The title scene for The Martian is a surprising one. This isn’t on account of some staggering initial salvo though, but because it is so reminiscent of Scott’s own Alien: sun rising over the cusp of a foreign planet, with an introductory musical score bearing more than a passing resemblance to the 1979 classic. Coincidental, you might argue, but there is at least one other scene within the movie where we are again given a short, sharp snippet of music directly echoing Jerry Goldsmith’s atmospheric composition. And because of this, the fateful first sequence, where the team of astronauts are pummelled by a violent Martian storm, elicits shades of the Nostromo crew’s trek to the Xenomorph-infested Derelict.
It’s not only Alien that gets a nod; there are hints of Prometheus in there, not least in an early first aid scene. Here, Damon’s stranded Mark Watney is forced to administer minor self-surgery to a puncture wound in his stomach. Having stapled it closed, it then reopens at the end of an over-rigorous day of physical activity. As Damon looks directly to camera and points out that he’s overdone it a bit, it’s hard not to think this is Scott’s way of addressing the audience directly. After all, one of Prometheus’s most maligned scenes (amongst the many) featured Noomi Rapace lasering her stomach open, then having it unceremoniously sealed shut again before quite remarkably running about with seemingly no after-effects of this crude surgery. One can hope, here, Scott is nodding to us and saying, “Yep, ok, I let a few things slip. Lesson learnt”. Perhaps.
It’s understandable that these be so prominent in his mind, given his plans for the Prometheus sequels and the proposed expansion of the Alien franchise; he does, of course, face an uphill battle to reclaim the general public’s faith in that series, and also in him as a director. His output of late has been, shall we say, patchy.
So how good it is then to see these hints of self-awareness. It seems that his latter failings have served to focus him. But really, what The Martian best serves to illustrate is what the director is capable of when aided by excellent writing and superior source material.
We’ll return to that opening sequence, where the camera pans down from the view of Mars from space, to a landscape fully reminiscent of the Grand Canyon. The camera sweep continues on from there, highlighting the craters and red-tinged atmosphere of the movie’s setting. As far as establishing shots go, it’s superbly executed. From there, we are very quickly thrown into the main body of the story, as Watney is abandoned, believed dead.
And so we settle in. It would be natural to wonder how a story featuring a single character on a desolate world could pull off being engaging. Would we have a Castaway type scenario, with a pet Martian rock for companionship rather than a volleyball? Well, there are a number of interesting ways this is tackled, starting with Watney turning almost immediately to camera, as he sets about keeping a video diary of events. Simple, but it works a treat.
Over the years, Damon has proven to be an excellent actor, not lacking in intelligence or self-effacing wit (this last trait perfectly witnessed in his affable responses to Team America’s amusingly unflattering portrayal of him). These characteristics are brought to the fore throughout, as Watney sets about saving himself with a combination of logic, science and big dollops of humour. It’s here that The Martian reveals itself as a film that could easily sit as one part of a loose trilogy, alongside two other similar recent science fiction offerings: Gravity and Interstellar. In fact, Watney plays like a parallel reality version of Dr Mann from Interstellar. Whereas, in Nolan’s introspective movie, Damon plays a character who has been driven nuts by isolation, here it’s all about a man who does everything in his power to ensure not only that he keeps all his marbles, but formulates a feasible plan for escape.
In order to do this, he quite literally shovels excrement. And here lies the real strength of Scott’s movie: it revels in exploring all angles of this “what-if” scenario. Not enough food? Well, this is how you go about creating a garden in unsuitable climes. No water? Here’s a novel solution for that too. Events for large portions play as much like a documentary as light-hearted entertainment. The movie rollicks along at a great pace, feeling much shorter than its 140 minute running time.
It’s so light-hearted actually, that therein lies its biggest problem (albeit not a major one). Scott is so intent on keeping it breezy that there is never enough sense of Watney’s peril. Every time a potentially catastrophic problem is encountered, the solution is quickly revealed. There’s no genuine hint of desperation, even when the stakes get higher as we race towards the final act. Mars itself doesn’t seem all that difficult to tame. Aside from the opening storm which sets events in motion, the planet pretty much behaves itself for the remainder. There’s a real sense of a missed opportunity to explore what potential demons the environment could throw up. Instead, this spends much of its time examining how the failings of the technology at hand present issues and how, with a fair dose of ingenuity and smarts, that same tech can be used to great effect.
Conversely, this weakness is also the movie’s greatest asset. It’s an absolute joy watching conundrums being thrown into the mixer and then getting resolved in wholly unexpected and eye opening ways. The reason it works, most of all, is because it’s based on sound theoretical principles. It doesn’t rely on rabbit-from-a-hat tricks to paper over the cracks. It’s in the details. And how welcome it is to see Scott paying attention to these finer points. It’s all delivered with an assured, calm, and entirely proficient guiding hand.
This is perfectly echoed by Damon in the lead, who carries off his role with the all the requisite ease and likeability. There’s good support too, as the story jumps between settings. It’s an eclectic mix, featuring the likes of Jeff Daniels (enjoying an upsurge in his career, post-The Network), Chiwetel Ejiofor (reliable as always), Jessica Chastain, Michael Pena, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, Kristin Wiig (dialling back on the kookiness), Aksel Hennie (looking distinctly more beefed up than in his breakthrough role in Headhunters), Benedict Wong, Mackenzie Davis and Donald Glover (from Community). We even have Sean Bean in attendance, affording a random sub-plot of wondering how on Earth they’ll find a way to kill him off in this one. It also helps set up a pretty geekerific Lord of the Rings gag.
On to the denouement, and what a belter it is. Here again, it harks once more to Interstellar; in particular, that movie’s equally implausible docking scene. Funnily enough, both sequences feature Damon, playing almost mirror-image versions of the same character (was there some kind of collusion between directors?). Both work though, because they are crazy and exhilarating.
In summary, The Martian is a strange movie in many senses, certainly not perfect but still thoroughly entertaining and informative. More than that even, in a year which has featured two formerly excellent SF franchises (Jurassic World and Terminator) cynically flogged to death by the Hollywood machine, it could be argued it’s imperative that the crowds flock to see this type of movie, and help raise the intelligence quota of modern day cinematic genre fiction. It also paves the way for genuine discussion about humanity’s future, as we push ever closer to expanding out to the stars, and look to terraform Mars.