[Note: This review contains mild spoilers, but nothing that will interfere with your enjoyment of the movie]
It’s about damn time.
Time for what? Well, for the longest while science-fiction Cinema has been preoccupied with depicting mankind and the future in the most morbid, pessimistic way possible. If it isn’t aliens or machines out to destroy us, it’s us humans screwing ourselves over. Mind you, I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that, as the best sci-fi out there today also happens to be the bleakest (“Ex Machina”, the new “Planet Of The Apes” films). But wouldn’t it be nice to get something optimistic for a change? “The Martian” replies with a resounding YES. Here’s a film that celebrates the best of mankind, a film that says maybe we’re not so bad as a species after all. That our knowledge in science & technology is the reason for our success and salvation, rather than our downfall.
Speaking of overdue, I’m so happy to see Ridley Scott finally back in top form. I mean, this is a director who made one of last year’s worst films in “Exodus: Gods & Kings”, and whose form in the last decade has been inconsistent at best (perfectly exemplified in the highly divisive “Prometheus”). I’m convinced that the Ridley Scott of today needs very strong material to shine. In his early days, he was able to take so-so or troublesome material and elevate it to the level of greatness. “Blade Runner” and “Alien” are prime examples, and funnily enough these films are also masterclasses in pessimistic sci-fi. So when he came across Andy Weir’s best-selling novel, he knew right away he had to make it. His instincts have proven right on the money.
The premise is simple yet catchy. NASA astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) and the crew of the Ares III are on Mars when a dust storm forces everyone to evacuate, minus Watney who is presumed dead and left behind. Now he has to figure out a way to survive for four long years on supplies that are only meant to last a month, while awaiting rescue. Think of it as “Castaway” meets “Apollo 13”.
The book, adapted with impressive faithfulness by Drew Goddard (more on that later), has provided the veteran filmmaker a rock-solid platform to showcase his considerable gifts as a visualist and master of the tight edit. A Ridley Scott film is always going to look absolutely gorgeous. But this time there is purpose to the beauty as well. The Mars environment, the sets, the space suits, and the vehicles may be a bit more Hollywood-ised than NASA’s purely utilitarian (read: ugly) designs would have them, but they all add up to visually tell Weir’s story even better than Weir could on the page.
I’ve read the book, and while it is gloriously, unapologetically geeky and funny as hell, it’s not particularly cinematic. Scott’s incredible eye for detail plus his talent for world-building transports us directly to the surface of the Red Planet and keeps us deeply immersed in Watney’s fight for survival. You rarely find a science-fiction milieu as believable and tangible as this. It’s almost like a glimpse of what might actually come to pass in the future. In fact, there’s an alarming number of people who think that the film is based on a true story. I’m not kidding, look it up here.
Of course, a lot of that realism comes from the book’s extensively researched, real-world science. An even bigger pleasure lies in how the hero applies his knowledge of science to grow food, fix stuff, communicate with Earth, and generally not die. But here’s also where a written medium has the advantage over a visual medium. On paper, there’s ample room to explain exactly how Watney solves problems and in the process you get to appreciate the full extent of his intelligence and resourcefulness. On screen, you have to be sparing with exposition. The thing is, Scott and Godard tend to be a bit too sparing and err on the side of oversimplification, leaving some things unsaid or insufficiently fleshed out. Judging the movie version of Mark Watney purely on its on terms, he still comes off as a space-age MacGyver even if you don’t fully understand what he’s doing sometimes.
By and large however, Goddard has done a fantastic job adapting the source material. He’s managed to preserve (most of) the brainy stuff while streamlining a lot of the narrative to make it more focused, more involving. That, combined with Scott’s disciplined editing — the man’s known to be ruthless in paring down his films into the shortest, most compact form possible — and you have a film that just flies by at a brisk pace. While we’re never in doubt as to the final fate of the hero, especially when the 3rd act basically reduces his challenges down to a really long road trip, Ridley plays it in such a way as to keep us constantly invested in everything that’s happening. No mean feat considering many scenes involve a bunch of tech people spewing technical jargon.
The other outstanding quality of Weir’s novel is the humour, and it’s made it into the film pretty much intact, barring a few priceless jokes that I wish they’d included. The book’s funnier, but the movie is hilarious enough on its own. It features one of the most awesome in-jokes of all time, thanks to a perfect casting choice coupled with a reference to “The Lord Of The Rings”. Trust me, you’ll know it when you see it, and you’ll probably bust your gut laughing as hard as I did.
It’s a shame Matt Damon doesn’t take on more comedic roles, because he’s got terrific comic timing. More than that, Damon is the heart and soul of the film. He sells the admirable intellect of his character in a casually can-do manner, while conveying warmth and endearing vulnerability. The supporting cast don’t get as many opportunities to stand out, though they all deliver solid performances. Chiwetel Ejiofor and Jeff Daniels have a couple of strong moments playing off each other as NASA administrators butting heads over how to save Watney. I also like the Ares III crew, who somehow manage to feel like distinct individuals despite minimal character development. Jessica Chastain and Michael Pena are the most memorable of the bunch.
The movie’s good-natured vibe (further enhanced by the use of disco songs) is quite unlike anything we’ve seen from Scott before, and I have to say it’s quite refreshing. There are no villains here, mankind is shown working together to care for one of their own regardless of nationality or politics, people in positions of power are depicted as being good at their jobs (hey, this IS a work of fiction), and it’s a sci-fi film where [spoiler] no one dies! Considering it has Sean Bean in it, that’s saying a lot.
And it’s certainly about damn time someone made a really good movie about Mars — and one that’s not a bomb (its opening weekend came close to breaking Box Office records). It stops just short of being great due to the script’s occasional reluctance to let the science shine through, and Ridley Scott’s penchant for applying a tad too much restraint in both storytelling and characterisation. Still, “The Martian” is a light, fun adventure that pleases the eye, engages the head, and warms the heart. More like this, please.