By Alan Mattli
Sometimes less is more. Even though Ridley Scott is hardly known for the production of understated cinema fare – and even by his standards of sophistication, his latest is more Prometheus than Alien –, his comparatively simplistic approach to space travel and human discovery in The Martian proves to be exactly what the science fiction subgenre needed after the more heavy-handed philosophical excursions of Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity (2013) and Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (2014).
Both in terms of narrative and ambition, Scott’s adaptation of Andy Weir’s eponymous novel is decidedly more limited in scope than its two quasi-predecessors. There is precious little ruminating about humanity’s place in an inconceivably vast, indifferent universe – and when it does occur, Scott, always the Hollywood storyteller, subordinates it to the demands of the plot. There are several reasons why The Martian feels like the more genuine, more alive film that Gravity and Interstellar; from the conscious renunciation of a grand orchestral score and the lack of ostentatiously “clever” plotting to the fact that, because of its rather humble demeanour, it never forces the hopeless comparison with Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Ultimately, however, The Martian succeeds by embracing what Cuarón and Nolan seemed so at pains to avoid: unlike their films, Scott’s movie does not see cinematic technology as something that is to be overcome by the plot but as a valuable supporter of the experience as a whole. Both Gravity and Interstellar were marvels to behold, no doubt, but seemed reluctant to allow their settings to live up to their aesthetic potentials: in them, space remained a spatial Other, mostly confined to the outside of space station walls, with the exception of a few deliberately placed, almost too carefully composed tableaux. Scott and DP Dariusz Wolski offer sweeping CGI vistas of Mars, perfectly exploiting the planet’s picturesquely barren plains, plateaus, mountains, and canyons, drawing on a rich archive of Mars rover footage to make the Red Planet come alive.
Maybe it’s not a coincidence that The Martian carries over this liberal – yet by no means blind – reliance on technology to the message it attempts to convey beneath its thick layers of blockbuster plotting. Set in an unspecified future of manned Mars missions – Wikipedia optimistically places the story in the 2030s –, the movie opens with a catastrophic dust storm, which forces a team of Mars astronauts to abandon their post and fly back to Earth. However, after being knocked unconscious by a piece of debris, Mark Watney (an outstanding Matt Damon) is thought dead and left behind. When he wakes up, he finds himself alone in a base with limited rations on a dead planet, on which he has to survive for four years in order to meet up with the crew of the next mission.
The half of the film which sees Watney trying to “science the shit outta” his situation – growing food, improving the facility, contacting NASA with 1990s equipment – is an engagingly pragmatic paean to the human spirit of invention. Faith plays little to no role in The Martian. Instead, Scott lets his story revolve around problem-solving, moving swiftly from issue to issue, highlighting with infectious enthusiasm the almost boundless capabilities of the scientific method. Given these odds – that he can only survive this extreme Robinsonade with the help of his own inventiveness –, Mark even accepts the possibility of death with an attitude seldom seen in mainstream Hollywood: “If I die, I die doing my job, which I love. I’d die for something big and beautiful. Something that is bigger than all of us.” With just this one line, the film, for a moment, turns into a much deeper reflection on humanity in the space age than either Interstellar, which tried and failed to evoke a transcendental reality, or Gravity, whose takeaway line seemed to be “I hate space”. Out of the three films, Scott’s seems to be the only one with its gaze firmly directed at the stars.
This undercurrent helps the movie navigate its more pedestrian passages. As it progresses, it increasingly shifts the focus away from Mark’s one-man show and towards a plethora of NASA astronauts, scientists, and executives – clumsily introduced by names spelled out on the screen and played by such diverse actors as Benedict Wong, Donald Glover, Kate Mara, Michael Peña, Kristen Wiig, Sean Bean, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jeff Daniels, and Jessica Chastain –, working on saving their stranded colleague. Not only are these passages noticeably less cinematic than the main protagonist’s heartening struggle with the elements – offices and laboratories are more difficult to imbue with visual grandeur than the red wastes of an alien planet –, but they also saddle the movie with exactly the kind of hollow pathos that the Watney story line does so well to avoid.
While we watch the Director of NASA (Daniels), the mission manager (Bean), a scientist wunderkind (Glover), and the head of Mark’s original crew (Chastain) exchange a lot of exposition-heavy dialogue and a bunch of mildly amusing jokes, The Martian gradually works towards a message of global cooperation, as the Chinese space agency offers to assist their American counterpart in the rescue operation. It’s very much in keeping with international space agencies’ policy, spirit, and history of apolitical camaraderie, to be sure, but the way it is handled by screenwriter Drew Goddard makes the ploy seem somewhat clumsy and abrupt.
But because the movie never loses sight of its human core – except perhaps in the overly technical final set piece –, and because its entertainment value remains high throughout, this inferior earthbound half does not prove too damaging. In its own way, The Martian is a perceptive, tremendously timely film that, even if just in bursts, captures the magic of looking up at the night sky and wondering what could be. Imperfect as it is, this might just be the spark that’s been missing from 21st century science fiction.
★★★★½ (out of six)
For more reviews (in German), visit www.facingthebittertruth.com.