The Martian (2015)
Within a few minutes of watching Ridley Scott’s big budget adaptation of Andy Weir’s best-selling novel The Martian, it became immediately apparent that the emphasis was on dialogue and science. Naturally there are competent action sequences of the magnitude you’d expect from such a movie but they are not the driving force of the narrative. The Martian is very much a procedural drama with strong and likeable characters. It’s about how they react to adversity and the underlying mechanics of solving the logistical problems of rescuing a man marooned on Mars. If you don’t like movies with a lot of dialogue and having to think too hard then you may wish to see something else.
If there’s one facet of this movie that I had to highlight as its strongest selling it has to be its tone. The Martian maintains a healthy balance between drama, emotion, tension and science. All of which are approached in a measured and intelligent fashion. This makes the film very accessible. The science and technology is essential to the story but is constantly tempered with dry wit and nerd banter. Astronaut Mark Watney copes with his isolation and desperate situation through humour and a droll personal monologue. Writer Drew Goddard (Cabin in the Woods, Cloverfield) has successfully adapted the source text and added a more human layer to the proceedings.
Despite having a great ensemble cast, it is Matt Damon that underpins this movie. His performance is both likeable and credible. He remains resolute in the face of adversity relying on his scientific training but he is never smug. On occasions when his emotions do get the better of him it is used to great dramatic effect. Jessica Chastain, Bill Pullman, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Sean Bean all have something tangible to do and the screenplay seldom takes a wrong step. The movie successfully creates an atmosphere where you feel that all involved are genuinely working towards a common goal. The Martian also manages to honestly depict how academia and nerd culture often goes hand-in-hand, without lapsing into negative stereotypes.
When dealing with a global subject such as space exploration, many movies cannot help but default to conventional tropes and memes regarding contemporary geopolitics. The Martian is curiously free from this and beyond the involvement of the Chinese space authorities at a key point in the story, the focus remains upon NASA and JPL and not political leaders. A lot of the technical solutions and hardware featured in the film are based upon designs currently under development. The administrative and procedural aspects of The Martian are also based upon those currently followed by the institutions depicted. Of course there are concessions made for creative and cinematic reasons but the movie still maintains a largely authentic air.
Ridley Scott last two movies have not been commercial or critical successes. The Counsellor and Exodus: Gods and Kings seemed to lack the director’s usual acumen. The Martian remedies this run of bad form by being entertaining, cerebral and accessible to multiple audiences. There is humour, pathos as well as spectacle. Through a minor plot contrivance, there’s also a great soundtrack featuring some disco classics. Scott also manages to dovetail David Bowie’s Starman in to the proceedings without it coming off as a shocking cliché. Again I feel compelled to mention the tonal confidence of this film. As a result The Martian deserves to be a critical and financial success. According to Professor Brian Cox it’s a great advertisement for a career in engineering. It certainly proves that mainstream cinema does not have to be big and dumb.