We’ve been inundated with good space flicks of late. Gravity and Interstellar are most mentionable, with both films grabbing audience attention and critical acclaim. The former won SEVEN Oscars. The latter had to settle for just one.
Ridley Scott is no stranger to the mega-budget blockbuster. He directed Blade Runner, Gladiator, Black Hawk Down, Hannibal, American Gangster and Prometheus, amongst others.
Scott’s directorial signature is not grounded in genre, despite his tendency to veer towards science fiction. He’s made critically acclaimed epics, crime dramas, historical actions and more.
His films vary in setting and period but are connected by his visual style. Enormous, atmospheric environmental shots define his art direction; his movies are visually appealing and stimulating. He has a knack for harnessing that wow vibe.
So, The Martian. On paper, Ridley Scott and Matt Damon are a formidable team. Damon is a true A-lister, despite his often-understated style. See Oceans Eleven, Saving Private Ryan, Good Will Hunting and The Departed for confirmation.
It’s probably time to talk about the movie, so I’ll tell you what you definitely already know. A team of astronauts goes to Mars to conduct tests and do various sciency things. A monster storm occurs, the team evacuates and in the chaos that ensues, one man is presumed dead and left behind.
Obviously, he’s not actually dead. Stranded nearly 500 million kilometres from home, Mark Watney (Damon) is pushed to his emotional, mental and physical limits as he tries to survive, truly alone, on the hostile desert planet.
There is rather less gloom and doom in this film than I anticipated. Watney is an unexpectedly resourceful, innovative and optimistic character. He has a wicked sense of humour and provides healthy doses of comic relief throughout. He is inspiring and relatable in equal measure – 50% hero, 50% best friend.
This film is not a two-hour-plus, depressing tension-fest until everything works out in the end. It does contain moments of extreme stress but it isn’t an anthology of how many disasters a man can possibly survive whilst marooned on the Red Planet. As science fiction goes, it is honest and sincere. Raw and real.
Another feather in the proverbial cap is that this film is grounded in what’s possible. Actual scientists were consulted and it’s not nearly as far-fetched as other movies in the genre. Don’t expect a slightly detuned iteration of Prometheus; stuff that occurs in this film is going to become reality in the relatively near future.
There are some truly epic shots. The score cycles from hope to despair with uncanny punctuality. The characters grow without forgetting who they are. Relations between America and China are positive in the film, which feels odd, but in a warm, fuzzy kind of way.
The key to this movie’s success is how genuine everything feels. It’s probably a step too far, but I’ll attribute that (at least in part) to Scott’s Britishness. In my admittedly incomprehensive experience, many films made by Americans fail to capture the magic of the everyday moments in the same way as the Brits do.
Forgive me for stereotyping.
American films want to be bigger and badder, faster and stronger. You feel like you’re watching actors instead of normal people. British films just want to tell a story.
That’s what The Martian feels like. An ordinary man is placed extraordinary circumstances, yet emerges with his humanity preserved. That’s what’s cool about it. That’s what I liked. Kudos, Mr Scott. You’ve made a cracking flick.