Sunday, 25 October 2015

Movie Review: The Martian (2015)



To paraphrase one of the more boisterous names in space exploration: “Space: the final frontier”. However, something that is becoming clearer and clearer with every day since that phrase was first uttered is that space will always be the final frontier. Unlike our home planet, there is an infinite amount of, well, space outside of our atmosphere and it is expanding every second. The distance between points of interest (stars, planets, space fog, etc.) is occupied by a vacuum that seems to exist at the exact opposite of our ideal living conditions, and that’s if we even have a vessel that can stay in one piece during all that travel. Is it any wonder, with all this in mind, that space travel and exploration is frequently used as the setting for dramas and thrillers? Sure, space combat will always be enticing, but the thought of how claustrophobic, hazardous and ultimately liberating leaving Earth for greener pastures can be has produced some truly amazing works of art, particularly in the realm of cinema. So, when director Ridley Scott decided to return to the cold void that yielded him a bona fide sci-fi classic with Alien (and a modest success with Prometheus), how did it turn out considering his last cinematic venture? Time to take that first small step forward: This is The Martian.

The plot: Mark Watney (Matt Damon), while on a manned mission to Mars, gets separated from his team during a freak storm. As a result, he has been presumed dead by his colleagues, NASA and the world at large. However, while battered, he is still alive. Now stranded on the red planet, he has to find a way to survive on a planet where he is the only living thing long enough for a rescue mission to reach him. That is, if he can even reach Earth with the information that he is still alive and they can send someone in time to save him in return.

At first, this film has some issues on the production side of things. Despite how comfortable Ridley Scott is under the SF umbrella, he has easily one of the most hit-or-miss filmographies of any director lauded as one of the greatest ever. Not only that, Mars as a film setting is notorious for being box office poison, if films like Mission To Mars and Mars Needs Moms are anything to go by. Hell, because of this, Disney were pressured to remove ‘of Mars’ from the title of the 2012 John Carter movie, inadvertently creating another box office disaster out of creating a painfully generic title. This could have so easily been a phenomenal screw-up. Thankfully, we have the steady hands of Drew Goddard, best known for his collaborations with Joss Whedon, in charge of the script. That kind of experience with one of the frontrunners when it comes to compelling character creation shows here as he imbues the human element into every character concerned, especially our focal point Mark Watney. He’s written as being a bit cocky… okay, very cocky what with him joking about colonizing Mars and declaring himself to be the space pirate Captain Blondbeard (no, he doesn’t go insane during the course of the film), but it never reaches the point of being needlessly obnoxious. Instead, it sees him dealing with a particularly harrowing situation in the most human way possible: Humour. Through his mission logs, which make this feel like it’s a repurposed found footage movie at times, we see him crack wise about his own situation and what he must do in order to survive; like repurposing all the tech at his base, most of which was only meant to last for one month, so that it will last him for the possible years that he could be left on Earth’s neighbour. In fact, one of the only bad points I can see with this film is that, at times, it can feel a little too humourous given how serious the circumstances are. However, the drama is always kept in perspective and every bit of frustration, elation and everything in between is portrayed expertly throughout.

What helps all of this along is the fact that, as weird as some of this can get, this is a pretty accurate script in terms of the science on display. Far as I can tell in terms of researching the specifics, since space exploration isn’t one of those areas that I can easily feign expertise in off the cuff, the only real Hollywood moments we get are the presence of sound in space and how, apparently, the NASA buildings are more stylized in the film’s universe than in ours. Don’t get me wrong, parts of me want to rag on the sound thing, considering how well Gravity did without needing to convey that like so many other films, credit where it’s due on bringing further realism to the proceedings apart from that. Hell, even some moments that I instinctively called BS on, like taping the cracks in a spacesuit helmet shut, are actually plausible. What makes this approach to harder sci-fi even better is that the film is also adept at being able to translate aspects of astrophysics, like gravity slingshots, in a way that can appeal to a more mainstream audience. As someone who sits through probably more science fiction than is mentally advisable, it can get rather frustrating when a piece of media tries to be too clever and bring up complex ideas but in a way that completely flies over peoples’ heads. Imagine reading the script to Back To The Future Part II when you can’t understand English and you have a decent idea of how it can get sometimes. Tl;dr, it is refreshing to see a combination of real-world science and effective translation in cinema like this.

Probably the most surprising part about this, more so than its sense of humour or attention to science, is that this story is by no means all that new. Hell, this kind of large-scale incident that brings the world closer together is regularly employed by disaster film-hack Roland Emmerich for the majority of his films. However, where this differs significantly from Emmerich’s usual fare is the execution. Rather than attempting to blindly appeal to everyone by creating broad stereotypes and caricatures for the audience to identify with, as is the case with the likes of Emmerich and Bay, it instead focuses on creating likeable and relatable characters out of people that would realistically be involved with the film’s plot. From Jessica Chastain as mission commander Lewis to Chiwetel Ejiofor as NASA mission director Kapoor to Donald Glover (woot) as astronomer Rich Purnell, the attempts at aiming for realism continue in the cast as not only do they all give great performances but they are also create a very welcoming atmosphere through their banter and more natural sensibilities. No matter how cheesy this film can get, which is natural given the territory of the plot, we never get any unnecessarily cold-hearted moments where people are declaring that they just leave Watney behind to die without giving a really good reason for it.

Speaking of cheese, outside of its sense of humour, the major aspect of this film that can make this film feel weird around the edges is the soundtrack: Big disco ballads like ABBA’s Waterloo and Donna Summer’s Hot Stuff, along with David Bowie’s Starman. Honestly, this is the kind of music that I don’t listen to casually (ABBA in particular, all copies of which need to be sent to Mars far as I’m concerned) but what makes it work so well here is the context it’s used in. For starters, much like Love, Rosie, the music choices are almost tailor made for the action on-screen; actually, the fact that they fit as well as they do and are as obvious as they are is ultimately what makes this feel a bit tacky in spots. The other reason this works, something that manages to even negate my own misgivings about it, is that the film is completely aware of how silly it is. The entire reason that is exists in the first place is because it is literally the only music Watney has left over with him. This almost feels like a strange riff on Star Trek II in that regard; maybe if Khan was stuck with some trashier literature as opposed to Paradise Lost, he would have mellowed out a bit.

All in all, this is a really uplifting watch. While the soundtrack and its use, coupled with the film’s style of humour, can be a bit saccharine at times, the film’s script and direction hold things together expertly. Ridley Scott’s sense of scope when it comes to space is used well here to illustrate the isolation the main character is going through and Matt Damon gives a great performance, leading a cast who all have their humanity at the forefront. Beyond the great production values, acting and script, this is the kind of film that imbues the viewer with a sense of pride in their own humanity and, in an age where space exploration is becoming more ambitious, reinforcing the need for teamwork is just what the doctor ordered. This outranks The Book Of Life as, aside from being a lot more focused as a narrative, the compelling characters end up serving a greater purpose overall. However, since this film's kitsch does get in the way somewhat of enjoying this as much as I should, it falls short of Irrational Man, where the moral quandaries engaged just that little bit more.

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