Ridley Scott has been on an impressive string of duds. Despite directing two of the best sci-fi films ever made (Alien and Blade Runner) his recent filmography has included critical failures such as Exodus: Gods And Kings, The Counsellor and 2010’s Robin Hood. With his (second) return to science fiction, can Ridley Scott recover from these gigantic failures?
The Martian stars Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels, Sean Bean and Chiwetel Ejiofor and is directed by Ridley Scott. Based on the novel of the same name by Andy Weir, the film follows astronaut Mark Watney (Damon) as he is accidently left behind by his crewmates on Mars after being believed dead.
The Martian looks spectacular. While many of the space station and base camp scenes were shot on sound stages, the outdoor Mars scenes were shot in Wadi Rum in Jordan. Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski has captured several stunning aerial landscapes of the Red Planet, and they are a joy to look at. The blood red sand and epic rock formations are unlike anything I’ve seen committed to film before and knowing that it wasn’t just endless CGI creations makes it even better.
The rest of the cinematography is also brilliant from a technical and practical standpoint. Several Ridley Scott cinematic tropes appear in the film, including a gorgeous 360 degree spin of the camera near the finale which unfortunately doesn’t stick around long enough to fully enjoy it.
For a sci-fi adventure, the script is remarkably witty and funny. Matt Damon’s portrayal of astronaut Mark Watney shows a man who realises the crushing loneliness and possible futility of his location and decides to make a joke out of it. Through Watney’s constant video logging we get to listen to his stream of conscience, usually laced with profanity or a smart quip about his surroundings. These jokes are a brilliant way of characterising Watney as a man who likes to make a joke out of his desperate and almost hopeless situation.
That’s not to say the film is all laughs though. There are some great moments where Matt Damon shows off his vast acting ability and starts to break under the weight of being stranded on Mars, only to slowly pull himself back together so that he can finally make his way back home. There are even some incredibly tense, stomach-turning moments, such as when Watney has to perform amateur surgery involving pliers and a stapler, or another where his space-helmet gets cracked during a malfunction at his base camp. The final ten minutes made my heart fly into my mouth as Watney is finally at the peril of gravity, using all of his might to try and escape the atmospheric pull of Mars. It’s a master-class in tension, something that even suspense and horror films don’t get right from time to time.
While Ridley Scott films have been known for their excellent soundtrack (Hans Zimmer’s OST of Gladiator is phenomenal, as well as Vangelis’ work on Blade Runner) the score for The Martian feels a little flat. The only track that I liked was “Crossing Mars”, and that was mainly due to it accompanying one of Wolski’s landscape shots. The rest of the score is rather generic, with no noticeable or memorable motifs. The film however does have a large array of licensed 70s disco music, with songs such as Donna Summer’s “Hot Stuff” and ABBA’s “Waterloo”. These songs usually come with a running commentary by Watney about how he hates the disco music that he is stuck with, but soon enough he starts dancing along, making the audience laugh enough more.
The other problem (like many other films I’ve reviewed) is the run time. The film is just short of two and half hours, which is longer than many feature films recently. While the film cuts back and forth between Watney surviving on Mars and NASA running through ideas to save him, the film does stay with the NASA side for a good half an hour during the middle of the film. While I wasn’t bored during these scenes I was more interested in seeing what was happening back on Mars, it felt like they dragged on for quite a while. And although I praised the landscape shots at the beginning of this review, there were several that could have been taken out of the film as they served no real narrative purpose.
Overall, The Martian is an triumphant return to form for Ridley Scott. Funnier than most comedies, tenser than most suspense movies and enough techno-talk for the scientists without losing the mainstream audience, The Martian could well be one of the best of the year.
Score: 8/10 Brilliant escapist fun from a legendary director.