Skip to main content

Okay, let's do the math.

The Martian
(2015)

(SPOILERS) Reactions to The Martian appear to be generally laudatory, along the lines that (Sir) Ridley Scott has gone and done it again, even if that again is a decade and a half since his last all-round-acclaimed picture. There’s no doubting The Martian is an accomplished picture, expertly made and equipped with a solid script from Drew Goddard (adapted from Andy Weir’s novel). But it’s also overlong and frequently cheesy in choice of dialogue, musical cues and presentation of science to the great unwashed. Crucially, despite an invested performance from Matt Damon, the movie never really gets under the skin of its protagonist marooned on an alien planet. The picture always has somewhere else to go or something else that needs to happen, in fulfilment of its mission to remain relentlessly upbeat.


Some have already suggested this picture succeeds where wannabes Gravity or Interstellar fail, but I’m not really sure it does. Or rather, I’m not sure maligning those pictures, also replete with faults just different ones, is in the movie’s favour. The Martian sets up a very limited, stable agenda and proceeds to work through it scrupulously; as such, there’s something very mechanical about its processes. This is a movie so pedestrian in scope, it even has the gall to appropriate Bowie’s Starman without a trace of irony.


Apparently, much of the style of humour and pop culture referencing of The Martian is present in the novel. Perhaps that’s what attracted Goddard, a veteran of Buffy and Angel, to adapt it. The characterisation of Damon’s doggedly upbeat Martian landscape gardener Mark Watney positively reeks of the glib repartee abundant in Joss Whedon’s oeuvre. This sort of snappy patter wouldn’t be out of place in Avengers, where you can spot an oh-so clever Whedon line a mile off (because most of them are interchangeable between characters), and often thinks it’s funny than it actually is. 


Don’t get me wrong; I’ve been a big fan of Whedon’s work in the past, but his approach very much is not an all-purpose fits all, not if you seeking to eke out any sense of depth. There’s a thin line between natural brio and a smug smartass, and Watney frequently topples over the wrong side. Whether it’s his overdone griping about the ‘70s disco collection of Commander Lewis (Jessica Chastain), complete with the unendearing smearing of hits across the soundtrack (and why would the only watchable media be Happy Days; surely they’d at least have The Wire – come to think of it, where’s all Watney’s music and movies?), or his self-satisfied claim to be a pirate, or the aggravatingly cocky “In your face, Neil Armstrong!” this kind of dialogue only emphasises the distinction between what the picture needs and what it has; any real sense of resonance resulting from Watney’s plight.


Because it’s a good basic premise, Castaway on Mars (even if it’s been done several times before; Marooned, Robinson Crusoe on Mars). And, when it comes to the set pieces, Scott more than comes up with the goods. In particular, the opening lift off amid a Martian storm offers edge-of-the-seat thrills of the first order. But Scott’s staunchly methodical approach, which has been his only approach post-Gladiator career resurgence, cannot furnish the material with anything more than what-you-see-is-what-you-get.


The screenplay is geared to piling event after event, be it on Mars, the Hermes, or back at Mission Control, so there’s no time for the implications to sink in, less still any kind of existential musing (well, one character asks another if he believes in God at one point, but it’s only in service of trotting out the most inane of clichés that they are going to need all the help they can get).


Whilst we are shown Watney growing crops, talking to camera, communicating with NASA, even experiencing a down-in-the-dumps moment after (in another gripping scene) he loses his careful nurtured tatties, there’s a sense this is only ever surface detail. He has no real interior life, nor is there an appreciation of long empty stretches of time passing in isolation, partly because Scott has no interest in such things but also because the screenplay is compelled to get us onto the next incident of problem solving.


I get that Watney is an irrepressibly positive guy, the guy who “never stopped fighting to make it home” and so isn’t going to dwell on the negative if he can help it, but it’s a trait that becomes irksome rather than endearing after a certain point and works against really rooting for him (of course Damon, in contrast to Watney, has discovered over the least few weeks that sometimes its better to nurse a well-considered comment rather than leap right in there and have it picked apart by all-comers). Additionally, while it ensures the viewer remains invested in the plot, switching perspectives to Earth or the Hermes means we’re induced to forget about Watney for significant sections. Ultimately, your appreciation of The Martian will be significantly impacted by your tolerance levels for Matt being really chummy.


A gradual air of predictability also creeps in to the proceedings, something you want to avoid in a picture extending well over the two-hour mark, such that you’re willing it to wrap things up long before Scott (notorious for keeping things long/epic/over-indulged) is ready. It’s telling he’s got a 20-minute longer cut in the offing.


One thing the school of Whedon tends to do well is define its characters economically. As such, there’s never any danger that everyone here (and there are quite a few in the mix) will get lost in the throng. Some of them veer too far into cliché territory (notably Sean Bean’s Mitch Henderson), and with others you can hear Weir’s/Goddard’s geek talking through them (The Lord of the Rings, Iron Man) or furnished with standard smart mouth dialogue (when mostly earnest Chiwetel Ejiofor starts cracking wise) but mostly they are cast are able to make themselves clearly known in a few short strokes. In particular, Chastain, Jeff Daniels and Michael Peña (surely officially now the most loved supporting player in movies today) stand out.


Several newcomers make an impression too, for reasons good and bad. Mackenzie Davis is surely a next big young thing as the young NASA operative who establishes the fact of Watley’s survival. However, Donald Glover is supposed to be the adorably eccentric nerd (who works out how Watley can be rescued) but has a big sign hanging around his neck saying “self-consciously aspergic whacky guy”.


His character (Rich Purnell) also delivers one of series of “explain it in English” lectures on the science of what is planned at any given point that become increasingly patronising. He posits Daniels and Kristen Wiig as planets and a plots a course between them. Later we get bloody Lewis explaining a manoeuvre to her crew with salt and pepper pots. I never had an enormous amount of patience with MacGyver (although I didn’t mind Burn Notice doing it so much), and The Martian’s persistence in lacing its plot with problems its characters must “science the shit out of” becomes a crutch that could have been avoided, since initially, when its confined to Watney, it’s diverting and engrossing.


Many of these scenes are very good, from his attempts to refine water and grow a crop, to retrieving the Mars Pathfinder and then setting up effective communication with Mission Control. Even the red herring of trying to make it to the planned site of the future Ares 4 mission intrigues. Athough, even if feasible, sitting next to decaying Plutonium in order to keep warm surely can’t be a rational or sensible decision if one wants any kind of lifespan (I was similarly askance that he would settle for a sheet of polythene protecting his delicate environment in the crippled Mars base).


On Earth too, the political manoeuvring of Daniel’s Teddy Sanders, whom Goddard pulls back from making an outright villain but ensures is cynically calculated when it comes to key decisions, avoids everyone being sickeningly well-meaning (even if, ultimately, Sanders is). I also like the Chinese coming to the rescue. Less commendably, every other scene seems to consist of someone telling someone else “You have to do it faster than that!” Then there’s the “all for one” decision of the Ares 3 crew, which can’t avoid being corny through and through, but less so than the cheese-laden global vigil for their rendezvous with Watney.


While much has been proclaimed about the scientific accuracy of the picture, I found myself shaking my head in disbelief during the climax when Watney uses the forced depressurisation of his spacesuit to let out just enough of a little tommy squeaker to direct him into the arms of his nurturing commander. Until that point, the rescue mission finale is first rate (the aforementioned gathered crowds watching on TV aside; as if anyone these days could be bothered to get out of bed – it’s almost as if the space race never died, and people still get about space travel excited just like they did in the ‘60s…)


Where does The Martian stand in the Mars-related pantheon? Obviously, it can wear its scientific accuracy as a badge of pride, which it has done ad nauseam to anyone who will pay attention, although Corey Goode might have a thing or two to say about the planet being otherwise uninhabited during Matt’s tenure there. To be honest, while I haven’t revisited them since, I found both the much-maligned Mission to Mars and Red Planet quite watchable. But most of them, even Total Recall, Capricorn One and Mars Attacks! fail to achieve greatness (John Carter falls into the okay but somewhat lacking camp). Some special cases (Ghosts of Mars) downright stink. This one, it doesn't shame them, but it's in no way leading the pack. 


Scott’s visual prowess is never less than evident here, from the stylishly designed Mars climate suits (up there with those from Prometheus) to the Kubrick-variant artificial gravity spacecraft. I’m unconvinced the natural 3D adds much to the experience though, a couple of shots aside. And it’s quite clear the old boy is going through the motions with the soundtrack, which is disappointing. Harry Gregson-Williams score is an improvement on Prometheus, but this is a director who once had Vangelis and Tangerine Dream making his movies’ music as influential as the images he conjured. As for the pop-tastic tunes, one montage set to Abba’s Waterloo (following the Starman montage) is one redundant montage too many.


If nothing else, The Martian is evidence that these days Scott is only as good as his next screenplay. Which makes this a decent, agreeable movie, but conversely not nearly as interesting and peculiar as the flawed The Counselor. Keep at it, Sir Ridders, you might yet get someone to write you a bona fide classic during your ninth decade.


Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Who’s got the Figgy Port?

Loki (2021) (SPOILERS) Can something be of redeemable value and shot through with woke (the answer is: Mad Max: Fury Road )? The two attributes certainly sound essentially irreconcilable, and Loki ’s tendencies – obviously, with new improved super-progressive Kevin Feige touting Disney’s uber-agenda – undeniably get in the way of what might have been a top-tier MCU entry from realising its full potential. But there are nevertheless solid bursts of highly engaging storytelling in the mix here, for all its less cherishable motivations. It also boasts an effortlessly commanding lead performance from Tom Hiddleston; that alone puts Loki head and shoulders above the other limited series thus far.

Here’s Bloody Justice for you.

Laughter in Paradise (1951) (SPOILERS) The beginning of a comedic run for director-producer Mario Zampa that spanned much of the 1950s, invariably aided by writers Michael Pertwee and Jack Davies (the latter went on to pen a spate of Norman Wisdom pictures including The Early Bird , and also comedy rally classic Monte Carlo or Bust! ) As usual with these Pertwee jaunts, Laughter in Paradise boasts a sparky premise – renowned practical joker bequeaths a fortune to four relatives, on condition they complete selected tasks that tickle him – and more than enough resultant situational humour.

Damn prairie dog burrow!

Tremors (1990) (SPOILERS) I suspect the reason the horror comedy – or the sci-fi comedy, come to that – doesn’t tend to be the slam-dunk goldmine many assume it must be, is because it takes a certain sensibility to do it right. Everyone isn’t a Joe Dante or Sam Raimi, or a John Landis, John Carpenter, Edgar Wright, Christopher Landon or even a Peter Jackson or Tim Burton, and the genre is littered with financial failures, some of them very good failures (and a good number of them from the names mentioned). Tremors was one, only proving a hit on video (hence six sequels at last count). It also failed to make Ron Underwood a directing legend.

You nicknamed my daughter after the Loch Ness Monster?

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2 (2012) The final finale of the Twilight saga, in which pig-boy Jacob tells Bella that, “No, it's not like that at all!” after she accuses him of being a paedo. But then she comes around to his viewpoint, doubtless displaying the kind of denial many parents did who let their kids spend time with Jimmy Savile or Gary Glitter during the ‘70s. It's lucky little Renesmee will be an adult by the age of seven, right? Right... Jacob even jokes that he should start calling Edward, “Dad”. And all the while they smile and smile.

I’m just glad Will Smith isn’t alive to see this.

The Tomorrow War (2021) (SPOILERS). Not so much tomorrow as yesterday. There’s a strong sense of déjà vu watching The Tomorrow War , so doggedly derivative is it of every time-travel/alien war/apocalyptic sci-fi movie of the past forty years. Not helping it stand out from the pack are doughy lead Chris Pratt, damned to look forever on the beefy side no matter how ripped he is and lacking the chops or gravitas for straight roles, and debut live-action director Chris McKay, who manages to deliver the goods in a serviceably anonymous fashion.

Why don't we go on a picnic, up the hill?

Invaders from Mars (1986) (SPOILERS) One can wax thematical over the number of remakes of ’50s movies in the ’80s – and ’50s SF movies in particular – and of how they represent ever-present Cold War and nuclear threats, and steadily increasing social and familial paranoias and disintegrating values. Really, though, it’s mostly down to the nostalgia of filmmakers for whom such pictures were formative influences (and studios hoping to make an easy buck on a library property). Tobe Hooper’s version of nostalgia, however, is not so readily discernible as a John Carpenter or a David Cronenberg (not that Cronenberg could foment such vibes, any more than a trip to the dental hygienist). Because his directorial qualities are not so readily discernible. Tobe Hooper movies tend to be a bit shit. Which makes it unsurprising that Invaders from Mars is a bit shit.

What's a movie star need a rocket for anyway?

The Rocketeer (1991) (SPOILERS) The Rocketeer has a fantastic poster. One of the best of the last thirty years (and while that may seem like faint praise, what with poster design being a dying art – I’m looking at you Marvel, or Amazon and the recent The Tomorrow War – it isn’t meant to be). The movie itself, however, tends towards stodge. Unremarkable pictures with a wide/cult fanbase, conditioned by childhood nostalgia, are ten-a-penny – Willow for example – and in this case, there was also a reasonably warm critical reception. But such an embrace can’t alter that Joe Johnston makes an inveterately bland, tepid movie director. His “feel” for period here got him The First Avenger: Captain America gig, a bland, tepid movie tending towards stodge. So at least he’s consistent.

I'm offering you a half-share in the universe.

Doctor Who Season 8 – Worst to Best I’m not sure I’d watched Season Eight chronologically before. While I have no hesitation in placing it as the second-best Pertwee season, based on its stories, I’m not sure it pays the same dividends watched as a unit. Simply, there’s too much Master, even as Roger Delgado never gets boring to watch and the stories themselves offer sufficient variety. His presence, turning up like clockwork, is inevitably repetitive. There were no particular revelatory reassessments resulting from this visit, then, except that, taken together – and as The Directing Route extra on the Blu-ray set highlights – it’s often much more visually inventive than what would follow. And that Michael Ferguson should probably have been on permanent attachment throughout this era.

As in the hokey kids’ show guy?

A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood (2019) (SPOILERS) I don’t think Mr Rogers could have been any creepier had Kevin Spacey played him. It isn’t just the baggage Tom Hanks brings, and whether or not he’s the adrenochrome lord to the stars and/or in Guantanamo and/or dead and/or going to make a perfectly dreadful Colonel Tom Parker and an equally awful Geppetto; it’s that his performance is so constipated and mannered an imitation of Mr Rogers’ genuineness that this “biopic” takes on a fundamentally sinister turn. His every scene with a youngster isn’t so much exuding benevolent empathy as suggestive of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang ’s Child Catcher let loose in a TV studio (and again, this bodes well for Geppetto). Extend that to A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood ’s conceit, that Mr Rogers’ life is one of a sociopathic shrink milking angst from his victims/patients in order to get some kind of satiating high – a bit like a rejuvenating drug, on that score – and you have a deeply unsettli

Somewhere out there is a lady who I think will never be a nun.

The Sound of Music (1965) (SPOILERS) One of the most successful movies ever made – and the most successful musical – The Sound of Music has earned probably quite enough unfiltered adulation over the years to drown out the dissenting voices, those that denounce it as an inveterately saccharine, hollow confection warranting no truck. It’s certainly true that there are impossibly nice and wholesome elements here, from Julie Andrews’ career-dooming stereotype governess to the seven sonorous children more than willing to dress up in old curtains and join her gallivanting troupe. Whether the consequence is something insidious in its infectious spirit is debatable, but I’ll admit that it manages to ensnare me. I don’t think I’d seen the movie in its entirety since I was a kid, and maybe that formativeness is a key brainwashing facet of its appeal, but it retains its essential lustre just the same.