With The Martian, space-fonz Ridley Scott has once again found new ways to make the final frontier cool. So what’s the secret ingredient this time?
These are the voyages of astronaut Mark Watney. His continuing mission, to survive a ballsed-up mission to Mars that left him stranded and presumed dead by NASA. To seek out new ways to make space survival seem exciting and innovative. To boldly go ahead and kick-start Ridley Scott’s reputation. I think it’s safe to say I crushed that intro parody. So let’s go ahead and talk The Martian.
The first thing you notice about Ridley Scott‘s latest intergalactic escapade is that no time is spent waiting for you to get comfy. As soon as the movie starts, the action starts. Ten minutes later, Watney (Matt Damon) is already alone on Mars. From that point on the pace rarely slows, making deliberate time skips and jumps so as not to keep the audience waiting for anything.
There’s nothing in Scott’s body of work that shares this philosophy of rapid development. However, what we do get is a contrast of close quarters and empty expanses, and that is classic Ridley (see most Alien films). It’s also what makes the quick story work so well. Whenever there’s a cluster of claustrophobic camera work, it’s never too far from a steady pan of endless Martian plateaus.
As well as a lack of fat on the running time, The Martian has a distinct lack of quiet time – especially for a space drama. Watney is constantly talking to himself: it starts using a video diary as an exposition device, but then we soon see the lone astronaut naturally talking to himself to fill the void. Watney’s talk isn’t panicked or deliberately maddening as you might expect from being the only living thing on an entire planet. It’s more like Watney has missed the last bus home – irritable, sarcastic, and relatable. As a result there’s very little separating the Mars-based scenes and the earth-based scenes of NASA, both of which have a steady stream of smart, dynamic dialogue.
Aside from Damon, there are a lot of decent cast performances to talk about. In the NASA corner we have Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Sean Bean dividing their time between finding a way to get Watney home and calling one another idiots.
Jessica Chastain also makes a strong showing as the ship commander who left Watney behind. It would be so easy to make her intense affection for her abandoned crew-member into something romantic, but guess what? She’s married, which makes the connection between Damon and Chastain all the more distressed. Between Ant-Man‘s Michael Peña, The To-Do List and Community‘s Donald Glover and the upcoming Ghostbusters reboot’s Kristen Wiig, we also have a rich seam of humour running from beginning to end – with Damon making regular contributions in his monologues. This is fairly unheard of for modern space dramas, but we saw it all the time with the interstellar blockbusters of the 90’s. Armageddon and Independence Day both used humour to up the ante of their space exploration to great effect. We can now add The Martian to that grand tradition of comedy drama.
Underpinning all of this we have a very understated score from Atticus Ross. With a few nods to the gothic synth of Vangelis’ Bladerunner score, Ross successfully and quietly sets the mood an empty planet. This combines almost seamlessly with the tirade of Disco music, which is Watney’s only source of distraction and becomes a welcome stress-relieving staple.
You know how I said this isn’t your regular Ridley Scott film? Well that can be a good thing, but it could also be seen as a bad thing. If you were a die-hard Scott fan hoping for another Prometheus then you could very well leave The Martian with strong disapproval. Many tropes of Scott’s films are nowhere to be found in The Martian – monochrome, neo-noir and potent silences are left behind to create an arguably more mainstream space movie. The result is strong, but it could very well leave Scott fans disheartened, especially with Alien: Paradise Lost a distant spec on the event horizon.
As a testament to the comedy-drama of 90’s space adventures, The Martian can sometimes fall back on some stale tropes. Daniels’ head of NASA favours the safe bet, Bean’s mission director puts faith in any hair-brained scheme, Glover’s erratic savant astronomer bursts into the room with just the right hair-brained scheme, and they’re all friends in the end. In the context it works well and gives you all the right feelings in all the right places when the credits start rolling. Is it a little predictable? Maybe. But it’s a miniscule price to pay for what you get.
…And The Verdict
With such a cynical movie-going audience – especially on the sci-fi circuit – it’s getting harder and harder to make space seem cool. Fortunately Ridley Scott has spent the last 30 years being the Fonz of space and thinking up new ways to make the final frontier edgy as hell.
High praise should also go to Scott for throwing out his own rule book on tone and cinematography. The result is one of his best films in years and certainly one of the best films of 2015 so far. He sacrificed his own choice tools of claustrophobia and desolateness to give The Martian some heart and humanity. The result is a revitalisation for the director, along with a few new strings to his bow.
Basically, you should absolutely go and see The Martian.