Well, you can’t buy publicity like that now can you? Before we get into this years solar powered SF surprise I think we need to have a little chat about Ridley Scott. I almost went to see Exodus last year purely because Sir Ridders was on viewfinder duties, there wasn’t much else out that particular weekend but the poor reviews still kept me away. For a man who began his career with the gorgeous The Duellists and then crafted two masterpieces to say his recent roll-call is a litany of critical if not commercial failures might be understating things a little, just consider this rogues gallery of indiscriminate antics – The Counselor. Body Of Lies. Robin Hood. Exodus: Gods & Kings and of course Prometheus, undoubtedly one of the biggest disappointments of the decade. There was a time when I’d go and see his movies at the cinema sight unseen, which is why I have seen 1492: Conquest Of Paradise, Hannibal and Matchstick Men on the big screen, but the recent descent has sworn me off giving him the benefit of the doubt, for one obvious reason. I’ve had the winds taken out of my sails by Kermode on his recent review show where he articulated my precise thoughts when it comes to this problem, that Scott is unquestionably one of the greatest visual stylists of his generation, but he consistently fails to shoot a good script. This repeated omission curses his films from the embryonic stage with lacklustre narrative nerve or consistent characters, marking his movies as often aesthetically arousing but incredibly frustrating experiences. Strong visual techniques can carry a lot of a films water given the intrinsic emphasis of the medium, but not a two and a half hour character orientated narrative, where you have to care and empathize with the protagonist from the initial purr of the projector. Finally however Scott seems back on track with The Martian which has done spectacular business over the weekend, and the headline is that this is his best film since Gladiator way back in 2000.
We are a mere ten or twenty years hence where Matt Damon stars in a curious sister film to another serious SF expedition which orbited multiplexes last year, although the extra vehicular activities are restrained to our own local solar system this time around. Diving head first into the narrative we’re barely given time to digest a procession of awe-inducing Mars travelogues before we zero in our principal Mark Watney, senior botanist of a seven crew scientific excursion to the Red Planet headed by Mission Captain Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain). Before our orientation can commence a cataclysmic storm overwhelms the camp, causing the astronauts to flee to their drop ship and exit the lethal atmosphere, linking up with the sub-orbital ship the Hermes which will sustain them on their 12 month mission to get home. During the frantic exfiltration disaster strikes when Mark is struck by storm blasted debris, presumed dead in the confusion and left behind, a global martyr for man’s incurable appetite for progress and adventure. When he awakes battered and bruised some hours later Mark faces a terrible situation – with dwindling resources and a severe diet he has at best mere months to live, with a four-year window for any rescue mission even if Houston realised he was still alive. It’s a SF picture in the same slipstream as Apollo 13, Contact, Gravity or Moon, of human indviduals embarking on fraught and fragile missions, rather than the melee of pew-pew guns, EVA dogfights and intergalactic colourful alien species of most space opera and comic-book cloned fare. Based on the popular novel by Andy Weir the movie pivots on an expositional technique of having Mark speak to camera in a series of visual log entries, equipping screenwriter Drew Goddard with a neat technique in communicating a wealth of plot exposition, as events back on Earth slowly challenge the true failures and demise of the mission…..
There is a desultory cargo manifest of filmmakers throwing their cameras into the unforgiving desert environments of our neighbouring barren spheroid, and many have been broken by its inhospitable climate and dramatic potential, resulting in some of the worst films of their career – De Palma’s Mission To Mars, Carpenters Ghosts Of Mars and the director of Red Planet’s entire career was lost and he never made another picture. But we’ve never quite seen the planet presented like this before and the key concept here is total immersion, as Ridley Scott’s keen visual acuity blesses the picture with a rich, seething atmosphere that ironically the real planet chemically lacks. The blend of backdrops and sets is utterly seamless and you can’t detect the CGI joins or digital bonding agent, the sets and various visual planes blurring into a cohesive digital coalesce, I saw this in 3D and my eyes thanked me for such a rich and satisfying feast. As the breadth of his predicament becomes more tangible you feel connected to Marc and his desperate tussle with the elements, with the three core periodic ingredients that we on terra firma take for granted – air, water, food – being as precious as any commodity imaginable. Quite simply Mars is breathtakingly beautiful in its unsullied, silent majesty, but rather than muse over the scale of the infinite the film has a definitive comedic tone, it’s actually quite flippant in its overall purpose, with plenty of scope for comedic asides and relief from the desperate and almost inevitable death sentence. If you have a fetish for masterfully engineered corridors, zero-G lifeboat exercises and state of the art VR interfaces then you will quite frankly be in 7th heaven, the film is a bukkake of ergonomic design porn, and from these perspectives alone a wealth of behind the scenes documentaries on the production design and scientific baseline evidence and prophecy for future missions is a must for the Blu-Ray release – I’d be fascinated to see exactly how much of Mars’s known topography has been computer extrapolated from existing satellite and survey photography.
Damon generates enough star wattage and charisma to carry the majority of the film as a likable and resourceful guy, although lines like ‘I’m gonna science the shit out of this’ really should have been hurled out of the airlock during the quality control inspection. Although The Martian is primarily his film and he dominates vast swathes of the narrative Scott has also assembled an impressive cast back home, with particular standouts being Chiwetel Ejiofor as a perennially concerned NASA boffin, a sadly underused Kristen Wiig as a beleaguered press officer and contrary to the trailers indications Jeff Daniels not adopting the evil bureaucrat role, thankfully the film avoids those atonal clichés, heck even Sean Bean gets a significant role against type and doesn’t get brutally murdered even once. There are some issues with structure as it circulates through the three areas of operation – mark’s marooned scrabble for survival, the politics at mission control and the scientists the Hermes return home which is particularly short-changed by only attracting emphasis during the third act when we really should have got to know some of the these other characters beforehand. Some cynical sorts might find some of the MacGyver or A-Team contrivances hard to entertain, particularly in the final breathless race against time, but by the time we’d got to this point I was thoroughly invested in the tale, despite the obvious decisions to evade any of the more serious psychological implications of being marooned in order to appeal to as wide a worldwide demographic as possible. There is no emphasis on the crushing alienation and loneliness that Mark would suffer as the only sentient life within a 2,000 million mile radius, nor the implications of his starvation diet, other than Damon losing a few pounds and growing an unruly beard to indicate he might be getting to the end of his good natured tether. Ridley Scott usually has an undercurrent of darkness in his films no matter the genre or source material, the black dog of depression which he has spoken about and which for obvious reasons we know runs in his family, so this might be his first completely unalloyed sunburst of optimism for both individual and our collective species future, with scientific imperatives superseding governmental ideology and nationalistic boundaries, a common humanity In that light The Martian is a film about ingenuity, human endurance and courage, of survival in the face of implacable obstacles, how intellectual and scientific disciplines can still deliver miracles in such a secular age;