Film - The Martian

Out now on DVD and Bluray. Did The Martian pique the Curiosity of Ren Zelen...?...

Director: Ridley Scott
Writers: Drew Goddard (screenplay), Andy Weir (book)
Starring: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jeff Daniels, Sean Bean, Kristen Wiig, Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Aksel Hennie, Sebastian Stan, Mackenzie Davies.

There are already scores of reviews of The Martian out there, and I would as ever, urge you to take a look and make up your own mind, but for what it’s worth, here I am putting my two cents in.

During a manned mission to Mars, astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is presumed dead after a fierce storm and is left behind by his crew. Although injured, he survives and finds himself stranded on the inhospitable planet. With limited supplies, he must draw upon his ingenuity, education and wits to stay alive and find a way to send a signal back to NASA on Earth.

As one would expect from Ridley Scott, The Martian is visually effective and looks pretty nifty in 3D. There are plenty of shots of shining spaceships, technical equipment, churning machinery and people floating in zero gravity or swirling in space suits against a backdrop of blackness and stars.

I was gratified to observe a mix of respectable astrophysics and vaguely plausible pseudo-science was at the forefront. We were shown that if you want to do something spectacular and near-miraculous, and you don’t happen to be blessed with superpowers, you really have to get on and do the maths. Yes, sorry sports jocks and ‘popular, cool dudes’ - you should understand that the ones who are most likely to actually achieve something heroic and meaningful are the science nerds. One of my favourite lines from the film pops up as stranded astronaut Mark Watney tries to solve one of many daunting obstacles to survival on the red planet - “I’m gonna have to science the sh*t out of this,” he says calmly. Hell yes! That is how you get stuff done! The Martian celebrates the belief that humans can, with appropriate education, patience and common sense, think their way out of almost any problem.

Also, for the girls, it was pleasing to see that you can take charge, be able to make life or death decisions, have a good, practical head on your shoulders and still look like team-leader Lewis (Jessica Chastain). There is no need to wear a skin-tight catsuit or bat eyelashes that look like bird perches – just get educated, get fit, eat healthily and be sure to look after your teeth.

The Martian had the potential to be exciting and tonally rich science-fiction, but, as grand, slick and expansive as the movie is, it's almost entirely lacking in real warmth or lyricism. Scott's film is a methodical survival and rescue story, adapted by Drew Goddard from Andy Weir's 2011 debut novel. It emerges rather as an elaboration on Apollo 13, but without the charm or tension. The Martian suffers from the same major weakness as Prometheus - there are just too many characters, most of them lumbered with undeveloped and underwritten roles. As with that movie, Scott relies on the talent of good actors to make something out of what little they get, and no-one can deny that The Martian scooped up a pretty great cast to try to imbue those ‘beige’ characters with a little colour.

Matt Damon manages to instil Watney with some humour in adversity and boyish determination. Screenwriter Goddard, hitherto best known for his long working relationship with Joss Whedon, shows his influences with the application of wry dialogue as a counterweight to potentially stressful situations, and Damon is one of the few actors that can deliver Goddard’s screenplay with a lightness of touch.

Even so, as Watney tackles problem after problem, we may admire his humour, adaptability, ingenuity and grit, but we never really get to know him or engage with him as a person or feel much suspense regarding his survival. Stalwart Chiwetel Ejiofor plays the chief scientist fighting to get Watney home, Jeff Daniels is the avuncular head of NASA, Kristen Wiig struts around in tight dresses, killer heels and a precise haircut, looking glum, Sean Bean grimaces, apparently troubled by conscience, affable Michael Peña is the light relief, Mackenzie Davies appears to play the same character as in TV’s Halt and Catch Fire - all of them strive not to be crushed by the movie's grinding narrative machinery.

Ridley Scott coolly orchestrates the events (two of his last three movies, Exodus: Gods and Kings and Prometheus were so grand in scale that taking on Mars wouldn’t disconcert him) but he hardly seems interested in individuals or in a depiction of their work, settling instead for types of characters and kinds of scenes. The Martian attempts a facsimile of emotional texture and human behaviour, but there's no conviction or engagement. What's left is a string of prompts to ensure that the audience obeys the emotional cues - the actors are merely accessories towards that aim.

The Martian is a big picture in its scope and ambition, but there isn’t much in the way of awe or wonder at the magnitude and mystery of space. Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski tries hard, but doesn’t quite succeed in making the desert landscape of Wadi Rum, in Jordan (standing in for Mars) look otherworldly. (I can’t help but remember the dreamy, red sandscape of Brian De Palma's 2000 Mission to Mars, an effect apparently achieved by cinematographer Stephen Burum's use of light reflectors made of copper sheeting).

The Martian is confident, optimistic, swaggering sci-fi, hardwiring science into its story - it makes for an entertaining enough ride, and for those qualities I applaud it. But ultimately, for me at least, it doesn’t quite achieve the dynamism to ascend among the stars.

Copyright R.H. Zelen – ©RenZelen 2015 All rights reserved.

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