Help Is Only 140 Million Miles Away
Based on the novel by Andy Weir, The Martian tells the story of the Ares III: a manned mission to Mars crew, who are monitoring samples for a simple thirty day period. The film wastes no time getting straight into the story with an anticipated storm accelerating toward the temporary habitat. Believing that the Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV) will tip and the crew will be unable to leave the red planet, Commander Lewis [Chastain] orders the evacuation. When the storm hits, it wreaks havoc and an antenna dislodges itself, killing botanist Mark Watney [Damon]. With the weather intensifying, the crew are forced to abandon Mark’s body and leave Mars. Back on Earth, word gets out and with NASA being a publically owned company, they are legally required to publicise all findings within a 24 hour period, leading to NASA Director, Teddy Sanders [Daniels] announcing Mark’s death to the world. It is at this point that we learn that Watney is very much alive, pierced and bleeding but alive. He makes his way back to the habitat and begins logically analysing his chances of survival. After a month of rationing and restocking the facility, Mark’s actions are witnessed by satellites and so the race to somehow save Mark begins.
Fiscally and critically speaking, 2015 has already been a great year for cinema and it’s been a welcome treat to have such high calibre blockbusters and independent releases. Admittedly, Ridley Scott has not made himself a safe bet of late. Much like some of the finest directors of the 70’s and 80’s, their more recent efforts have failed to captivate or impress. Scott has produced a few half decent releases but also a fair amount of misses which seem wholly beneath his talent. Thankfully, The Martian is a glorious return to form. Masterfully directed, wonderfully edited, great acting, impressive production design, brilliant cinematography; it’s an all-round success in my eyes. What’s also interesting is the sheer cinematographic range utilised. Too many people try to emulate the look of phones and found footage on high spec cameras and then actively degrading the footage. The Martian makes the simple and smart move of just using the technology available. Need a go-pro shot? Use a go-pro. The look and feel work for the narrative and put the audience in a very real place, free from the sheen and perfection of a refined high definition shot. And it’s decisions like this that feel more in line with the upper echelon of Scott’s body of work.
While this is probably already apparent, allow me to highlight something. When a film goes into production, there is an exceptional amount of research and prep into the look and feel of the aesthetic. For a science fiction film, this can double depending on how scientifically accurate the director wishes to be. Now, if you’ve shot a science fiction film with a few steps in reality, chances are a lot of your previous research will still be relevant. As such, The Martian shares a lot of common visual and audio aspects Alien and more specifically Prometheus. A lot of people will be put off by that sentence but I think we can all agree that the aesthetic design of Prometheus was amazing. Subsequently, the suits, sound effects and shots focusing on isolation and scale all feel reminiscent, albeit with a warmer hue.
The only way this film would work is with an immensely magnetic and charming lead able to convey a range of emotions, keeping the audience rooted and hopeful. Much like, Tom Hanks in Cast Away (and Tom Hanks in Apollo 13 if I’m honest), without that energy and charisma, the audience will turn on you and either a.) grow bored or b.) root for your death. Matt Damon is a great acting talent (regardless of the public parroting his 2004 parody) and the humour, optimism, affability and endurance is so gosh-darned life affirming in a way that so many try to emulate and few ever achieve. The supporting cast also offer a huge amount of narrative relief despite the fact that they are, in of themselves, utter cheeseballs. I berated Interstellar for being fast-food cinema posing as high-brow and while this film suffers the same affliction, without the understated pretention, sells these stereotypes with greater success. Case in point, I’m pretty sure the supporting roles (maybe even some of the dialogue used) wouldn’t be out of place in something like Armageddon or Space Cowboys. There’s not a single ‘bad guy’ and everyone serves a very two dimensional purpose but they’re written with such realism and chemistry that you automatically dismiss that they are all basically walking stereotypes. On top of that, the convenience factor is the film’s only real problem. Everything is very straightforward, even with the cataclysmic developments and this means that in retrospect, Mark was never in any real danger. But that’s only under scrutiny, at the time, unbeknownst of the outcomes, you are emotionally committed and gripped from start to finish.
2nd October 2015
The Scene To Look Out For:
I’m going to be straight with you guys, this is a complete cop-out. Not only that, it’s a real injustice to the countless moments, developments and interactions with this film is packed with. There is a full circle moment in certain movies when pop culture is openly referenced. In this case, The Martian is an adaptation and few studios would openly acknowledge existing material which contradicts its own existence. To explain, there are references to both the Marvel Cinematic Universe and The Lord Of The Rings. This is particularly amusing as the very scenes in question feature Michael Pena and Sebastian Stan (Marvel regulars) and Sean Bean (who sat on the very council the story alludes to). I have no conclusion to this thought, whether it’s a positive, negative or I’m just overthinking it but it tickles me and I thought I’d share it with you.
Putting the exceptional Mr. Damon to one side for a minute, let’s have a look at that extensive supporting cast. As stated earlier, these individuals are a touch archetypal but that’s not to say there aren’t some really well acted performances here. I love Benedict Wong and although he’s given the typical Star Trek engineer role (“Two days!? I need at least a week!” etc) he performs wonderfully. The same goes for Kristen Wiig as the level headed, no-nonsense PR specialist or the pragmatic but completely invested director played by Jeff Daniels. Every component is perfectly cast to the degree that you are sold left, right and centre. And that is an incredible feat.
“Mark Watney, space pirate”
In A Few Words:
“It’s odd to describe a space disaster/survival film as fun but with everything executed so well, The Martian is just fun, engrossing spectacle cinema”