When the first trailers for The Martian rolled around, showing Matt Damon in a white-and-orange spacesuit alone on a planet, people started asking the unavoidable questions – ‘So how is this different from Interstellar exactly?’ To those who have neither read the book nor seen the film, it’s this simple: while Damon’s Dr. Mann from Interstellar cannibalizes his robot assistant and knows nothing about air-locks, his Mark Watney from The Martian leaves a note in his rover and farms potatoes on Mars (forget air-locks). Jokes aside, what makes Ridley Scott’s latest stand out is the unexpected hilarity and cheekiness which persist in the face of the million dangers that come with being the sole sentient being on a desert planet. Armed with a script that juggles smart quips and how-to-science with the same hand, The Martian marks another special Ridley Scott moment in cinema; where everything comes together and works just right (not unlike the theme of the film itself).
Putting to words what rushes to everyone’s minds on seeing this film, The Martian is the child of Castaway and Apollo 13, but with an air of optimism that rivals Forrest Gump. (It’s curious just how many films can be reduced to a combination of Tom Hanks movies.) Based on the novel of the same name by Andy Weir, the film opens with the crew of Ares-III going about getting NASA’s chores on Mars done, when an unprecedented storm strikes their base. Mark Watney is a botanist and the resident jester of the crew, who can evidently see the lighter side to everything that happens to him, no matter how life-threatening they may appear. The crew, who lose Mark in the confusion of the debris-scattered winds, leaves him for dead on the red planet, as they return to their blue one. It should come as no surprise to anyone who has ever before watched a mainstream film before that as morning dawned the next day – or ‘sol’ as it’s called on space missions – so did Mark and his realization that he was now the first person to be completely alone on a planet. The rest of the film shows us two different narratives: one, the struggle for survival that Mark fights by ‘sciencing the shit out of it’ and two, the dance around red tape that NASA has to engage in. In doing so, what Scott manages is a story that is equal parts powerful and endearing, celebrating human life and ingenuity as humanity comes together to save the life of one botanist with the strongest sense of humour on any planet.
Predictability comes to be something of a serious problem when you’re not ten minutes into the film, and you can smell what’s being cooked for you from a mile away. When a film is hinged on the end-goal and where we leave the characters at the climax, an anticipated climax takes away from the film’s reach. This is avoided in The Martian which holds no pretensions of mystery, the film clearly telling us that it is less interested in ‘will they?’ and more in ‘how will they?’ With a bright poster of a smiling Matt Damon like this one has and the reassuring words ‘bring him home’, I hardly think there was ever a doubt in the audience’s minds as to the chances of the character’s survival. No, what gathers the interest of the viewers of this film is the survivor’s story that reads like a how-to manual, and what holds it further are the delicate morsels of science thrown at us every few minutes. This is in no little measure owing to the script, which with its witticisms and endearing resilience comes to be another character in the film, giving it a spirit not usual in the sci-fi genre. It is nothing but the cleverly hopeful tone and the wisecracking Mark who makes space farming and survival on Mars seem just another house-chore; nothing more than a job for which all you need to is put your best foot forward. Caught in its immersive characters, we have the screenwriter Drew Goddard – the man behind Cabin in the Woods and Marvel’s Daredevil series – to thank for creating this new atmosphere in the sci-fi genre where The Martian can cozily reside.
Let’s talk about Matt Damon and the rest of the crew of The Martian, so expertly handled by the man who gave us Bladerunner and Alien. I can see that there is certainly a pattern to Damon’s movies; and while I know the memes say it’s about just how many films are about retrieving him, the staple that he brings to the table every time is an unapologetic conviction for his role, in which he always seems the loveable smart-aleck who you can just get on board with. It’s something that few actors in the business have the ability to do – Tom Hanks and Ethan Hawke would be perfect examples – bringing just the right amount of the same whole to every production they are part of, that it doesn’t reach the point of typecasting. What Damon brings to his character Mark – who everyone on that film should be proud about – is an unflinching spirit of life and the good-natured nuances that make us feel right at home on Mars. Think about it: if you or I were left for dead on a planet 50 million kilometres away, with no chance of rescue for another four years and no supplies to last more than one, we would probably be kicking the boxes of potatoes while slowly arriving at acceptance. What Mark Watney does in the same situation is start recording his logs, do some math and get to work on figuring out how to be the first person to cultivate food on Mars. Now I’m sure being a botanist helps with that, but no one wants to see a film about a really cheerful and hopeful guy who ends up starving to death.
What the first act of the film, for which time perspective is focused on Mark and his space-botany, does is give the audience a friend they can kick back with, and know to rely on in the face of adversity. Imagine actually spending those 500-something sols on Mars with Mark Watney, and see how his unapologetically fresh and endearing banter would rub off on you. As I said before, Ridley Scott cleverly manipulates his way around the problem of predictability in this film – the problem being that it follows the structure of stories we’ve heard before – by bombarding us with the comfort that is our companion on the journey. As Mark would say, our question shouldn’t be whether he will make it off, but how exactly he’s going to make that happen. When it boils down to it, that’s what the movie is about: putting your best foot forward to solve the problem, as opposed to the paranoid despair that comes with acceptance, and Matt Damon pulls it off where Sandra Bullock, Mathew McConaughey and himself have fallen before.
As I was leaving the theatre with a smile on my face, the first thing I was told was ‘wow, that film had a random huge cast.’ It certainly is an interesting mix of people to throw headfirst into a Ridley Scott space epic: the comparison to Interstellar complete with Matt Damon and Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels channelling his inner NASA-director, Kate Mara off her embarrassing turn in Fant4stic, a Sean Bean who is surprisingly alive at end-credits, Kristen Wiig, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sebastian Stan and Michael Pena from Marvel Studios, and the Childish Gambino. If for some goddamned reason, you think this cast wouldn’t lead to some of the best moments on screen, just wait for the scene where they make a Lord of the Rings reference with Sean Bean in the room. The cast is simply spectacular, all holding their own and interacting effortlessly with each other – surprising too, the names seemingly too big to mingle – showing them as one well-oiled machine even when separated across two planets for the whole of the movie. There’s also something about small conversation and the mundane nature of people’s lives outside the NASA that Scott manages to strike the right chords with, showing us that people have lives beyond this one event and aren’t incapable of getting caught up in other human emotions. A particular light moment Chiwetel’s Dr. Kapoor shares with Mackenzie Davis’ Mindy Park, trying to read one of Mark’s explicit messages in different tones expresses what I find fresh about this film better than anything else: that everyone’s lives don’t revolve around this incident, and the ironic hilarity of talking to someone who you can’t physically rescue for another year. Unlike the sustained air of excitement, frenzy and courage that tends to hang over every line spoken in these films, The Martian presents us a more realistic take on what perhaps actually goes on at the space agency.
Speaking of NASA, another dish the film brings to the table is the perspective offered from the agency, and all the people and laws that get in the way of what films before have shown to be the simpler part of the mission: getting the green light for the mission. In a way, this juxtaposition of the characters’ battle against the laws of nature on one side and against the laws of humans on the other has something to say of human civilization and the ironic similarity between lawlessness (Mark describes that Mars is technically international waters outside laws, in a bid to arrive at the conclusion that he’s a space pirate) and societies founded on laws that tend to restrict the human spirit. It is clear that it is drawn from Andy Weir’s novel and the credit must go to him, but even then it’s not too often you get to take a massive budget for a space movie and have the liberty to add a lot of inner-agency and media politics that complement the situation well.
That is, not unless you’re Ridley Scott of course. The brain behind the universally acclaimed Alien, and the at-first dumped Blade Runner which on release of the director’s cut was heralded as masterpiece, has had his share of ups and downs in his career. And at this point, it’s more than safe to say that The Martian stands tall over his last two – Exodus: Gods and Kings and The Counselor – and gazing respectfully at his past goliaths. This new Scott soon-to-be classic has that same intelligent and imaginative tone as Alien but with a voice borrowed from his more underrated comedies such as Thelma and Louise. And paired alongside a cast who are all arguably at the peak of their respective careers (except for Sean Bean of course, but you can never go wrong with Lord Eddard Stark as the moral voice at NASA), with an especially endearing and laudable performance by Matt Damon, The Martian is surely not a film to miss, and especially from the theatres.
I haven’t yet gotten to the cinematography and visuals yet, which are equally breathtaking and capable of making you wonder who the hell had kidnapped and held Ridley Scott for the past few years. The barren deserts of Mars have never before looked so exciting and humbling, matching with the perspective the movie carries with it, one not of doubtless hope but of methodical work and ingenuity to take on the meanest mountain or planet, in this case. The film handles the adequately short moments of suspense and tension also excellently; from the scene where Mark pulls out an antenna from his abdomen to the one where Houston attempts to decode what Mark is doing up there. All of this brilliance plays out to the only music on the red planet: Lewis’ disco collection which turns out as good work music for Mark to get going, and for us to join in the ride that gets him off the planet. Sure, toward the end of the second act, there are times when the film feels a little rushed and convenient, but it never is jarring enough to take away from the experience. And you can only nitpick so much, when the mission has as many hindrances as it does lucky strikes. I end by just saying this: yesterday, I walked out of the theatre with a wide grin for having had the chance to watch a new Ridley Scott classic.