The opening credits to Ridley Scott’s The Martian are oddly self-referential. We’re presented with an image of Mars (not sure why) over which pieces of the titular letters slowly fade away. It seems deliberately designed to evoke the opening of Alien (in which the letters of the title appear piece by piece over images of the vast emptiness of space). It’s an interesting reference to make in a film so different in tone and, if The Martian was a bad film, I’d be writing something about how Scott desperately tries to relive former glory, to inject something of his older classics into his new work. But it isn’t. It’s good. And so rather than making us wish we were watching past work, the reference reminds us just how great a director of sci-fi Scott still is.
Adapted from the novel by Andy Weir, the film centres on Mark Watney (Matt Damon), an astronaut and botanist left for dead by his crew after a storm forces them to abandon their mission. Stranded alone on Mars, he must survive for four years until help can reach him. Watney’s key survival weapon is his sense of humour, and we come to know it well through a series of video logs he records to keep himself sane. It never seems forced, and any risk that Watney’s constant wisecracking might remove some of the tension is mitigated by Scott’s direction. He complements the vlogs with shots from far, far above the planet’s surface; Watney’s base a white speck among the red. He never lets us forget how alone Watney really is, and as a result his task never seems anything short of massive. Cinematically tricky text communications with his crew and NASA are handled by having characters read messages aloud. On Earth, this is ‘explained’ by having one character read Watney’s responses to the room. On Mars, Watney seems to read aloud for comfort. Both work surprisingly well. Add to this the fact that Matt Damon both suits and plays the role perfectly, and all of The Martian’s Martian scenes work beautifully.
There is, however, a bit of a quality disparity between the scenes set on Mars and those on Earth. The problem isn’t with the cast; they’re an impressive ensemble and no-one falls short. It’s the writing. On Earth we have a group of clever people being clever, which would be fine if it weren’t for the large amount of plot they have to work their way through. Constant decisions about how to save Watney, how much they can spend saving Watney, and whether it’s worth risking everything to save Watney, leave every Earth-dwelling character with almost no breathing room. Jeff Daniels, Kristen Wiig and Chiwetel Ejiofor all feel a little under-served. This continuous problem solving also leads to far too many ‘lightbulb’ moments, in which characters pause mid-sentence, drop their jaws and rush out of the room with a line about having figured it all out. It’s a shame, but not a great enough shame to detract significantly from what is a truly enjoyable sci-fi film.
Worth a watch?
+Scenes on Mars are spectacular
-Scenes on Earth are not
The Martian is a return to form for Ridley Scott: flawed but truly cinematic and often brilliant.