One of the most enduring mysteries of our time is whether Ridley Scott is any good. Often cited as a visionary director, he has pounded out classic after classic. On the other hand, he has shredded some of our monomyths into forgettable pulp, practically eliminating stories that had survived in the public imagination for eons with his ruthless mediocrity. Will anyone ever be excited again for a new Robin Hood or Moses tale?. Complicating the matter, he is quite vocal in his interpretations of his own films. Famously, he built a tragic masterpiece in Blade Runner by resting on the ambiguity of Ford’s character, then flip flopped on it for thirty years with Director’s Cuts and public statements. Most recently, he is throwing Lindelof under the bus and reworking the connection between Alien and Prometheus. Is he, is he fucking with us? The Martian, which finds Scott in crowd pleasing mode, is another question mark. As an adaptation, the film is smart, funny, and perfectly crafted. But there’s no edges on this thing, it’s been sanded down to have zero friction with few scenes that are surprising or creative. The Martian makes it clear that Scott is a very capable man working from enjoyable source material, but this film reveals more about movie making engine than the people involved in creating it.
The world of the Martian is a progressive future about a decade or two ahead of us. Space travel has reignited with regular martian missions. This time, something goes wrong and an affable Matt Damon is left alone on the surface of Mars while the rest of the crew begins its ten month skedaddle home. In theory, this makes the Martian an intimate survival story akin to a red-colored All Is Lost. In practice we get the furthest thing from; an ultra hip problem solving maelstrom. Damon is likeable and witty but very broad, a sardonic boy trapped in a well getting news coverage. The supporting Earth cast is shallower, featuring the likes of Jeff Daniels as Furrowed Brow, Jessica Chastain as Worried Look, and Donald Glover as Nerd. Just to raise this point once and then drop it, the overlap of casting between this and Interstellar is unfortunate, drawing immediate comparisons to a much more ambitious film. The clever central conceit finds Damon vlogging to record his potential last thoughts and actions. He is chattering constantly, but you don’t really find out much about the character until he shuts up while on excursions into Mar’s airless freezing vacuum. In the film’s most effective moments, the fully suited Damon is more expressive and vulnerable than the bare. He does sell the eureka moments very well though.
Eurekas! in this film are the stand-ins for fight scenes. Honestly, it’s a nice change of pace for an industry that equates suspense with violence. There’s some outliers, but about 90% of Scott’s (and Hollywood’s) output is weapon based, swords and guns, supremacy. For those of us who aren’t Visigoths, the Martian is much more relatable. Damon’s bulwark against the uncaring planet is scrappy resourcefulness, and somewhat uniquely for a film it’s skill based on scientific knowledge. Science, the savior of mankind in hostile climes. Of course, this thesis statement is printed right on the DVD cover, as Damon excitedly exclaims he will “science the shit” out of his myriad of problems. Unfortunately a few things on the balance sheet are never explained. Damon seems to have no resources, but the real heroes like the Sharper Image oxygen producer and Britta infinite water recycler seem to be glossed over. For a movie about science solving problems, the Martian is Science-lite, same great results but explanations are handwaved like a harried dad explaining a car engine to his churlish snot-nosed kid. Perhaps this is a casualty of the transition from book to movie, where reams of explanation must be condensed to two-or-less visual cues. The Martian’s greased rails do not slow down as we pass by the problems, choosing to use the science as flavor rather than for tactile realism. It’s not a moral choice, it works in favor of the film in some ways to stop the struggle from turning into a classroom didactic. But it is a disappointing waste of potential for those who admire complexity and want to know how the watch works.
Even simplified, The Martian remains compelling because Mars is interesting and plugs into our astronaut loving history. Space is cool, and there are some nice callbacks to the actual history of exploring our little corner of it. The parts of the Martian consisting of Damon cruising around red canyons and digging ditches is panoramic, meditative, and fun. The climactic sequences are a little late to the party that Gravity threw, but have their own fun spin. Unfortunately the non-Ares portions of the film do not have any such saving grace. Highlighting the problems of turning a story like this into a snappy thriller, the Earthlings suck all the air out of the room with their forced theatre to heighten the dramatic tension. All of the actors are fine, but the beats are hit in such a rush that the press conferences come off like Reno 911 bits, riffing on the moment with no real audience or reality. We’re given hardly any idea what the world thinks of the martian crisis, except for the unfortunate five minutes spliced into the film concerning China (which comes off like a foreign investor prospectus sequence that Scott forgot to edit out). It’s too bad because there are interesting dilemmas brought up. Is the cost to save this guy worth it? In the rush to get back to Mars, NASA burns through perhaps several billion dollars in equipment, man hours, and rocket launches (a shuttle launch cost $450 million when they were still flying), not to mention other lives that get put on the line. There’s a good argument that space travel enriches our society, but it’s M.I.A. in this film along with any serious discussion of the conflict. I like Matt Damon, but not 3 billion dollars like. How many people’s lives could be saved by that money on Earth? A thousand? A million? How do we reconcile that with no man left behind? I don’t have a good answer but the Martian doesn’t have any thoughts on the matter, just feelings of duty. The end result is a rescue plan which is frankly insane, but is sold through filmic language as the best, moral choice. Perhaps we could have avoided this entirely; the movie’s title may have been better served with a few tweaks to emphasize sustainability on the red surface and play down the desperate escape gamble.
So parts of the Martian work great and other parts are middling. This is a movie with a vision that is limited, but appreciable: better living through pushing our boundaries. It plays a small trick by starting in the future, it makes our footfalls on the surface of Mars almost mundane before demonstrating the sheer force of will it takes to get us there and keep us alive. That’s a smart premise and a snappy script that will at least keep you awake as it plays out. It’s not likely to be long remembered, but perhaps Scott’s aspirations were smaller, for a nice tight film. Ironically the film’s message ties into our largest aspirations as a civilization, transcending our wet rock and taking our problems with us to bold new vistas. In this respect, The Martian is a nice piece of futurology, set apart from its space film competitors (the likes of Gravity, Interstellar, Apollo 13) by its optimism.