By James Kenney; modified slightly from original publication at WhatchaReading? in 2015.
The Martian, Academy-Award nominated for Best Picture and Best Actor for Matt Damon as an Astro-botanist accidently left behind on Mars by his crew, is a good film. No doubt. Engaging, with beautifully isolated Mars landscapes, a first-rate ensemble cast, and a surprisingly and refreshingly upbeat, affable tone not usually associated with director Sir Ridley Scott, The Martian is an undeniably enjoyable example of Hollywood engineering at its finest, all component parts conjoining in a memorable whole.
It’s a little simple-minded.
Scott is increasingly burnishing his “legend” credentials with his extremely productive 21st century output that began with Gladiator in 2000. He’s directed some very popular films, and most importantly, popular genre films, the kinds which even when limited can provoke decades of debate amongst “fanboys” long after mere mortals thought their byways played out. I don’t say this unkindly, but are Alien, Blade Runner and Prometheus truly more vital or better films than An Unmarried Woman, Local Hero, or All That Jazz? Not necessarily, and they are not necessarily worse, but one disregards with peril the “boys with toys” aspect of cinema that has often amplified the greatness of works by genre filmmakers such as Phil Karlson, Samuel Fuller and Quentin Tarantino while marginalizing filmmakers such as Paul Mazursky, Peter Bogdanovich and Mike Nichols, whose interests clearly don’t involve artillery and effects.
I would argue more lip-service has been paid to Scott’s absolutely silly Legend than his brilliant The Duellists, due the built-in cult ready to embrace and ruminate on any sci-fi/fantasy film. Rewatchability is all-important, sure, but my watching Michael Winner’s The Mechanic six times doesn’t mean it’s a great film. It’s a good film, of sorts, impressively sociopathic, but with elements (car chases, international locations, gun fights, and an iconic movie star in Charles Bronson) that make it easy to repeatedly digest, which doesn’t make it a better film than Jean Renoir’s The Grand Illusion, which I dutifully viewed once in a college film class.
So before I digress too much (too late!), I need to point out that Scott is a man who knows a good lighting scheme and impressive set design, and certainly tackles some ambitious projects. Scott, however, has never revealed much interest in humanity (as demonstrated by his recuts of Blade Runner that eviscerate the little humanity present in its initial, imperfect 1982 release) or any great ability to edit or sculpt a scene. His sour cop film Black Rain was all strikingly lit rain and neon blanketing lumpy action scenes and sodden dramatics (apparently modern Japan looks just like futuristic Los Angeles). I am often in awe of shots in a Ridley Scott film without being awed by the scene that contains them. When he does straightforward drama, whether Someone to Watch Over Me or The Counselor, I feel some key element of drama is missing; some people have championed The Counselor for its pitch black nihilism, but it’s nothing compared to Cormac McCarthy’s disturbing and eloquent original (and published) script –there were several (handsomely lit and photographed) scenes where I didn’t feel confident Scott understood or cared about what McCarthy had written. Key lines were tossed off, inconsequential lines were accented, and character relationships were either less ambiguous or fuzzier than in the script. But the damn thing looked nice, sure.
All this is a prolix lead up to why I didn’t expect a ton from The Martian, and why I was agreeably surprised by it without being overwhelmed with joy. The film’s sense of humor was unexpected, but I didn’t actually laugh all that much. Scott respectfully shot a script laced with humor, but some of it was tired clichés (Damon’s repeated “disco sucks!” refrain rings as false as Mission Commander Jessica Chastain’s apparent obsession with bringing it into space in the first place) and at a certain point the film becomes just a series of obstacles that the good people of Earth and Space (even the Chinese!) have to overcome, which remains involving because of the game cast and striking production – did I mention that Scott does create impressive-looking movies? But the characters are all as one-note as I find the characters in most of his films to be. Likeably one-note this time around, unlike the majority of his protagonists, but one-note. Once you meet Damon, Chastain, Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Eijiofer, Sean Bean, Kristin Wiig and the rest, they are easily identified by one character trait (hard-working! Grumpy!) which they then ride hard for the film’s lengthy running time. And while it works, it takes no great imagination to use the late David Bowie’s “Spaceman” over a sequence of people hard at work in space.
I admire Scott’s craft and impressive filmography while finding limits to his imagination, if not his budget. While The Martian is a quality entertainment, I don’t think it quite reaches the pantheon of his strongest works, whether the resplendently oppressive (and forever flawed) humpback classic Blade Runner, his darkly funny treatise on self-destructive fixation The Duellists, or the unlike-anything-else-he’s-attempted Thelma and Louise. The film is a bit like its protagonist; a goodhearted plodder going about its work to bring things to a happy conclusion. But I wonder if the often mean-spirited Scott, acting on his best behavior, gritted his teeth throughout the shoot. To quote Damon’s character when he decides he will attempt to survive on Mars via growing potatoes: “I don’t want to come off as arrogant here, but I’m the greatest botanist on this planet.” The Martian is the greatest feel-good Rescuing-Stranded-Astronaut-from-Mars film of 2015. It’s something, for sure, but I don’t know if it will stick.
(postscript– I haven’t had any urge to see it again since 2015; I do appreciate Scott’s busy late-in-life pace and wish him well in his endeavors. And still wish someone else had directed A Good Year.)