‘The Martian’ – a Review

 

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Mat Damon – there not much to do on Mars

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.

Bogus Ending

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.

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Yup, no matter which way you look at it, there’s not much to do on Mars

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.

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You can always try and grow food where there is no water

Factual howlers

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
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9 Responses to ‘The Martian’ – a Review

  1. Thanks for that! I have to see it because it’s Ridley Scott, and so agree with you about Prometheus, which is visually stunning, and I think provocative.

    I never realised Damon was always getting rescued, but you’re right!

    • Grouse Beater says:

      He’s aye getting himself into scrapes! 🙂

      • I did fancy this in truth as I have a ‘thing’ for Mars after reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy. Janice Forsyth gave it a half decent review the other day too. Taking aboard your own reservations I’ll still go and probably enjoy it just the same. I suppose the standard disclaimer for any of these movies these days is “it’s American”.
        I’d love to see a non- US take on this sort of yarn.
        After all, it’s the Chinese who will be leading the journey into the cosmos this century.

      • Robert Peffers says:

        A bit like Wee Willie Rennie then?

      • Grouse Beater says:

        🙂

  2. kishorncommando says:

    Good accurate review.
    I saw it in 3D and thought that made up for the other shortcomings. Best 3d movie yet for me. Music – 70’s Disco, Abba, Bowie,
    I suppose if you have to be in a box for 2-3 years with others then personalities chosen would not be too different.

    • Grouse Beater says:

      I saw it in 3D too, but it’s a system that darkens the tones. However, in this case it gave us a great panorama to see.

  3. Thepnr says:

    Interestingly I bought the paperback in the airport about 5 or 6 months ago. A quite unusual style of writing but a plot I very much enjoyed.
    At that time I never knew there was a film being made but this was a book I wanted to keep so about 4 months I bought a fine first edition hardback published by Del Rey and an authors proof copy for about £30 each.
    You can’t get the hardback now for less than £125 and the price goes up to over £700. I’m expecting any day now for this to be all over the corporate media about how another nationalist has ripped off a poor, vulnerable bookseller.

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