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

No matter how innocent you are, or how hard you try, they’ll find you guilty.

The Wrong Man (1956) (SPOILERS) I hate to say it, but old Truffaut called it right on this one. More often than not showing obeisance to the might of Hitchcock during his career-spanning interview, the French critic turned director was surprisingly blunt when it came to The Wrong Man . He told Hitch “ your style, which has found its perfection in the fiction area, happens to be in total conflict with the aesthetics of the documentary and that contradiction is apparent throughout the picture ”. There’s also another, connected issue with this, one Hitch acknowledged: too much fidelity to the true story upon which the film is based.

He’s so persistent! He always gets his man.

Speed (1994) (SPOILERS) It must have been a couple of decades since I last viewed Speed all the way through, so it’s pleasing to confirm that it holds up. Sure, Jan de Bont’s debut as a director can’t compete with the work of John McTiernan, for whom he acted as cinematographer and who recommended de Bont when he passed on the picture, but he nevertheless does a more than competent work. Which makes his later turkeys all the more tragic. And Keanu and Sandra Bullock display the kind of effortless chemistry you can’t put a price tag on. And then there’s Dennis Hopper, having a great old sober-but-still-looning time.

Another case of the screaming oopizootics.

Doctor Who Season 14 – Worst to Best The best Doctor Who season? In terms of general recognition and unadulterated celebration, there’s certainly a strong case to be made for Fourteen. The zenith of Robert Holmes and Philip Hinchcliffe’s plans for the series finds it relinquishing the cosy rapport of the Doctor and Sarah in favour of the less-trodden terrain of a solo adventure and underlying conflict with new companion Leela. More especially, it finds the production team finally stretching themselves conceptually after thoroughly exploring their “gothic horror” template over the course of the previous two seasons (well, mostly the previous one).

He is a brigand and a lout. Pay him no serious mention.

The Wind and the Lion (1975) (SPOILERS) John Milius called his second feature a boy’s-own adventure, on the basis of the not-so-terrified responses of one of those kidnapped by Sean Connery’s Arab Raisuli. Really, he could have been referring to himself, in all his cigar-chomping, gun-toting reactionary glory, dreaming of the days of real heroes. The Wind and the Lion rather had its thunder stolen by Jaws on release, and it’s easy to see why. As polished as the picture is, and simultaneously broad-stroke and self-aware in its politics, it’s very definitely a throwback to the pictures of yesteryear. Only without the finger-on-the-pulse contemporaneity of execution that would make Spielberg and Lucas’ genre dives so memorable in a few short years’ time.

But everything is wonderful. We are in Paris.

Cold War (2018) (SPOILERS) Pawel Pawlikowski’s elliptical tale – you can’t discuss Cold War without saying “elliptical” at least once – of frustrated love charts a course that almost seems to be a caricature of a certain brand of self-congratulatorily tragic European cinema. It was, it seems “ loosely inspired ” by his parents (I suspect I see where the looseness comes in), but there’s a sense of calculation to the progression of this love story against an inescapable political backdrop that rather diminishes it.

The game is rigged, and it does not reward people who play by the rules.

Hustlers (2019) (SPOILERS) Sold as a female Goodfellas – to the extent that the producers had Scorsese in mind – this strippers-and-crime tale is actually a big, glossy puff piece, closer to Todd Phillips as fashioned by Lorene Scarfia. There are some attractive performances in Hustlers, notably from Constance Wu, but for all its “progressive” women work male objectification to their advantage posturing, it’s incredibly traditional and conservative deep down.

What do they do, sing madrigals?

The Singing Detective (2003) Icon’s remake of the 1986 BBC serial, from a screenplay by Dennis Potter himself. The Singing Detective fares less well than Icon’s later adaptation of Edge of Darkness , even though it’s probably more faithful to Potter’s original. Perhaps the fault lies in the compression of six episodes into a feature running a quarter of that time, but the noir fantasy and childhood flashbacks fail to engage, and if the hospital reality scans better, it too suffers eventually.

They literally call themselves “Decepticons”. That doesn’t set off any red flags?

Bumblebee  (2018) (SPOILERS) Bumblebee is by some distance the best Transformers movie, simply by dint of having a smattering of heart (one might argue the first Shia LaBeouf one also does, and it’s certainly significantly better than the others, but it’s still a soulless Michael Bay “machine”). Laika VP and director Travis Knight brings personality to a series that has traditionally consisted of shamelessly selling product, by way of a nostalgia piece that nods to the likes of Herbie (the original), The Iron Giant and even Robocop .

How would Horatio Alger have handled this situation?

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) (SPOILERS) Gilliam’s last great movie – The Zero Theorem (2013) is definitely underrated, but I don’t think it’s that underrated – Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas could easily have been too much. At times it is, but in such instances, intentionally so. The combination of a visual stylist and Hunter S Thompson’s embellished, propulsive turn of phrase turns out, for the most part, to be a cosmically aligned affair, embracing the anarchic abandon of Raoul Duke and Doctor Gonzo’s Las Vegas debauch while contriving to pull back at crucial junctures in order to engender a perspective on all this hedonism. Would Alex Cox, who exited stage left, making way for the Python, have produced something interesting? I suspect, ironically, he would have diluted Thompson in favour of whatever commentary preoccupied him at the time (indeed, Johnny Depp said as much: “ Cox had this great material to work with and he took it and he added his own stuff to it ”). Plus

That’s what people call necromancer’s weather.

The Changes (1975) This adaptation of Peter Dickinson’s novel trilogy carries a degree of cult nostalgia cachet due to it being one of those more “adult” 1970s children’s serials (see also The Children of the Stones , The Owl Service ). I was too young to see it on its initial screening – or at any rate, too young to remember it – but it’s easy to see why it lingered in the minds of those who did. Well, the first episode, anyway. Not for nothing is The Changes seen as a precursor to The Survivors in the rural apocalypse sub-genre – see also the decidedly nastier No Blade of Grass – as following a fairly gripping opener, it drifts off into the realm of plodding travelogue.