen and lands the jokes despite having no-one to work off. It also finds some creative ways to get around PG-13 language restrictions, and features a soundtrack of seventies disco music, a genre Watney openly despises.
There’s a great joy to be had in seeing just how his survival tactics unfold, first taking account of what resources he has then calculating how long he can survive on them. He realises he must find more food, and some way to communicate with NASA back on Earth. Now granted, nearly all of the tools and materials he has to work with are man-made items that the crew brought with them, but it’s how he innovatively adapts them to solve problems and aid his survival that’s so fascinating. This is a rare sci-fi film that loves and knows actual science, using it to educate, inspire and entertain.
Even better, the film never once treats its audience like idiots, Watney, and others all use scientific terms throughout without the need for some audience surrogate character to then demand an explanation. In one prime example, Watney realises that he can use hexadecimals to help communicate, then promptly goes about doing so, his work sufficiently demonstrating what they are without resorting to needless exposition. Similarly, the experiments performed have a realistically mixed success rate, there’s some trial and error involved, but some ideas work straight away, others fail. There are no miraculous flukes here.
The other unconventional aspect of this movie that I was so pleased about is how it never once tries to go for an easy emotional appeal for Watney’s survival. In short, he does not have a wife or children back home waiting for him. This could have been such a different and potentially manipulative movie had they opted for this cheap tactic. He does briefly mention his parents at one point but that’s it. We’re being asked to care about him purely because he’s a human being, not because of any loss his family would experience were he to perish, or any other backstory. It’s easy to invest in Watney though, assisted by Damon’s natural likability; he’s excellent here, just as convincing when delivering complex scientific dialogue or joking about space pirates. One might just shed a tear come the climax or feel enthusiastic support for him during a final preparation montage set to Abba’s ‘Waterloo’.
When I first heard about The Martian, I had imagined a movie more akin to Cast Away or All is Lost where we only see events unfold through the eyes of the stranded individual. The Martian actually takes a very different approach, with a huge cast of supporting players both on Earth and in Space.
These are primarily NASA employees played by a fantastic bunch of actors. Heading up the team is Jeff Daniels as the NASA director, with Chiwetel Ejiofor as the Mars mission director and Sean Bean as the man in charge of the crew of Ares III, the ship that took the team to Mars. They all do great work here, effectively communicating the dilemmas the staff back home face once they realise Watney is still alive. In another commendably unconventional move, whatever conflict exists between them is merely regarding the best course of action, and which risks to take. No one is arguing that he should just be left there to die, in fact there are no ‘villains’ in this movie at all.
Also on the team are Mackenzie Davis as the satellite planner who deduces Watney’s situation, and a sadly underused Kristen Wiig as NASA’s director of media relations. Despite all these bigger names, the stand-out of the NASA crew for me was Benedict Wong (Sunshine) as the continually exasperated construction director who draws a lot of dry humour from the increasingly high demands placed on him. The only misstep unfortunately comes from Donald Glover as the film’s most purely comedic character, who ends up seeming out-of-place.
In addition to the ground team, the Ares III crew also continue to play a part throughout the story and are similarly played by an excellent group of actors led by a commanding Jessica Chastain and including Kate Mara, Aksel Hennie, Sebastian Stan and for the second time in a big movie this year, a scene-stealing Michael Peña. All of them manage to convey distinctive personalities and again, there are no enemies among them, they all wish to do the best they can for their stranded comrade.
Using a combination of CGI, practical sets and real-life locations in Jordan, Scott beautifully films a convincing vision of Mars that’s both captivating and terrifying in its hostility. He skilfully edits between the Mars, Earth and spaceship set scenes for a continually gripping, progressing narrative that never loses track of its key players. Only a single title-card accompanied jump forward in time feels a little abrupt, if necessitated by a film’s running time.
I have to wonder if someone could have made a film out The Martian without ever cutting away from Mars, but ultimately that would have hindered the film’s core idea. This is a film about smart people banding together and applying their best efforts towards achieving an admirable scientific and humanitarian goal. Ridley Scott has already made masterpieces of Sci-Fi Horror and Sci-Fi Noir, but now he’s made an optimistic, inspirational tribute to the ingenuity and resourcefulness of the human spirit to invent, discover, progress and ultimately, survive.