Ridley Scott, 2015, USA
Matt Damon, due to a storm is left for dead on Mars, but he isn’t dead and, realising his fellow astronauts have gone, has to use science to survive whilst hoping for a rescue. Yet there is something tonally about the film that tells you that this is not about if he will survive and get back home, but how. Certainly the upbeat disco soundtrack helps. And there is nothing inherently wrong with that emphasis, allowing more for a concentration on problem-solving than dread. What this also means is that the science better be convincing if not accurate because that’s where the wonder mostly will be. Especially since the Martian vistas seem strangely lacking in wonder. What it does have instead is humour, and that’s okay too although this is to mitigate the dread rather than to add texture. Its lack of existential angst leaves it surprisingly and positively free of religion, but it also leaves it shallow. This is also surprising in the light of the somewhat God-bothering tone of Ridley’s “Prometheus”: “The Martian” seems to say that there’s little time for that here.
Drew Goddard’s screenplay, based on Andy Weir’s book (and previously responsible for ‘Cabin in the Woods’), offers little on the human condition as sciencing the shit out of everything takes centre-stage, which is probably a good way to contain the lack of character depth; that, and the actors are expert at fleshing things out. It’s a strong roll call. Matt Damon constantly looks to draw out the comic potential of the script and succeeds. The rest of the cast are mostly straight men, as if they are an audience attempting to rescue a one-man show. The direction, however, doesn’t possess any distinctive trademarks that tell you this has been helmed by more than a competent director: it’s all very slick, the effects seamless but nothing truly idiosyncratic or memorable. Yet, as Tim Robey notes,
Compared with the heaving verbosity of other recent Scott pictures (Exodus, say), all the chatter here feels better matched with his obsessions, at least: it’s a film about micromanaging, fixing things on the fly, and a lot of Ridley’s gruff, technocrat personality shines through.
The matter-of-factness that conveys the drama along with the humour and lightness of tone that roots it in a believability also goes someway to highlighting its prosaic qualities. For all its flaws, there are moments of genuine awe in “Interstellar” and it is a curious thing that Ridley Scott’s “The Martian” doesn’t seem to pause in the right places for a similar awe to set in.
What we do get is a mainstream ensemble piece with all the effects and lightness of tone needed to be a crowd-pleaser. And it is surely too long, even if this to accommodatethe time it takes to work things out. I am sure those in the know will be able to pick apart some of the science – for example, apparently Mars would never have such a storm – but the prominence of it is winning. Also pleasing is that it avoids resorting to a bad guy to spice things up; we might think Jeff Daniels will play that part but he doesn’t as this is not that film. In fact, the positivity of the coming-together tone at conclusion might be seen to be the most implausible element of the film; but by that stage, it surely comes as no surprise.
Compared to the films it might be held up against – ‘Moon’ and ‘Interstellar’ or ‘Silent Running’ – ‘The Martian’ is more playful and shallow and agreeable rather than poignant.