Space movies have pretty much vanished over the past few decades. Once a well worn staple of the movie industry, space has simply drifted out of the mainstream over the past 20 years or so. Think about it.
The only films to deal with the endless galactic expanse of space in the past few years have been Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar in 2014 and Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity in 2013. Both did exceptionally well and both probably have had an influence on the production of Ridley Scott’s latest film The Martian.
Based on Andy Weir’s 2011 novel of the same name, The Martian picks up on the surface of Mars, following a six person manned mission to the Red Planet. When an unexpectedly intense Martian storm results in the abortion of the mission and the evacuation of its participants, botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is struck by flying debris and lost in the storm. Thinking their companion is dead, the rest of the crew start the long journey back to Earth. Little do they know that Watney survived the storm. Stranded alone on an uninhabited planet with few resources, Watney must find a way to get in touch with NASA and to stay alive until help can arrive.
A movie like this was always going to live or die by the strength of its lead actor and in that The Martian has struck gold. It’s a tough thing, acting alone. Most actors can’t do it, can’t maintain the attention of their audience through sheer force of personality alone, which is why most films don’t even attempt doing what The Martian does.
The Martian is, for a great deal of its runtime, a movie about one man speaking to the camera. Through the pretext of Watney leaving logs in case a rescue mission does not arrive in time to save him, the film allows Damon to directly engage the audience. By allowing its lead character to address viewers in such an immediate fashion, the film pretty much cedes all control to Damon, who takes it and runs with it.
Damon is a constantly captivating screen presence, blending charm and charisma with a distinct and progressing sense of loneliness. If this performance hadn’t worked, the entire movie would have been dead on arrival but it does, and Damon deserves huge acclaim for that.
As a whole, the film features some pacing issues. While it never lags enough to be a legitimate problem, the movie is undeniably slow in spots. The first act, which is very much Robinson Crusoe in microcosm, is particularly lethargic, but once the film begins to cut more frequently between Watney on Mars and NASA’s efforts to rescue him back on Earth, things pick up. Watney also never really suffers the sort of psychological effects that you’d probably expect him to given his situation, but I suppose leaning that heavily into angst may have run the risk of alienating the audience. If anyone could have done it though, I imagine Damon could have.
The film is bolstered by a huge amount of talent both on and off the screen. Jessica Chastain, Kate Mara and Jeff Daniels (whose excellent turn on The Newsroom appears to have kicked off a welcome career resurrection) do great work on the sidelines, as do Chiwetel Ejiofor and Sean Bean who act as the film’s audience surrogates. They express our viewpoints and like us, they’re watching all the action on a screen. Both men turn in great performances, though Bean in particular is criminally underused.
Off screen, Ridley Scott once again confirms that he’s a master of his craft. The 77 year old has a resume many directors would kill for and he’s got the skill to back it up.
Scott revels in the bleak landscape of Mars, coaxing beauty from a never ending desert, but more crucially he does everything he can to make the film a little funnier. This is a serious picture don’t get me wrong, but Watney’s dry and increasingly odd sense of humour in his monologues prevent the movie from going too deep down the rabbit hole (while also providing its lead character with an identity beyond ‘castaway’), and it’s an aspect Scott hones in on. He garnishes it with every technique at his disposal from editing to camera angles but most obviously in the choice of music.
There’s something weirdly amusing to the idea of a man stranded in the middle of nowhere with nothing to listen to but disco music he hates, but Scott also overlays the songs in montages, offering a surreal juxtaposition between the upbeat, sickly sweet music and the seriousness of what’s taking place on screen. It goes a long way to giving the film its own unique personality.
The Martian is an excellent film in a criminally underserved genre. In Matt Damon and Ridley Scott, the film has scored two excellent storytellers at the top of their craft. While the film can occasionally struggle with pacing and though it never quite reaches the unassailable quality of its recent space-focused brethren, it remains a genuinely compelling and engaging two-and-a-half hours of cinema.