May 13, 2016
The Martian (2015)
To a large extent Scott seems a slave to his screenwriters. Whatever he directs will look stunning, but there is no predicting how good or bad the script he is directing will be. The result of this tendency is a resume packed with films that are as consistent in their aesthetic as they are inconsistent in their ultimate quality.
The latest roll of the dice on Ridley Scott - his 2015 science fiction drama The Martian - turns out very happily indeed. It is a fabulous film packed with beautiful vistas, which are to be expected, and tremendous emotional warmth, which is perhaps its biggest surprise. I cannot remember the last time Scott directed a film this lively and humorous. I am uncertain if he ever has.
The premise: when a human mission to Mars is struck by a violent dust storm the crew are forced to abandon their base and return to Earth. In the chaos the team's botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is struck by debris and assumed killed. With the mission team headed back towards Earth on Ares II, Mark wakes to find himself abandoned on Mars with no way of contacting NASA and no visible means of survival.
What makes the film really sing is its tone. It would be very easy to present Mark's situation as hopeless and dire, and let him sink inevitably into despair. The film could focus on the immense loneliness of a man left on Mars with no one for company. That is not necessarily a bad approach; indeed Robert Zemeckis did a tremendous job with that kind of story when he directed Cast Away back in 2000. What makes The Martian such an entertaining experience is that it is so relentlessly and vigorously upbeat.
Very late in the film Mark describes the process of finding yourself in a life-or-death situation as a series of problems: you solve one, then you solve the next, and you keep solving problem after problem until they are all solved and you get to go home. That is exactly what he does. We rarely have a chance to feel Mark's despair because he rarely gives himself the chance to feel despair himself. It is just a series of problems. It turns the film into an episodic series of challenges. He needs water, and so he uses his scientific knowledge to create water. He needs food, and so he uses science to grow food in Martian soil. Mark himself declares he is going to 'science the shit out of it', and that more than anything becomes the film's motto. It is not a film about a lonely man trapped on a desolate planet for a year and a half, but a film about the use of science leading a smart man to excel. It is tremendously uplifting.
It is also a genuinely funny movie. A lot of heads got scratched when the Golden Globes awarded The Martian Best Comedy at the beginning of the year, but there is an extent to which you can see where the HFPA were coming from. It's still ridiculous to categorise it that way, but they did have a point in that The Martian is packed with an awful lot of really effective jokes and one-liners.
This tone feels really unexpected, because humour and warmth simply are not things upon which Ridley Scott tends to focus. Rick Deckard in Blade Runner does not make jokes. Maximus in Gladiator is not a warm man. Thelma and Louise may show a lot of love and enthusiasm in the middle of their film, but their story does not begin or end in a remotely funny way. By contrast Mark Watney really stands out.
It is a great performance by Matt Damon, who has become one of those immensely talented actors that audiences simply take for granted without ever pausing to realise what good work he is doing. He has an enormous challenge in this film, since acting is effectively reacting, and as the only man on the planet there is no one else to whom he can react. A smart narrative technique has him constantly reporting on his progress in video logs: since there's no one on Mars with whom to speak, Watney effectively speaks directly to us. It works to perfection, and Damon's relaxed and friendly performance does the majority of the work in making the film so likeable.
Beyond Mark's lonely fight for survival The Martian also bounces regularly back to Earth and to NASA's struggle to rescue him. It's a smart, slickly edited sequence of meetings, conversations and press conferences, packed with a great cast that includes Sean Bean, Jeff Daniels, Kristen Wiig, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Donald Glover. These scenes all, rather understandably, bring to mind Ron Howard's 1995 drama Apollo 13. I would not want to pick which one is better: both undertake their stories with similar intelligence and style. The pace of the film is sensational. It runs over two hours and twenty minutes, but it never once drags or gets dull.
That The Martian is visually striking and well produced is no surprise - it's Ridley Scott - but it really does stand out among his other films as something quite different and new. Scott is 78 years old. This is his twenty-third film. To bring something this bright and effective out after so much time is a remarkable achievement. I honestly think it stands up alongside his best work.