It’s a strange world in which we live in when one makes a trip to the local multiplex cinema to see the latest Ridley Scott film, fully expecting to be walking out hours later with a pungent sense of disappointment and annoyance. It’s pretty evident, based off of the response to many of the filmmaker’s recent cinematic endeavours, that critics and audiences alike have been vying for the return to form of the once great director.
The powering figure and artist behind some of Hollywood’s greatest classics such as Alien, Blade Runner and Gladiator, has had a difficult time of late. Not being able to connect with audiences the way he did early on his career. His recent efforts including 2010’s Robin Hood, Prometheus, The Counselor and Exodus: Gods and Kings all received lukewarm reviews and box office takings. Now in 2015, Ridley Scott brings us The Martian, which like Keanu Reeves’ titular ex-hitman John Wick, has many of us asking, ‘Is he back?’ Perhaps it’s too early to tell but one thing is clear. Just like the story and tone of this science fiction survival adventure, things are looking optimistic for Ridley Scott.
The film throws you straight in the deep end, where the crew of the Ares III are in the midst of their scientific shenanigans in the dirt of the red planet when they receive a shocking warning of an impending storm. Commander Lewis (Jessica Chastain) has no choice but to abort the mission and head home. The crew blast away with Mars well in their rear view mirror but with one empty seat on board, as in mid-retreat astronaut Mark Watney is lost and presumed dead. Watney awakes hours later with a bad case of Home Alone syndrome and a ten-inch rod sticking out of his abdomen. Using only his smarts, infectious optimistic nature and a stingy amount of supplies (and disco music), he must battle the odds and find a way to survive whilst his colleagues back at NASA work around the clock to try and bring him home.
For a concept such as this, which is essentially Robinson Crusoe in Space, where a man finds himself on an entire planet by himself with only his thoughts and the complete collection of Happy Days to amuse him. It’s surprising going in that this film has such a gigantic cast; so enormous in fact that for me to name all the terrific actors in The Martian would be a poor display of time management skills and reflect poorly on my journalistic abilities. However, despite the cast delivering terrific performances across the board with some standouts including Jessica Chastain, Chiwitel Ejifor and Jeff Daniels, the ONLY person you need to be aware of is Matt Damon.
If there is one thing I’ve learned from watching this film, which has been compared heavily to the 2013’s overrated Gravity, it’s that if I were to be lost in the vast and terrifying unknown of space with only one other soul along for company, it would most certainly be with Damon’s witty and optimistic Mark Watney. Certainly not Sandra Bullock’s incompetent and whinny Ryan Stone.
All joking aside, the decision to cast Damon as the Martian himself is the greatest and most important decision Scott made. The audience needed to be on board with Watney from the get go, without a moment’s hesitation. If we lost interest or stopped rooting and fist pumping for him for even a millisecond, the film would have torn at the seams and had audience’s stealthily checking for their notifications. It’s hard not to be won over by his quickfire humour, unbreakable spirit, and dazzling scientific mind. Matt Damon’s charm and relatability is the anchor point of the entire story and has you laughing and weeping with him throughout.
If it wasn’t bitterly apparently when slumping through the entire running time of Exodus: Gods and Kings and Prometheus. It doesn’t matter who the director is, how many great films they have made in the past or many Oscars currently sit on their mantelpiece, a film is only as good as the script and tale you’re trying to tell. Thankfully, Drew Goddard’s snappy, amusing and fun approach to Andy Weir’s best selling 2011 novel of the same name, gave his director sure ground footing to make a rousing sci-fi adventure. Goddard and Scott both handle the material with confidence and vigour.
It never takes itself too seriously, which for a film that sees an isolated man slowly starving to death while the odds of any rescue dwindle rapidly, is quite a feat. However, its exciting and light-hearted approach does sometimes come at the expense of the dramatic nature of the piece and perhaps limits the depth of exploration into Watney’s character and turmoil. Even though there are unquestionably bumps along the road for Watney’s plans, due to his utter resilience and optimistic outlook on his own circumstances, I never truly found myself fearing he wasn’t going to make it out or that the film could end any other way than with his rescue. As Watney never lets the fear or monumental weight of these high stakes get the better of him nor does the audience. However, it may soften the story’s ability to pack a serious dramatic punch, but the film hits back in other ways.
For a film packing more characters than a Joss Whedon Avengers wet dream, it’s a fantastic feat that Scott and Goddard were able to balance them all so effectively. All the players are well-rounded and all serve a purpose to the story. Each get their own moments and room to shine. The script adequately balances the story of Mark’s will to survive with his friends over at NASA and their efforts to rescue him. It was also refreshing to see a story where man isn’t pitted again man. There is no real antagonist to this story expect for Mars itself.
Every character has the same goal and they’re all pulling their weight and working their socks off to achieve it. It’s the story of mankind’s unparalleled ability to throw away any and all disputes and work together for a good cause. Hell, it may be a soppy, sentimental and simplified notion, but it’s a darn infectious one that will leave you exiting the cinema with a positive outlook on this screwed up world. For the sleight of Hollywood offerings in 2015, that’s pretty revitalizing.
Ridley Scott has always been a master at creating cinematic worlds, but The Martian seriously had me questioning whether the folks over at NASA secretly rocketed Scott, Damon and a handful of crew the 128 million mile journey over to Mars itself, where they were able to get a few days of exterior shooting. Scott has always had a tremendous talent for balancing the practical with the digital and this film is no different. Scott’s decision to shoot in Wadi Rum in Jordan along with the talents of the visual effects department and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski all combine to create a completely believable and visceral red planet.
The design throughout the film was also exemplary, from the production design to the costume design, everything felt real and grounded. It was a simple stylistic approach and there was nothing grandiose or indulgent about the design of the world. Everything had a purpose. Despite the dirt on Mars being a well-trodden ground in the movie-verse, every department has appeared to pull together under Scott’s tight ship and have created a memorable, unique place that stands out from the ground.
Along with 70 year old George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road, 2015 is quickly becoming the year where the Granddads of Old Hollywood are showing these intrusive youngster in New Hollywood just how it’s done. The Martian is a rousing, hilarious and uplifting tale that ascends at a rocketing pace with a strong central performance. Ladies and gentlemen, Ridley Scott may just be back.
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