THE MARTIAN REVIEW
Mission Director: Ridley Scott
Stars in the Sky: Matt Damon, Sean Bean, Jeff Daniels, Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Chiwetel Ejiofor
Nature of Cargo: Science Fiction / Disaster / Adventure / Drama /Thriller
Age Limit for Travel: 12 A /PG-13
Light Year Duration: 141 minutes
A top NASA team nears the end of a mission to Mars. Mark Watney (Damon) is caught in a storm and appears to be impaled on some space shrapnel. Presumed dead and left behind on Mars, Watney is forced to fend for himself, survive and endure against all the odds. Meantime on Earth, NASA top brass eventually learn of Watney’s plight and pull out all the stops to ensure his safe return home before supplies and solutions are exhausted..
There are some recurring, ritual releases in the Cinematic calendar. A James Bond film every 2-4 years or so. Summer Blockbusters based on some super-hero or other, annually. A big historical epic and /or worthy social drama in the build up to the Oscars.
And now, it seems, there is a new piece of event cinema. Come October/November, we get a ‘space’ movie. Not science fiction or fantasy but hardcore pseudo-science and revolving around someone being stranded /rescued, thereby enabling a simple and self contained simulation of the associated innovations and explorations. 2013: GRAVITY. 2014: INTERSTELLAR. In 2015: THE MARTIAN. I am pleased to report that the latest entry is the best so far in the new trend and therefore bodes well for any future efforts in the same / similar genre and style.
Now, before proceeding further, I MUST stress that this is NOT a movie for everyone. And, despite a VERY respectable opening weekend against the odds, it is unlikely to break Box Office records further down the line. This is NOT a popcorn blockbuster. One does not simply walk into THE MARTIAN and feel that they have been ‘entertained’ on disembarking their seat as credits roll.
No. But this IS a majestic piece of film making. And critically, it has charm. Huge, gaping, Martian miles of old school movie magic. You WANT this film to succeed, as though mirroring the fact that you WANT its hero to both survive and thrive despite the impossible odds against him.
I’d be the first to confess that there are moments (just moments, mind) where I did look at my watch and huff slightly, wishing the film would be over. In ANY other circumstances, that would make the film surely the poorer? Even the most epic piece SHOULD in theory engross to such an extent that one simply forgets the duration, as time flies when has fun and all that. And yes that IS true in many cases. Movies today ARE generally getting longer, despite having less to actually say within their elongated story deliveries.
And THAT is where THE MARTIAN stands out. This movie DOES say something NEW. It shows us that pseudo-science and entertainment CAN be fused into a kind of cinematic take on ‘edutainment’. The movie is not a science lecture. But one FEELS that the piece has been crafted with research and a loving care and attention to the details of space travel. Schools and Colleges: buy this film as soon as it is released on DVD /Blu-Ray/digital download. Meantime, organise a trip to the Movies. This is an essential tool for scientific education and inspiring a love of space among students.
Trust me, I know the signs. Having been privileged enough to visit space agencies as part of my work, I can sense the authenticity of THE MARTIAN. I do not mean that the script is a literal guide to space travel (DREW GODDARD adapted the novel by ANDY WEIR: so it’s not just a dramatised instruction manual). I just mean that the movie shows a pervasive faith in the joys of innovation, exploration and real hard work involved in scientific progress.
You don’t need an army of invading aliens or some horrible space goo or imminent asteroid attack cured by magical montage to inspire an awe in the importance of space travel and those who are brave and distinguished enough to undertake that endeavour. THE MARTIAN illustrates that, and beautifully so.
There are essentially TWO crafts here, working in harmony, perfectly. On the one hand you get the ‘space stuff’, with the film a visual ode to better people than you or I who do take that ‘giant leap’ and all that goes with it. On the other, almost meta-textually, THE MARTIAN is love letter to Cinema itself. It’s as though RIDLEY SCOTT is reminding viewers of what the art-form can and should do; take you to new and unexplored territories, whilst insisting that the viewer make certain sacrifices to enjoy the fruits of that opportunity.
Scott will of course be only too happy to give you old school sci-fi and horror again soon, with his PROMETHEUS sequel, ALIEN: PARADISE LOST. There are even a few nods, visually. Just watch those opening titles and some of the costume / set designs. You’ll get it if you look closely. It’s like a little nod that says ‘If you are very good, boys and girls, and pay attention to this substantial science in space film, you can then have fun next year with the alien monster on the rampage sequel’. That is not meant to sound like a complaint. In fact, I mean it as a high form of praise. Scott is reminding us of a responsibility (in a very honest and unpretentious way) that some films have to be endured so that others can be enjoyed.
Yes that’s right, I said ‘endured’. THE MARTIAN is an endurance test. Long. An assault on the senses on one hand, a dry expository, dialogue heavy, boardroom drama on the other. You FEEL that you have LIVED this thing. It’s a drain, to be frank. But a REWARDING one. One comes away thinking ‘yes; that WAS tough on occasion but i NEEDED that’.
IE the substantial Gourmet Dinner of this movie now entitles me to at least one inane popcorn fueled bit of fun on my next Cinema visit. A balanced diet is essential in all things and especially in Cinema viewing, if aiming to be a truly passionate fan of the art-form. Every aspect of the cinematic craft is here on display at its very finest. Lighting, sound, production design: all flawless.
MATT DAMON gives a selfless performance here, despite being at the centre of the movie. He pushes the boundaries of his physicality and is as convincing as he is compelling in the scientific aspects of the piece. It’s a sort of ‘greatest hits’ compilation in some ways.
You get the action heroics of Jason Bourne (new one due 2016: watch his body change during the movie with that in mind like Ben Affleck pre Batman in last year’s GONE GIRL). Also the verbal / intellectual fireworks of Will Hunting. Even the occasional hint of Mr. Ripley when you fear for the character’s mental as well as physical well being in some scenes.
SEAN BEAN is also on fine form here. It’s a reminder of his power as a credible leader in any genre. You might not ‘buy’ him as an Astronaut. But you DO believe he is a man that the highest of authorities would listen to in a crisis. CHIWETEL EJIOFOR is a warm and immensely likable addition to the cast. There are no showy performances and indeed one could argue that JESSICA CHASTAIN, KATE MARA and a number of other players could have been played by anyone as they have functions in plot and story but little to ‘do’ in the way of character.
There are of course weaknesses. Did I mention the length and pace? Yep. The Chinese once again serve as Deux Ex Machina in yet another Hollywood blockbuster. Surely this is a kind of sociological trend, now? Integrate the Chinese market and all that. No? Ok, maybe it is just genuine storytelling.
The 3-D Is good but not great and the IMAX screen enhances the show but is by no means indispensable. There are occasional nods to the MICHAEL BAY montage style of editing but those are aborted before they truly take off so one is left feeling a little frustrated at times, tonally. The Disco soundtrack snippets should be either funny or rousing but never quite ‘work’ here.
On the whole though, this is a masterclass in epic cinema from one of the greatest Directors of all time. Essential viewing if only to honour the work that has clearly been invested in all departments at their very best. In that sense, watching THE MARTIAN is like the conquest of space. You may very well question why one might attempt it as you embark on the journey. But the merits and results in innovation and inspiration simply speak for themselves.
RECOMMENDED. With Minor Reservation (a great film; but not strictly speaking the smoothest of entertainment rides). Grade A.