The Martian (Extended Edition)
Director: Ridley Scott / Screenplay: Drew Goddard (from novel by Andy Weir) / Editing: Pietro Scalia / DP: Dariusz Wolski / Score: Harry Grigson-Williams
Cast: Matt Damon / Jessica Chastain / Kristen Wiig / Jeff Daniels / Michael Peña / Sean Bean / Kate Mara / Sebastian Stan / Aksel Hennie / Chiwetel Ejiofor / Benedict Wong / Mackenzie Davis / Donald Glover
The Martian started life as a piece of speculative science-fiction on the home-page of author Andy Weir, before making a gradual transition to Amazon’s Kindle e-reader. From there, a ‘conventional’ book deal emerged, leading to an eventual film deal with Scott Free Productions; Sir Ridley’s own outfit.
Weir’s intention from the outset, was to write the most accurate account he could, of how an astronaut might survive, if stranded on Mars. With support from early readers employed within NASA and elsewhere in ‘the space business’ with a vested interest in making this stuff for real, Weir explored a multitude of scenarios; boiling them down to a compelling narrative that had readers gripped to the end.
His shaping of the Martian castaway – Mark Watney – into a well-adjusted individual possessed of the temperament – the ‘Right Stuff’, if you will – to survive against-the-odds was key, though given the amount of psychometric profiling that each crew-member would’ve had to ‘pass’, in order to even don a space suit in the first place, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Watney would be mentally equipped to manage the situation. The only remaining variable? Would the hardware about him, hold-up to extended use?
Unlike so many similar ‘marooned’ dramas, in which the action revolves around the unlucky protagonist, The Martian had the luxury of switching back to NASA and their attempts at mounting a rescue. Naturally, they had to succeed, if only to avoid showing Watney contemplating suicide or becoming a twitchy ‘Ben Gunn’ figure. See Damon’s character in Interstellar (2014) to see how that might’ve worked-out; I think of Dr. Mann as Watney’s evil twin.
So if we know the ending going-in, the film’s job is to string things out and give us catharsis as the titles roll…
For Ridley Scott, The Martian came at a fortuitous time, as it broke a spell of middling-to-poor movies that’d begun with Robin Hood (2010) and reached a low point with the misfiring epic Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014) that had none-other than Christian Bale as Moses and, yes, you did read that correctly.
Christian Bale as Moses… Just let that one sink-in.
Along the way, had been the fan-service (though muddled) Prometheus (2012) and I wonder if Weir’s story had somehow re-lit Scott’s fire as if to make amends, not only for a dispiriting run of films, but to burnish a tarnished reputation as a ‘master’ of the genre. That said, he’d follow-up with the drab, under-nourished Alien: Covenant (2016), so who am I to judge?
He had one HUGE advantage in The Martian however. Well, two, actually. First, was the clarity, balance and novelty of Weir’s book; at times, it reads like an early draft of a screenplay. Second, was his actual screenwriter Drew Goddard. Having cut his teeth as a writer on the Joss Whedon vehicles Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, he conceived and wrote the script for the ‘found footage’ alien invasion movie Cloverfield (2008) that, despite budget restricted CGI, still holds-up for me as a ‘creature-feature’; a love-letter to Japanese cinema. He then wrote the creepy Cabin in the Woods (2012) and adapted Max Brooks’s World War Z (2013) for the screen. On that evidence, I’d say he’s got the chops and I would imagine he had a blast adapting such a strong source novel; especially as it gave Goddard space to inject humour across the park, to lighten the trudge.
Another talented figure on Scott’s team, was the production designer Arthur Max; a figure, who’d worked on ten of Scott’s movies by the time The Martian came his way, but who’s work on Prometheus had been in-keeping with Scott’s ethos of ‘vintage tech’. In other words, whatever we see on-screen has to be technically feasible within the projected era of the narrative yet, to the players, it wouldn’t appear ‘high-tech’. Indeed, to them, it might even be seen as ‘low-tech’, given it would need to be super-reliable and would (probably) have been built to a budget… Max bought into that principle with Prometheus and repeated it here. Given that so much of the film used practical effects along with CGI, it helped the film’s ‘world’, if things occasionally looked ‘scratched-up’ & grubby. The Rover vehicle was a particular highlight for me; building it for real, gave it a knockabout ‘heft’ and sense of durability that would’ve been almost impossible to achieve with CGI alone.
The film begins at a fast pace; Scott wasting little time to establish the six members of the crew of ‘Ares III’. Head of the ‘family’ is Commander Lewis, played here by Jessica Chastain, who never puts a foot wrong in this role. She portrays someone comfortable with the burden of leadership, who’s able to take extemporised decisions for the benefit of all her crew members, yet who’s sympathetic enough to call for a vote of the really difficult issues. Along with Michael Peña as her pilot Martinez, Lewis has come to NASA via the military. Both characters are therefore aware of the ramifications when they decide to violate the chain of command, yet their willingness to leave ‘no-one’ behind is admirable – and it’s credit to the script, that I found them so believable. Peña, has been one of those actors who’ve passed under my radar, but he certainly made his mark here.
Equally well-cast are Kate Mara’s Johanssen, Sebastian Stan’s Beck and Aktel Hennie’s Vogel. Their roles might be smaller out of necessity, but each one pulls something out of their few lines, adding hints of something beyond the glimpses we’re allowed, i.e. Vogel’s video-call to his wife and young family, or the hinted romance between Johanssen and Beck.
However, lest we be in any doubt, this is Matt Damon’s film; with around 60% of the screen time, how could it be otherwise? When we first see Mark Watney, he’s a jokester, teasing Martinez as they work on the Martian surface, collecting soil samples and the like. But just ten minutes in, Scott has him marooned, as the result of being lost, feared dead, in a sudden dust storm that’s led Lewis to scrub their mission and return to Earth.
On waking, Watney has to work his way through Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, as he self-operates to remove an impaled piece of ironmongery, then takes stock of the food reserves left in the ‘HAB’; an interconnected web of re-purposed rocket ‘modules’ now used as HABitation & lab space. He also has to blast dust off the solar panels and get their removing vehicle – the Rover – moving.
It’s this activity that will ultimately be noticed by someone back at Mission Control on Earth: by Mackenzie Davis as Mindy Park. Scott uses this as a gateway to ramp-up NASA’s involvement and takes us into their corridors of power, in a way that hasn’t been seen since Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 (1995). Yes, Jeff Daniels’ NASA Director Teddy Sanders is initially stiff and crusty, in his initial dealings with Vincent Kapoor (the nuanced Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Annie Montrose (Kristen Wiig in a rare ‘straight’ performance), but he’s only playing the political game. Goddard & Weir are sensitive to the minefield of political oversight and funding that Teddy has to cross, so when the Chinese space agency volunteer their suitable cargo-booster after an accident, the American’s aren’t too proud to accept ‘in the name of (apolitical) science’. It’s not easy to extract dramatic urgency from such bloodless stock, so credit to them for having carried me along.
For me, things really only got interesting back on Earth, when the Jet Propulsion Lab (‘JPL’) entered the picture. I thought Benedict Wong was perfectly cast as the hangdog, perpetually-knackered Bruce Ng as he leads a passionate, committed team to ‘work the problem’ with an ingenuity and urgency equal to Watney’s. Newcomer Donald Glover also shone as geeky astrophysicist Rich Purnell, bringing an obsessive drive to a character who might’ve been unapproachably intellectual, if left to lesser writers. Glover really nailed his character in the lean screen-time allotted him.
Talking of thin parts, it was odd to see none-other than Sean Bean as Mitch Henderson, the Flight Director. In-keeping with so many of the subsidiary roles, there was little for Bean to do here and he all-but disappeared into the scenery but, hey: for an actor with a preference for strong characters who never live to see the end titles, at least he only got fired in this one AND he got to joke about The Lord of the Rings…
To return to Damon’s Watney throughout the film, is to see a man grow increasingly at-home on Mars, thanks to an ingenious scheme of growing potatoes (courtesy of a vacuum-packed supply) in a mix of Martian dirt and the stored shit accumulated by the crew during their brief stay. When the inevitable disaster occurs (as narrative convention insists it must), it instantly freeze-dries his promising crop. ‘Luckily’ however, it had already yielded a sufficient crop of healthy spuds to extend his other rations out to the point when rescue was possible.
I won’t go into more detail beyond that, but I did want to mention the real sense of pathos and isolation brought by Damon to this part. Scott did his bit, by shooting in the Jordanian desert (DP Wolski not having to work too hard to convince me that this was in fact Mars…) and by having the rest of the Ares crew leave soon-after those initial shots were done. This left Damon isolated from the other actors, so that the emotion he displays when he hears Lewis’s voice in his helmet turned out to be real. I’m no actor, but I’d imagine a gruelling six-week desert shoot with no other performer to emote against, must’ve been difficult. Add-in an impressive weight loss regime to suggest a lack of calories and Damon showed real commitment to the cause.
The film’s been criticised in some corners, for having too much ‘busy-work’, but I think that’s missing the point. In the same way that Cast Away (2000) featured Tom Hanks staring at the horizon as much as ‘working the problem’, so it has to be here. You only have to put yourself in Watney’s place to know that, yes, you’d probably do likewise, ‘cos what else is there? Besides, Watney has the added edge of finding himself in a place untouched by Mankind – a ‘new Eden’, if you will – so why wouldn’t he want to mooch about the place? He’s only human, after all. We’ve spent countless generations pondering our place in the cosmos. Watney’s gone further than anyone, so of course he’s going to think things over!
I have more pressing issues with the film, however. First and foremost? Although Watney endures miseries untold, he’s a cipher lacking any weight to his character. We know nothing about him. His personal life, background – nothing that would give an insight into the underlying motivations behind his struggle to ‘Science the shit out of Mars’. Who – or what – is he pining to return to? His mama’s lasagne? We don’t know. As a result, he becomes an ‘Everyman’ – a blank slate onto whom we project our own hopes and fears. Although I watched the ‘Extended Edition’, I was sorely disappointed not to see an expansion of his character in that direction. Instead, Scott merely gives us extra panoramic vistas and more of Watney’s housekeeping which, frankly, I’d already seen enough of by that point…
Second, is the lack of any ‘real’ jeopardy and for this, I again look to Weir’s novel. The author chose to tell a science story, rather than a consequential thriller. The inevitable end result? Everything seems too easy… Yes, Watney suffers setbacks but he always solves the problems, along with JPL and others. Of course he HAS TO if he’s going to make it through to salvation, but I craved a darker, introspective note drawn from his character. What’s more, this is the first space Sci-Fi film I can remember, where no-one actually dies. If you can think of another, do let me know.
I mentioned earlier, how NASA would’ve screened every candidate, for their likely temperament under duress but, as portrayed here, Watney’s little better than an automaton… About the only niggles we’re allowed to hear, relay his dislike of Lewis’s choice of music… Where’s his humanity? His deeper psyche? His long, dark tea-time of the soul?
I mentioned Ron Howard earlier, as I’ve been thinking how this film might’ve turned out, had he directed it as a ‘spiritual’ successor to Apollo 13. I suspect there might’ve been more patriotic chest-beating and assertions as to why America might be ‘the Greatest Country in the World’ but, since he didn’t – and it isn’t – then Scott becomes a better choice of the two. Indeed, I struggle to think of any other director who might’ve made a better fist than Scott, of the material as presented.
If only the scripts for his Alien prequels were as tight as this; instead, The Martian only reminds the faithful of what we’re missing…
I admit it’s fatally dangerous, but I’d get to fly around like Iron Man!