Ridley Scott's skilled hand buoys effortlessly enjoyable, instantly forgettable 'The Martian'
The Martian 20th Century Fox
Director: Ridley Scott
Screenplay: Drew Goddard, based on the novel by Andy Weir
Starring: Matt Damon, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels, Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Sean Bean, Kristen Wiig, Sebastian Stan and Mackenzie Davis
Rated PG-13 / 2 hours, 24 minutes
October 2, 2015
(out of four)
"Sturdy craftsmanship" should not come across like such a backhanded compliment, but that's probably the best way to describe The Martian in general, and director Ridley Scott's work on it specifically. I suppose it's only backhanded because we've seen such superior artistry from Scott in years past, with the same level of craft.
Alfred Hitchcock once said of Dial M for Murder that it's a movie he could have directed in his sleep, and that's about the way I feel about The Martian. And yet, sleep or no sleep, that still means it's a film few people ever could have made. It's an entertaining, well-acted, exquisitely made piece of filmmaking that also feels unmistakably minor. It's a movie that can be enjoyed and admired from the first minute to the last and then forgotten about immediately upon exiting the theatre.
Let me try a point of comparison for Scott. Take something like Prometheus. I had (and still have) pretty violently mixed reactions about that movie (which isn't necessarily a bad place to be). But let's say for the sake of argument that the conventional wisdom (at least in many circles) is correct, and that it's a fascinating, large-scale failure. A big swing and miss. (That's the way I'm leaning on it anyway these days.) Even so, even if it's a failure, Prometheus is a fascinating piece of work because it feels like there's a crazy vision in there, even if it gets muddled in a morass of disparate ideas (not to mention a conflicted relationship with its franchise requirements). The Martian is a better film top to bottom, but I feel like I could still look intently at Prometheus - could still find new, strange, great and terrible things - long after I've gotten everything I can get out of The Martian.
This movie is like a terrific TV episode* (except two-and-a-half hours long). It's tight and concise and has one specific objective - get an astronaut stranded on Mars back to Earth safely - that we need to solve, one way or another, by the end of the allotted time. And Scott directs the hell out of it. There's such an effortless precision to the way he and editor Pietro Scalia cut the action together and weave in and out of the film's various locations. We hear the word "immersive" thrown around a lot in conjunction with 3D, but The Martian (though it was offered in 3D, I saw it in 2D) is completely immersive on its own, just through the strength of its production design and compositions.
*Let me try another example. A few years back, Martin Scorsese directed the pilot of Boardwalk Empire. It was a thrilling technical work, beautiful and ingenious in a way that felt like second nature. It was essentially a 75-minute Scorsese film, but if it had been released in theatres, no one would be comparing it to GoodFellas.
The story is driven by its main character's resourcefulness, and the film itself follows suit. Even at 144 minutes in length, it feels like it's been stripped of any excess fat. The filmmaking reflects the utilitarian spirit of the narrative. It doesn't get wrapped up in the spectacle of Mars or outer space - there's no time. Or rather, the time it has is running out, and the stranded botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) has to stretch it for as long as he can while those on the ground at NASA and his former crew try to figure out a way to save him.
One thing I particularly liked is the way it doesn't try to get into the characters' psyches (aside from Watney) more than it has to; there are residual feelings of guilt on the part of the crew that left him when a debris storm cut short their mission and seemingly took Watney with it. There are different, no less conflicted feelings among the powers that be on Earth, who are stuck with the unenviable task of weighing costs and probabilities and risks, not to mention the public-relations nightmare that awaits them should anything else go wrong. Once the media gets wind that Watney, the American astronaut, is alive and (for the time being) well, it becomes the most public and most scrutinized cost-benefit analysis of all-time.
As far as the movie is concerned, it, like everyone working to make this rescue happen, has a job to do, and no time to dick around. Screenwriter Drew Goddard doesn't saddle Watney with a manufactured pregnant wife or manufactured kids. That would only distract us, not to mention present contrived emotional stakes when the stakes should be more than high enough already.
One advantage the film has over its source material is the absence of novelist Andy Weir's clunky, hacky prose, and (most of) his embarrassing attempts at humor. The book was well-plotted but terribly written, so it's a relief to see that Goddard primarily emphasized its strengths in the adaptation.
Damon's work with the character is unsurprisingly strong, and it's a type of role we don't see enough of in American pop cinema anymore - just a guy trying to figure out one (in this case drawn-out) situation. By narrowing the scope of a character's narrative responsibilities, it compacts his arc in a way that emphasizes fundamental, even intangible qualities, and unburdens him from the artifice that complicates the lives of most other protagonists. As far as these 144 minutes are concerned, Watney is driven only by what he's trying to accomplish, and what is standing in his way. Damon, as an actor generally and this performance in particular, strikes the perfect balance to pull that off - he can simultaneously be everyman, nerd, and movie star.
Even taking into account all of its merits and the strength of its supporting cast (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jessica Chastain and Jeff Daniels especially), I also get the feeling that the movie is playing it safe a lot of the time. The Martian never feels particularly harrowing, or viscerally charged. It's a strong technical achievement above all else, but one that's also conspicuously lightweight. Scott may have done a fantastic job bringing this story to life, but it never feels like he has much to say about it.