Matt Damon is forever getting rescued in his movie plots.
Saving Private Ryan, Good Will Hunting, even the Bourne saga where he has to rescue himself. He is either trying to get home, or someone is engaged to get him home, or back to sanity. The Martian has him in a similar predicament, this time marooned on Mars. Luckily, he is the ‘best botanist on the planet’ – meaning the only one. Food for thought.
Damon does a good line in Mr Everyman lost, and on the journey gives Tom Hanks in Castaway – a screenplay planted firmly on a desert island – a good run for his money.
A film critic has a hard job these days avoiding squeals of pain from film fans for discussing plot before the cinemagoer has seen the movie, but as The Martian has been in cinemas over a week now I don’t see why the ending cannot be discussed before discussing the film. But if sensitive, don’t read on from here.
The ending is one long spew-boke American triumphalism. The hook is an old one, have the frantic denouement take place in full flaring glare of a vast crowd. That’ll get the audience all choked up, emotions duly manipulated. It’s phony drama. I just don’t believe the main squares of the world’s capital cities would be packed with cheering crowds, Time Square especially, to see our Everyman rescued. Had he been the first astronaut in space, yes, but a long line of them, no. We might be glued to out tellies, at most.
And here’s the other problem – the film was made because another studio made a similar story, only it was a woman marooned in outer space, who, by her own efforts and gee-whizz skills, got herself safely back to Mother Earth. Sandra Bullock also did a fine job acting in a space suit most of the excellent Gravity, goldfish bowl with added face light on her head. That is Hollywood bosses to a tee. They are executives in suits with their eye on the main chance. No imagination. Just copy what the others are doing.
Soon as they hear a rival studio is making one sort of genre on a big budget they demand to know if there is a similar screenplay in their archives. That’s exactly how Rob Roy got made, on the back of Braveheart.
Oh, one more negative. Our attempts at colonising other planets always has a downside. Mars is left covered in garbage from Mother Earth. It seems wherever we humans go we leave behind a trail of non-recyclable crap. It’s our signature.
It’s symptomatic of humankind’s loss of faith in ourselves, the knowledge we have dumped on our own planet, that we should be keen to see films about us dropping more crap on other planets.
A Simple Plot
Damon – Mark Watney, well, at least the name isn’t Archie Smith – is left behind by his astronaut colleagues who think him dead. He then has to resort to all sorts of innovations to survive, until, he hopes, NASA can rescue him. One of his wheezes is to grow potatoes from his poop and urine, conveniently contained in foil bags so he does not actually have to handle it. (Why each package has the relevant astronaut’s name on it is a mystery.) The good coincidence for the filmmakers is water discerned on Mars in the same week the film was released.
Damon is a highly personable actor, with some healthy liberal credentials he is happy to make public, and here his pleasant, open personality takes us through his astronaut’s travails in an entertaining fashion. He does not let us down, though the film is far too long to have us rooted to the spot every sequence.
The visuals are what we expect from Ridley Scott – magnificent. I believe it was shot in Morocco, computerisation doing the rest. When it comes to dramas in outer space no one does it better that Scott. Nevertheless, he relies heavily on his screenwriters.
He was one of a bevy of English commercial directors, successfully making television commercials back in the seventies, that got their big break from producer David Puttnam. But while all of them show that they are superb with visual effects and three-second edits, the stuff of a television advert, each is poor on directing actors. Scott is no different.
Not an Actor’s Director
Scott relies on past success attracting major movie stars who don’t need much directing, or won’t take much instruction. Russell Crowe is a regular Ridley partner. When it comes to brooding intensity Crowe is the whole store. What Scott is good at, besides the visuals, is working with robots and automatons, and that’s exactly what he had in the wonderful Blade Runner, and Alien. But give him characters with a back story and emotional baggage and he is the man lost in space. He is safe with Matt Damon. In Martian there are no depths to any of the other characters; they’re one-dimensional. The most they get to do is make a moral decision or a quip. Damon does all the acting, weeping, anger and elation.
The turkeys line up
Scott has produced too many turkeys in a row; all required a director used to working with actors, not simply pointing them in the right direction and asking they don’t bump into the furniture, or in this instance, a large Martian rock. Prometheus springs to mind, visually stunning, devoid of intellectual content and human emotion, (a Ridley trait) the plodding contrivance of The Counsellor, (a career killer in a less experienced director) and the awfulness of Exodus: Gods and Kings.
The screenplay for Thelma and Louise was excellent, but generally Scott doesn’t have good instincts for a decent script. The Martian redeems him somewhat.
The opening sequence has the NASA team caught in a Martian storm, so fierce they cannot see their Rolex Oyster Perpetual on their wrist. (Am not sure of the brand but the watch shots are groan-inducing product placement.) The dense storm is what gets Damon lost.
Dust storms routinely sweep across the planet, but the atmospheric pressure of Mars is about 1% that of the Earth’s. This means the air on Mars is simply too thin for the wind to carry much force or do any damage, so says Jim Greene, NASA’s planetary science director. In other words, rather than astronauts getting blown backwards out of their space pants, it is more like getting hit with a feather filled pillow.
Just Missed Four Stars
That liberty aside, and my inability to recall a single note of the incidental music, or musical effects, it is an enjoyable three-and-a-half stars movie, and often quite funny. Some critics have given the film four stars but I don’t find it that memorable.
- Star rating: Three and a half stars
- Director: Ridley Scott
Cast: Matt Damon
Adapted from the book “The Martian”
Screenplay: Drew Goddard
Duration: 2 hours 14 minutes
- RATING CRITERIA
- 5 plus: potential classic, innovative. 5: outstanding. 4: excellent. 3.5: excellent but flawed. 3: very good if formulaic. 2: straight to DVD. 1: crap; why did they bother?