Ridley Scott’s popcorn-tech sci-fi is a more than welcome return to form.
With Oscar season no longer a mere blip on the summer horizon, the giants of Hollywood are beginning to stir. Whilst many eye-popping projects are due however, of all the directors involved few have as great a reach in terms of sheer scope-related ambition and execution than Ridley Scott. Now it’s no secret that Scott’s output over the past decade or so has been somewhat lacking in the type of quality we know he’s capable of producing. His seemingly never ending pursuit of perfection within the realm of truly grandiose cinema is admirable, but as the years have passed there’s been a severe downturn in the type of writing, direction, and character/audience-based relationships consistently associated with his best work. As a result, many of his pictures – his last three epics (Prometheus, Robin Hood, and Exodus: Gods and Kings) in particular – have struggled for cohesion; their impressive effects and, on paper, strong casts wasted due to a critical failure to engage the viewer. But now, finally, we can all relax. For Scott, having once again looked to the futuristic heavens for inspiration, has made The Martian – and it’s probably his best film since Gladiator.
A welcome departure from his recent attempts at taking on a tale with epic scale; the primary strength of The Martian stems from Scott’s almost forgotten ability to skilfully emphasise the finer points of a basic premise. The Martian was an ideal choice: astronaut is accidentally left for dead on Mars, astronaut turns out to be alive, astronaut has to survive long enough to be rescued. Combine such simplicity with the convenient length of time and related communication difficulties consistent with a real life Earth/Mars scenario (i.e., the origin of tension), and boom, you’re in Ridley town. Such material is effectively a playground for Scott, and he revels in it; mixing and matching a somewhat uniquely positive isolationistic tone (apparently a strength of Andy Weir’s novel – although I’m yet to read it) around our lead character, Mark Watney – for whom Matt Damon was perfectly cast – with the type of painstaking NASA-aided research and attention to detail that thankfully appears to now be the norm when it comes to Earth-related outer space sci-fi flicks (see: Gravity, Interstellar). Of course, there are moments of apparent inaccuracy that the scientific community has no doubt fallen over itself to list en masse since the film’s release, but Scott is hardly trying to recreate 2001 here, and can therefore be forgiven for preserving dramatic effect.
That is why The Martian strikes a chord; it’s good old fashioned sci-fi action entertainment designed with precision and executed with aplomb from all angles. Scott’s direction is as a fresh as its been for many a year, finally hitting it off with, and making the most of the beautiful cinematography produced by his now frequent collaborator, Dariusz Wolski. The extravagant sets and well woven use of location shots serve as terrific backdrops for the well balanced combination of practical and digital special effects, a practice in cinematic realism Scott helped to pioneer and continues to perfect on the biggest stage. Just as tight is the script, chocked with dry, sharp wit and a mountain of interesting technical-talk. The extensive, generally well cast supporting players put it all across with both an easy charm (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kate Mara, and Michael Peña impress), as well as the sort of deadpan delivery needed in place of the subtle sinister nature usually reserved for a human villain (step forward Jeff Daniels, who it’s great to see in this sort of role). The antagonist is simply Mars, and Mars alone – a wise play.
The genuinely standout aspect of what would otherwise be a more run-of-the-mill type space thriller is the intriguing, rather non-Hollywood-based development of our main character. To begin with, very is little is established by way of the foreshadowing or events usually befitting an early tragedy/setback for the lead character. Instead, we’re pretty much thrown straight into action alongside Watney. The major benefit of this is that the character of Watney therefore exists and develops outside of the usual emotional conventions so often intertwined with a survivalist story; in that he doesn’t have a wife/girlfriend/sick child waiting and depending on him back on Earth. His drive to survive is derived solely from the want to stay alive, something audiences don’t need much persuasion to get on board with. Indeed, the experience one shares with the stricken Watney throughout The Martian goes deeper than the traditional heartstring tugging method of coaxing emotional empathy with forced cuts every ten minutes to someone sitting on a sofa crying or anxiously watching television. This welcome change of technique is expertly enhanced by the use of candid cameras to convey Watney’s thoughts and actions under the guise of his mission log, thus creatively allowing him to indirectly break the fourth wall. Damon – himself no stranger to space-based flicks following roles in Elysium and Interstellar – makes such a completely isolated character viable and relatable with a humorous yet passively poignant performance, channelling every drop of his baby-faced charisma into what emerges as easily one of his best roles to date.
Dragging proceedings down a tad and keeping the film rooted in four-out-of-five/solid-night-at-the-movies territory – which, to be fair, it’s well suited to – is the lack of meaningful character elaboration in any location that isn’t Mars. The vast majority of the supporting players, especially those on earth, are fairly one dimensional and exist primarily to spout expository dialogue. Some characters (Donald Glover) are actually wholly unnecessary to the point of bordering on detrimental to the tone of scenes in which they feature. What makes up for this is the well balanced pacing. Scientific discussions and regarding the practicalities of a rescue drive proceedings sans Watney, and are supported, as mentioned above, by a number of strong, if not exactly searching performances. At one stage we’re away from Watney for what amounts to a fairly long period before he’s suddenly cut back into frame, but the entertainment doesn’t cease and we don’t really miss him. He’s not that sort of character, and, indeed, it’s not that sort of film. Elsewhere, some of the later action sequences and character decisions do begin to skip on the surface of the ridiculous, whilst a few of the related one liners should come with a lactose intolerance warning, but thankfully, by that point, you’re invested in proceedings to the extent that it wouldn’t be accurate to suggest that such moments mar enjoyment beyond the odd knowing smirk.
A thoroughly entertaining Friday night flick, The Martian is a triumphant return to form for Ridley Scott that deserves to be experienced on the big screen, and is the ideal cinematic experience needed to get you in the mood for the torrent of BIG pictures set to rain down upon us during the coming months.