Film Review | Castaway meets Apollo 13 in Ridley Scott’s The Martian
Directed by Ridley Scott
Starring Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels and Chiwetel Ejiofor.
Mark Watney is a botanist with the Ares 3 mission to Mars. Caught in a sudden and severe storm on the surface, Watney is separated from his crew, injured and presumed dead. With conditions worsening by the second the mission commander, Commander Lewis (Chastain), decides to leave Mars as she cannot risk the lives of her remaining crew members in searching for his body. Lo and behold, Watney survives and once the storm passes he finds himself stranded on Mars with only enough food, if rationed judiciously, for a couple of months – it will take a rescue mission four and a half years to get to him. So begins his mission, to signal earth and to stay alive on Mars.
I first heard of a book called The Martian about 18 months ago through a conversation with a friend over a pint. He recommended I pick it up; he’d just finished reading it and thought that I would love it, just like he did. Going into a little detail, he sold me on the basic premise but what piqued my interest most was the path it took from being an idea in author Andy Weir’s head to words on a digital screen to an actual printed and bound book. It had quite the journey from agent-less manuscript to New York Times bestseller, but that is a different story. The Martian was added to my “to-read” list. Soon after, I heard that the film rights had been bought and Ridley Scott was fast-tracking it to the big screen – considering that I have about six foot of books to cut through I decided to wait for the film version. What compounded this decision was an interview I heard with Dennis Lehane, author of Shutter Island and Mystic River; he suggested that you should always see a film version of a novel before reading the book as a novel will never disappoint whereas a film of a novel you have loved will never equal its source material. I think the man has a point. At the time of writing, I have not read The Martian.
Over the years there have been a host of Mars films (Mission to Mars, The Red Planet, John Carter, Capricorn One, Last Days on Mars to name a few) with varying degrees of success – for every Capricorn One you had half a dozen Red Planet’s. Mars has never been kind to those trying to make films about her. Thankfully The Martian can nip neatly into pole position when it comes to Martian movies, albeit it’s not up against much in terms of competition. The film is visually stunning; using the beautiful and desolate red sand desert in Wadi Rum, Jordan, Ridley Scott has probably made his most beautiful film in terms of visual aesthetics. It stands shoulder to shoulder with the sumptuous Prometheus (say what you will about Prometheus as a film, it was certainly something special to look at). If John Ford had ever made a science fiction film it would look like this, Scott’s take on Mars bears more than a passing resemblance to a red Monument Valley. He emphasises the harsh, unforgiving terrain and the natural, desolate beauty so much you’d be forgiven for thinking that John Wayne was going to walk across the screen. There is a touch of the Western about this, a little Jeremiah Johnston and a little The Searchers and that, for me, is no bad thing.
What it also is, cue little shrieks from 80’s TV fanboys, is MacGuyver in space. Apparently Andy Weir took two years to research this book, to find the ingenious ways that Watney comes up with in order to survive, making sure that they were scientifically sound. The trailer kind of gives that away when Watney proposes to “science the shit out of it” when it comes to surviving. But if you are coming to this film expecting tense, will he/won’t he survive moments, then you will be sorely disappointed. For all its visual flair, The Martian is distinctly lacking in the tension department and this really affects how you engage with the character of Mark Watney. It is almost unforgivable that, a film with such a strong premise – man marooned on Mars, meagre supplies and no contact with Earth must find a way to survive – offers so little in terms of danger and peril. Never once do you wonder what could happen next, or will he make it through. For a film close to two and a half hours long you feel that Scott has been a bit too scissor happy when it came to the editing process. The Martian needed another 30 minutes, to develop and to linger on a few of the problems and to create that sense of danger – Watney just seems to know how to solve these problems he encounters straight off the bat, in fact, it’s the people on Earth with limitless access to technology who seem to have more of an issue getting aid to him than he does of self-sustaining on a planet where nothing, that we know of at least, has ever grown.
Yet this doesn’t seem to be a mistake on Scott’s part but a carefully considered means of telling the story in the particular way that he wanted it told. You have to assume that, considering he gave us Alien, Blade Runner and Gladiator, The Martian has been cleverly constructed to reflect the thrive not survive element of this story. It he wanted tension then there is no one better than Ridley Scott to create tension (look at Alien, you couldn’t shoehorn more tension into that film if you tried). The Martian, you see, is almost a comedy, a feel good film; Watney actually seems to enjoy being marooned on Mars, as if it is just some big science challenge – which may be a nice metaphor for living, if life gives you lemons then make lemonade. Or, in Watney’s case, if you’re unfortunate enough to get stuck on Mars then you might as well make the best of it. There are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments, clever little flashes of humour generated by the situation (who’d a thunk Mars could have been so funny?). Watney, wiped after a day’s exertions on the surface sits down and, looking at the fruit of his labour, simply says, “Fuck you Mars” – if his delivery doesn’t make you crack a smile then visit your GP. But that is the extent of Watney’s discontent on Mars – he rages only once in the film for about five seconds and then he is cool and calm and jovial again. Scott spends almost no time dissecting the psychological impact of being stranded on a planet millions of miles from home, from rescue, from anything really. He doesn’t go to any great lengths to plumb the emotional depths and while this is not a shallow film, it just doesn’t give you a whole lot to care about. While we’d all like to think that we’d get on fairly okay in such a situation, I doubt we’d spend it disco dancing like Watney does. His “oh well” attitude does wear a bit thin after a while.
While saying that, Matt Damon does a brilliant job at keeping Watney grounded and likeable. Likeability is the key factor here, his Watney seems to be great craic, he sees the humour in things and it could be that he has moved into a “if you don’t laugh you’ll cry” frame of mind. Half of his scenes are captured from a GoPro camera as he gives video logs, documenting everything he does and a lot of the humour is found here, such as experiments going wrong or detailing his dwindling tomato ketchup supply. At one point Watney says “Is this how I end? You either accept it or you go to work,” and boy does he work. But no matter how likeable a character is, to empathise with him/her they have to be put in jeopardy every now and then and with a character marooned on Mars you would imagine that jeopardy would have been fairly easy to find. Unfortunately the drama is lost by his ingenuity and his lack of struggle, his wealth of answers. A little more “wing and a prayer” and a little less cock-sure science would have gone a long way to make this very enjoyable film a bit more engaging and dramatic. Yes, while it is practically a tension-free zone, it is a very enjoyable film and that is down, almost solely to Matt Damon. With a lesser actor this film would fall totally flat, a precipice it teeters on more than once but Damon’s ability to deal with the situation in hand pulls it back from the brink.
While The Martian is about a man stranded on Mars, only about half the film takes place there, the rest is on Earth as NASA and other tech boffins from across the globe come together to devise a way to get Watney home. Of these characters, Jeff Daniels’ NASA Chief Teddy Sanders is the most enjoyable. Bound by doing what is procedurally correct for NASA and caught between doing what is necessary for Watney he finds himself struggling with the decisions he has to make. Chiwetel Ejiofor, as Vincent Kapoor, another NASA bigwig pushes for all avenues to be explored and exploited to get Watney home and both he and Sanders draw sparks from each other in nice little tete-a-tete moments. The supporting cast are all very strong, Jessica Chastain in particular as Commander Lewis who, once she realises that Watney is still alive, struggles to come to terms with the fact that she left him behind. Yet Kate Mara, Sean Bean, Kristen Wiig and Michael Pena are all given precious little to do. Pena gets a quick comic one-two with Watney once they realise he is alive but after that he seems discarded, which, for an actor of Pena’s ability, is just wrong. Our first moments with Sean Bean are of him confusedly following a conversation back and forth as if it were a tennis ball at Wimbledon, and you have to imagine that Ned Stark should be a little more hand’s on than this. It seems as if Ridley Scott’s name was the big draw, as if turning down a Ridley Scott movie would have been too much.
The earth set sections of the film are where the tension, what little of it there is, are to be found, as they struggle to get launches ready and find ways to make square pegs fit into round holes. Described by most as Castaway meets Apollo 13, The Martian is very clearly separated in terms of those two films. The panic about survival is all Apollo 13 and they happen to be the Earth sequences. Castaway is, obviously, all the Mars bound sequences but the difference between Castaway and The Martian is that Tom Hanks’ Chuck Noland didn’t know how to survive and he swept the audience along on his journey of learning to rescue. Watney knows exactly how to survive, as if this very scenario was trained for in NASA boot camp – you never get the feeling he is in danger or has anything to fight for. It isn’t helped by the fact that Watney has nothing to come home to, no family bar his parents. There are no weepy messages, no Matthew McConaughey-esque tearjerker moments as seen in last years Interstellar. And while I do not propose that every disaster film needs a sob story and a dog, they really do need something resembling a heart. This lack of drama undermines what could have been a really thrilling film.
The Martian is not a bad film at all, not by a long shot and I do recommend that you go see it on the big screen, but don’t go expecting a thriller because you will be disappointed. It is certainly one of the most enjoyable films in months and Matt Damon plays upon his likeability to the extreme but it is not a film you will find engaging, or a film where you will care a whole lot about the characters. If James Stewart passed the “everyman” title to Tom Hanks, then Matt Damon is waiting for the baton to come his way next as he also carries that effortless air that Hanks seems to find so easily. As opposed to sitting on the edge of your seat with the “will he make it tension?”, you will find yourself relaxing back in your chair and letting this film wash over you. Now where’s that book?
The Martian is in cinemas now. Check out the trailer below.
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