Three-and-a-half decades ago, Alien established Ridley Scott as a director to watch. Drawing on the conventions of the increasingly-popular slasher film and rejecting the Star-Trek-esque optimism of the sci-fi films of that era, he created a chilling classic. But his potential as a director has dribbled away somewhat in the years since; while I don’t regard either Prometheus or The Counselor as disasters, they’re certainly no Alien (and I didn’t even bother with the dubiously-cast Exodus: Gods and Kings).
Scott’s latest film is no Alien, either; but that’s kinda the point. The Martian strands its hero, Matt Damon’s Mark Watney, millions of miles from home on the red planet. Rather than conjure the claustrophobic dread that defined his first film, Scott – with the aid of screenwriter Drew Goddard, adapting Andy Weir’s novel – imagines a universe buoyed by optimism. Where most contemporary sci-fi imagines the future as dysfunctional at best or dystopic at worst, The Martian cancels the apocalypse to render a universe where NASA continues to operate with billions of dollars of public funding and China and America have a friendly relationship. The film is similarly executed with a sense of warmth and good humour, despite the predicament of its protagonist; this is, in many ways, the anti-Alien.
Not that this optimism isn’t tempered with a hefty dose of realism. It takes a while after Watney is abandoned by his squadmates (Jessica Chastain, Michael Peña, Kate Mara and Sebastian Stan) for NASA to realise that he’s still alive, and their subsequent attempts to bring him home are stymied not only by the stuff you’d expect – timing, technical issues, a scarcity of resources – but by the tensions of satisfying all the stakeholders in a multi-billion dollar industry. Jeff Daniels’ Teddy Sanders might be driven to rescue Watney at any cost, but that’s because he’s consistently aware of the real financial cost to NASA of losing an astronaut in such circumstances.
Understandably, Watney is unconcerned with such particulars, and more concerned with the pressing issue of how to survive for years without sufficient food or water. His solution? To “science the shit out of this.” The Martian is a triumphant celebration of the potential of modern science; its heroism is found not in bravery or loyalty (though there’s some of that, too) but in Watney’s “botany powers”, which enable him to cultivate a crop of potatoes thanks to some chemistry and shit. (That isn’t a colloquialism – he actually needs to collect his own excrement so that the potatoes will have the necessary bacteria to grow in the soil).
The Martian is a paean to science, and nerddom in general. Watney is a dyed-in-the-wool geek; he quips about Iron Man and space piracy, he loves the thrill of a challenge, and he hates disco. Other characters are convincingly nerdy as well; Kate Mara’s characters computer includes Zork 2, Jeff Daniels’ makes a quip about Glorfindel when faced with ‘Project Elrond’ and Donald Glover’s chaotic workspace will be familiar to anyone who’s done a science degree. The film is almost a science equivalent of an underdog sports movie; we know our hero will make it out okay in the end, and he’ll do it with the power of science.
That’s not always a good thing. The Martian embraces science almost like a religion – a pathology familiar to anyone who’s encountered the like of Richard Dawkins or ‘#atheist’s on Twitter. Over there, Mike D’Angelo quipped that the film was his “equivalent of God’s Not Dead or 90 Minutes in Heaven or whatever” and while that’s obviously a touch tongue-in-cheek, the film’s underlying ideology ties into the enthusiast cult that’s increasingly prominent in today’s corporate culture, where you work to live rather than the other way around. Most films that abandon their protagonists provide an emotional anchor to engage audience empathy; Gravity’s Sandra Bullock has her lost daughter, Castaway’s Tom Hanks has Helen Hunt, Moon’s Sam Rockwell has a family and a Kevin-Spacey-bot. Heck, even 2001: A Space Odyssey finds time for FaceTime.
What’s keeping Mark Watney going on those hundreds of days on Mars? Well, for starters, that’s not a question the film is especially interested in answering; this isn’t the profile of someone tackling the psychological pressures of extended isolation, but a showcase of all the cool shit science can do. But the answer to that question – what’s keeping him going – is provided in the message Mark asks to be sent home to his (unseen) parents: “Please tell them I love what I do … and I’m really good at it.” Mark Watney is the epitome of the enthusiast model of capitalism, defined totally by what he does (granted, he is very good at it).
Outside of a couple necessary hedges, The Martian’s science is reportedly very accurate. It also accurately conveys the feverish sense of progress – and the lack thereof – familiar to anyone who’s spent time working on an extended experiment. Rather than assume a classical three-act narrative, Goddard adopts an episodic approach; to quote the film: “You solve one problem, then another problem … if you solve enough problems, you get to go home.” It’s a simple structure but incredibly effective; with tension consistently rising and falling like a sinusoidal curve, you remain engaged throughout. (Though it does make things somewhat predictable. When Daniels quips “that’s provided nothing goes wrong” you know for damn sure that in the very next scene, something will go disastrously wrong.)
I haven’t spoken at all about all the film looks yet, and that’s because this isn’t an especially cinematic film. With a storyline dominated by logistical problems rather than emotional ones, it’s perhaps understandable that the power of mise en scène won’t be entirely exploited. Memorable visuals are largely restricted to the opening chapter, which makes good use of 3D (whether it’s the shower of rocks in the opening storm that precipitates Watney’s abandonment or the clever way Scott morphs television footage into the real scene). Later visual effects aren’t quite as impressive; a body double used to portray Damon’s emaciated form is ineffective, while there’s some sort of disorienting issue associated with 3D in the foreground of establishing shots (this might be a symptom of framing that doesn’t draw your eye to any one spot, and therefore uncovers weaknesses in 3D post-production).
Such issues keep The Martian from being the masterpiece some have hailed it as. But while this may not be a great film, it’s a very good one. A consistently intellectually engaging and entertaining film, The Martian takes Ridley Scott back to his sci-fi beginnings and proves he’s still got something to contribute.