The last few years have provided us with a mixed bag of big sci fi films. The best have had some script issues but been carried through by other elements of the film (Gravity), some failed to realise that mindless action was an unfulfilling conclusion to philosophical posturing (Prometheus), and the worst have been over-long, over-serious, pretentious, vacuous, crass, stupid, misogynist, abrasive, and boring (Interstellar). I have little criticism to level at The Martian and really did enjoy it.
It feels good to talk about a Ridley Scott film in such a positive light. Though his films have always been great to look at, coupled with a series of mediocre or bad scripts, it’s been a while since we’ve seen a genuinely recommendable film and we’ve never seen a return to form of the likes of Alien or Blade Runner. While not as good as those, The Martian is a high quality blockbuster.
Populist genre cinema done extremely well
The Martian is based on the relatively recent novel of the same name by Andy Weir, in which astronaut Mark Watney has to survive on the Red Planet whilst NASA and the crew that left him behind strive to rescue him. Nice simple set up and a straight forward plot with clear stakes. I think this is what sets it apart from Scott’s fare for the last few years: those films have strived for a complexity and depth that they have singularly failed to achieve. Not to say this is a dumb film or represents some sort of intellectual abandonment. The Martian simply finds elegance in simplicity.
Perhaps this is why I wouldn’t regard this as such a defining success as Blade Runner or the like. It’s a conventional film that is made engaging by virtue of its execution, not by seams of interpretation that can be applied to a rich intellectual subtext. This is populist genre cinema done extremely well and I only wish other big films this year (I am looking at you, Jurassic World) would realise that playing to a large does not mean setting a low bar for standards.
You may well find some oddities in the narrative on reflection. Matt Damon’s Mark Watney is quite an entertaining smart-arse of a host, as he addresses the audience through his log entries, but considering that he is stranded on an arid planet, alone and likely to die, he stays oddly chipper. There’s no deep interrogation of the human soul or the madness faced by people trapped and isolated for extended periods. No one would mistake The Martian for Solaris.
Ridley Scott is such a cheater
We’re riding on a lot more than Damon’s charisma in the cast though. The narrative shifts between the Mark Watney show on Mars and then we get the ensemble adventure as the NASA team (Jeff Daniels, Kristen Wiig, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Mackenzie Davis, Sean Bean, Benedict Wong and Donald Glover) and the crew of astronauts (Jessica Chastain, Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, and Aksel Hennie) try and mount a rescue. The Martian really has its cake and eats it in delivering both a solo and a group piece. Ridley Scott is such a cheater.
The Martian is a very consummate film. There’s drama, humour, tension, style, spectacle, and the crisp visuals we’ve come to expect from Scott. This doesn’t represent the apex of the film maker’s vaunting ambition but it shows just how far he can polish a film couched firmly in mainstream sensibilities.
Verdict: The Martian is one of the smoothest and confident blockbusters I have seen this year.