WRITTEN REVIEW – The Martian (2015)
Directed by: Ridley Scott
Written by: Drew Goddard
Starring: Matt Damon, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jeff Daniels, Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig,
Music: Harry Gregson-Williams
Release Date: September 30th 2015
It’s hard to tell exactly when Ridley Scott completely lost his way.
While Scott has always been a technically proficient director, especially in recent years with films such as ‘Prometheus‘, ‘Robin Hood‘ and ‘Exodus: Gods and Kings‘, those films completely failed to grasp the basics of narrative, story and character. The once acclaimed director of ‘Thelma & Louise‘, ‘Alien‘, ‘Blade Runner‘ and ‘Gladiator‘ (which, while good, is VASTLY overrated) has fallen on hard times where even the films he’s produced have fallen flat (‘Get Santa‘ and ‘Child 44‘). It seemed like the once venerated director was pretty much done in the blockbuster landscape.
But fate had other ideas.
As chance would have it, Drew Goddard, who was originally attached to direct ‘The Martian‘ as well as write the screenplay, had to pull out as director due to commitments with Sony’s ‘The Amazing Spider-Man‘ franchise, which ultimately fell through. Ridley Scott came in rather late in the process as director. But, with a great creative team, top-tier talent and New York Times Bestselling novel “The Martian” by Andy Weir as the basis for the screenplay by Goddard, we have not only one of the best movies of 2015 but the best movie of Ridley Scott’s career. No contest.
Set in the not-too-distant future, NASA Astronaut Mark Watney (Damon) is a botanist and engineer and part of a highly-trained team known as Ares 3 which are conducting work on the planet Mars. During an emergency evacuation, Mark is struck by debris in an intense storm and is presumed dead by his team and left alone as Ares 3 make their way back to Earth. Mark finds himself as the only living soul on Mars and has the supplies to last 31 days despite his only chance of rescue being 4 years away and that’s even if he can communicate with NASA. Mark must “science the shit” out of his situation to try and make his supplies last and, more importantly, make it home safe.
‘The Martian‘ doesn’t play around in its opening act. While you’d think that a space exploration movie like this might establish the Ares 3 team, follow their training and blossoming friendships for a good half hour before they reach Mars and the problems arise, ‘The Martian‘ OPENS with the team already on the Red Planet and Mark is almost immediately left stranded. This leaves the movie with a further 130 minutes left to focus solely on Mark’s attempts to grow food on a planet where nothing grows and communicate with the Ares 3 and/or NASA with minimal supplies.
It’s a compelling survival premise that instantly paves the way for compelling drama but ‘The Martian‘ is a ridiculously funny movie. It has such wit and word-play with richly detailed characters that what should be an incredibly hefty and tragic movie feels very human and deeply personal. Drew Goddard’s script (faithfully adapting the tone of Andy Weir’s book, if not necessarily the first-person, diary-entry format) imbues a wonderful amount of levity into the script which is captured so well by the actors to such an extent that I’m genuinely amazed that ‘The Martian‘ works as well as it does. A screenplay this funny and comedic can’t possibly also be so dramatic and tense, can it?
The dialogue in ‘The Martian‘ is so good and cleverly done that it’s made me fall in love with the English-Language all over again.
While the script is consistently funny almost all the way through, it’s during the first half where most of the humour stems from. Mark Watney’s anecdotes, swear-filled interactions with NASA, disdain for the disco music he’s been left to listen to humanise Mark and the fact that the people down at NASA react to varying degrees thanks to the size of the supporting cast means that there’s not a single emotion that’s not represented in this phenomenal screenplay. So by the time the second half comes around and the situation starts to become more dire and Mark’s situation becomes more hopeless, we’ve grown to love Mark because of his humour, his determination and, most importantly of all, his humanity.
That humanity has been sorely lacking in Ridley Scott movies as of late and while he’s definitely worth crediting for some of the movie’s best sequences on a technical level, you can bet your bottom-dollar that this movie is as good as it is because of the wonderful team helping him out in front of and behind the cameras. Really, no Ridley Scott movie has quite captured human emotion to this extent since ‘Thelma & Louise‘ in 1991.
But what’s a great script without great actors? Thankfully ‘The Martian‘ is a successful proof-of-concept in regards to casting top-tier talent in small roles. While Matt Damon’s Mark Watney is undoubtedly the main character, ‘The Martian‘ is truly an ensemble movie, which is where the biggest difference lies in regards to Drew Goddard’s script and Andy Weir’s novel. Whether it’s Jeff Daniels as Teddy Sanders, the head of NASA, being cynical about Watney’s survival because his priority is to make sure NASA doesn’t lose its funding and is able to ensure future space missions, or Chiwetel Ejiofor as the more optimistic, kind-eyed Vincent Kapoor, director of the Ares Missions desperate to get their boy back home, there are a lot of polar-opposite dynamics at play back on Earth, but they’re well balanced and well-reasoned. Jeff Daniels’ character is not the bad guy here. He does value Mark Watney’s life, but he is also a realist and knows that if they fail to get him back, NASA is essentially finished should there be a PR backlash.
You have your black and your white in terms of motivations, but you have your shades of grey with Kristen Wiig and Sean Bean which add further balance and opinions to the rescue endeavour. Both are great and memorable as well as Donald Glover as a University Astrodynamics Engineer whose plan is so crazy it might just work, or Mackenzie Davis as a Mission Control operator who is working way beyond her limitations. The entire cast back on Earth are varied, engaging and wonderfully acted by all involved.
We can’t forget the crew of Ares 3 who, while not getting as much screen-time as the Martian or Earthlings still do a wonderful job. Jessica Chastain, Sebastian Stan, Kate Mara, Michael Peña and Aksel Hennie all get brief moments to shine and all of them as a group have fantastic chemistry. You believe that these people would risk life and limb for each other and wouldn’t even hesitate to rescue Mark even if it means staying in space for another year at best or death at worst.
But, of course, it’s with Matt Damon where the movie finds its emotional centre. He literally spends 99% of his screentime on his own, interacting with only himself, a camera or a laptop but my god does Damon make it compelling. His grasp of comedic timing, the way he keeps the flashes of sheer trauma and crippling loneliness bubbling under the surface before briefly letting rip at carefully calculated moments in the story is demonstrative of an actor at the top of his game and wielding his talent with laser-like precision. I don’t think he will due to the type of film ‘The Martian‘ is and the fact that his performance doesn’t have a singular “Oscar-Moment” (his “Oscar-Moment” is the ENTIRE movie) but I believe he truly does deserves an Academy Award nomination for this performance.
But the movie’s secret weapon and ultimate narrative hook is that Mark Watney is more than capable to survive. No, he’s not super-human, he just has science on his side. Boiled down to its barest essentials, ‘The Martian‘ is a movie about being over to overcome every obstacle put in front of you with the power of science. Watney is surrounded by science and uses it to his advantage. While 2013’s ‘Gravity‘ played fast-and-loose with physics and science in order to be a thrill-ride first-and-foremost, ‘The Martian‘ strives for scientific accuracy wherever it can, but it’s not an inaccessible movie as all the cast are able to confidently communicate all the exposition and translate it to the audience, without making it feel dumbed down. ‘The Martian‘ wants to exposit that Science is accessible and is as essential to the human experience as breathing is.
Mark needs to make the Mars Rover travel further? Science the shit out of it.
NASA need to communicate with Mark using only a camera that can twist? Science the shit out of it.
Ares 3 need to pick up supplies from Earth without landing? Science the shit out of it.
There is no challenge that can’t be overcome with intelligence and reason. Once you’ve solved one problem, move onto the next one.
But it’s not just these singular individuals overcoming these challenges to get Mark Watney back home despite being abandoned 140 million miles away. It’s the fact that these diverse characters from different backgrounds, different ethnicities and different life experiences are coming together to save one person because it’s the right thing to do. There’s no need for competition. The “space race” is over. Once human-kind puts aside its differences to work towards a common, selfless goal, there is nothing that we can’t do as a collective. Basically, it’s ‘Pacific Rim‘ in terms of themes, except with less robot-punching and more science and number-crunching. Both are equally thrilling in context.
And my goodness is ‘The Martian‘ a gorgeous looking movie. Looking at least twice its production budget ($108M), the Martian landscapes filmed at Wadi Rum in Jordan (“The Valley of the Moon” which has filled in for Mars in movies such as ‘Mission to Mars‘ and ‘The Last Days of Mars‘) are a sight to behold on the big-screen. The vast, uninhabited empty-space that is being seen for the first time through human eyes is intimidating but equally tranquil. The Ares 3 spaceship is a wonderful on-screen creation and Ridley Scott as well as cinematographer Dariusz Wolski clearly have a lot of fun messing around with the artificial gravity and what can be done with the camera during the weightless sequences and the skewed perspectives offered.
But the scenes back on Earth feel dynamic as well with NASA collaborating with the production team to ensure an accurate representation of the science as well as the behind-the-scenes operations at the organisation. The sound mixing is top-notch, make-up effects being gradually applied to Matt Damon as he goes without basic hygiene for months as well as his subtle injuries over the course of the film are well applied and show great attention to detail and choosing Harry Gregson-Williams to do the score was an inspired, but perfect choice thanks to his similar work on the outlandish, yet sincere science-fiction-based “Metal Gear Solid” video games. The score never becomes bombastic, yet still leaves an impact.
‘The Martian‘ is a gripping, engaging and thought-provoking experience and it’s structured in such a way that it feels like it was based on a true story that you don’t know the ending to. But this is mainly due to a career-best screenplay by Drew Goddard based on compelling source material as well as a cast that commit to every role they’re given no matter how minor because it’s all working towards a common goal. The whole of ‘The Martian‘ as well as the sum of its parts are in perfect harmony with each other and Ridley Scott’s technical abilities as a director, as well as some of his own touches (such as a few moments of injury detail) all come together to produce a masterpiece of modern science fiction that emphasises the human condition and the importance of contemporary worldwide collaboration. ‘The Martian‘ is the type of movie that will undoubtedly inspire the next generation of explorers and reassure them that there is no hurdle that cannot be overcome with co-operation.
As well as sciencing the shit out of it.
I give ‘The Martian‘ 5 stars out of 5.
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Posted: 2nd Oct 15