Movie Review: The Martian (2015)

the martian

Science-fiction used to reside in the realm of dreams–a genre choice where fantasies about the infinite possibilities beyond our stars ignited universal wonder. However, with each scientific discovery (either from exploration or theoretical reasoning) there are debilitating after-effects, where creative fictional possibilities become rather limited. That is especially so for our continually explored neighboring planet Mars, a planet that becomes less mysterious and more barren throughout science-fiction adventures, as it gives us new realities, potentially hindering our imaginations. While the Barsoomian landscapes of Edward Rice Burrough’s John Carter from Mars and the mythological societies of Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles are no more, writer Larry Niven proclaims, “If the space probes keep redesigning our planets, what can we do but write new stories?” That persistence of creativity in the face of harsh realities, both of the literal and figurative notions, is the driving force behind Ridley Scott’s The Martian–an affable and serviceable space western that finds its limited power by emphasizing science over fiction. Despite the floundering interruptions from Earth and corny “togetherness” vibe, director Ridley Scott finds a lightness of touch in celebrating human ingenuity in the face of conflict, while underscoring an old-fashioned portrait of solitude as necessary for creativity, but dangerous to sanity.

The discovery of delicacy and comedic whimsy may stem from screenwriter Drew Goddard. Known for his tongue-in-cheek parody of horror with Cabin in the Woods (2012), and the ousted original creator of Marvel’s Daredevil, Goddard approaches this Andy Weir self-published novel with a humanist sensibility, suggesting there is an optimistic spirit that can emerge from surviving the desperate days of forced isolation. The setup of The Martian is reminiscent of Byron Haskin’s Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964) (a cult classic adapted from Daniel Defoe’s beloved book), focusing on astronaut and botanist Mark Whatney (Matt Damon) as he is marooned on the crimson planet, and assumed dead after a violent storm separates him from his crew. What follows can only be described as an unapologetic demonstration of inventive “geekery” that unambiguously embraces the torch of rationalism. Mark’s instinctual drive to survive forces him to utilize a combination of common sense and scientifically charged problem-solving techniques–the creation of water through burning hydrazine, the use of personal fecal matter to fertilize the ground, and even the adoption of the ASCIE (American Standard Code for Information Exchange) for his interplanetary communication. Each scientific creation and moment of insecurity is self-narrated through Mark’s video logging, expressing his hopeful likability while explicitly highlighting the natural human need for socialization in the throes of solitary reflection. Goddard’s script appropriately streamlines Weir’s envisioned survivalist struggle, inspiring not only in its admiration for scientific creativity, but also in its presentation of a resilient spirit that defines what it means to be human.

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The civility of personality is the most important quality to include when bringing Andy Weir’s protagonist Mark Whatney to visual life. Weir’s novel acts as a thought-provoking practice on the unintended consequences of an impossible situation, which explains the lack of mystery or complexity to Mark. Instead, the focus lies on the purity of his struggle and the ability to remain undeterred through his instinctual complexion to do anything to survive. That purity makes Mark undeniably relatable, and that quality brings Matt Damon’s performance to life. Damon has become the “every-man persona”—an attribute that brings a sense of authenticity even to his uninspired performances—and it is this attribute that Ridley Scott focuses on in The Martian. This intimate note within the film tones down the epic scale of this interplanetary drama into something far more accessible, as it turns impossible circumstances into attainable inspirations. Unfortunately, not every prominent actor (and there are many) is utilized as well as Damon. The Earth sequences unfold with a bland predictability through quality performers, like Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Kristen Wiig, caught in their banal proceedings. But, there is still some life to be found in the charming repartee between Mark and his fellow crew members, including Michael Pena as a quality comic relief and Jessica Chastain as the composed, serious captain possessing all the merits of a typical Ridley Scott interpretation of tough women. Still, the show remains Matt Damon’s, and every moment, from his confident scientific boasting to his eruption of defeated emotion, resonates with genuine charm.

The thematic slant towards optimism isn’t a usual trait of Ridley Scott’s films. Although he has occasionally ventured the positivism of the human spirit, most notably in the inspirational Thelma & Louise(1991), the occasionally comedic Matchstick Men (2003), and the awfully bland A Good Year (2006), his filmography and narrative artistry is defined by ever-increasing shades of darkness. However, Scott seems most comfortable in stories that take us beyond the confines of our Earthly domain, whether through the unknown horrors of space in Alien (1979), or the infiltration of man’s created slaves in Blade Runner (1982). At his best (and sometimes worst), Scott’s cinematic sensibilities are a mixture of Cecil B. DeMille’s grandeur, John Ford’s translucent vistas, and Stanley Kubrick’s thoughtful pondering, which are all on display in The Martian, where he finds himself at his loosest, as he allows the humanist qualities of Goddard’s script to take center stage. The most surprising with this latest film is Scott’s rediscovered ability to keep the story focused on the characters involved, especially in their intimate reactions to every expansive aerial shot of his John Ford inspired Monument Valley interpretation of Mars. Polish cinematographer Dariusz Wolski makes this all possible, with his ability to capture the contradicting beauty and dangers of Mars’s vast settings, in addition to his sensible grace with the camera in capturing the film’s thrilling conclusion of the unpredictability of space. Luckily for The Martian, and for us, Scott keeps his directorial vision loose and complimentary to the optimistic resilience of Mark’s struggle and the amiable personality brought to life in the script.

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The Martian is a confidently alluring film that finds director Ridley Scott able to utilize visual enhancements, digital creations, and epic presentations to accentuate the understanding between character and narrative. Perhaps it’s the grounded script of Drew Goddard or the presence of a gracious Matt Damon that keeps Scott focused on the human qualities of Mark, but the successful presentation of those elements is likely due to the fact that Scott relates with the protagonist. Mark may be physically marooned on Mars, but his mind and resourcefulness are open in response to the isolation of his surroundings; Scott’s feeling of solitude in the film-making process as he grabs hold of his worldviews translates them into creative works. Scott’s connection to Andy Weir’s novel, his inspiring scientific protagonist, and the resilience of human ingenuity gives The Martian its sweeping, inspirational tone and finds the director at his most confident since Gladiator (2000). Though not every aspect of the film works (scenarios on Earth serve as obligatory narrative distractions), Scott keeps the pacing light, the events intriguing, and the incredible struggle of Mark carefully intimate. The Martian is Scott’s celebratory testament to human innovation when limitations are inescapable, whether it’s in the name of survival or in an effort of telling an engaging, creative story.

Grade: B+

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