The Martian

A film being directed by Ridley Scott would once have been a real draw. This is, after all, the man who gave us Blade Runner, Thelma & Louise and Gladiator. Then it seemed that Scott had gone all Woody Allen on us, serving up such a series of clunkers that his name became synonymous with variable rather than high quality. Certainly his recent run of movies; Robin Hood, The Counsellor and Exodus: Gods and Kings were all deeply mediocre and Prometheus which was his return to the world of Alien, the movie that made his name, was terrible. If you look back through his filmography though you will see that he has always been fairly inconsistent. With The Martian, which is without doubt his best film in years, the reason becomes very clear. The fact is that Ridley Scott’s moments of brilliance have never truly been of his own making.

The thing that connects The Martian with those other great Scott films is the quality of the writing not the direction and the real creative forces behind this movie are script writer Drew Godard and author Andy Weir. Godard started work on Buffy before penning Cloverfield, The Cabin in the Woods (with Joss Whedon) and large chunks of the Daredevil TV show. With The Martian he has taken Weir’s clever set up, characters, humour and science and packaged them up all ready to be effectively translated to the screen. It was all there for Scott to shoot and to be fair that is what he’s good at; taking a strong screenplay and making it work visually.

The design of Ridley Scott’s film has always been good and in truth it is this that he’s built his career on. It’s never been enough to hide poor storytelling, the aforementioned Prometheus stands as proof of this, but when he is building his film around a solid narrative he can excel. He started out in advertising and in many respects he hasn’t moved on from this; when the product is good he sells it well, when it’s a dead dog he can’t.

This story of an astronaut striving to survive when stranded on Mars looks fantastic then. There are lots of stunning red vistas, epic starscapes and cool spacecraft. Matt Damon is the one in need of saving (again) and the film moves between him, alone on the barren planet, the people on Earth trying to get him home and his fellow crew members, still on the return journey, dealing with events from their point of view. The sections with Damon are like Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity only on land (which makes more sense when you think about it), the Earth based scenes are strongly reminiscent of Apollo 13 and the spaceship stuff seems familiar from any number of pictures. This said it doesn’t feel derivative. It isn’t as good as Gravity or Apollo 13 but all of the elements come together to create a film that could well become a new sci-fi classic.

The cast are excellent too. Scott is okay with actors when they have sensible things to say and do. As well as Damon we have the other astronauts including Jessica Chastain along with Marvel alumni Michael Peña (so good in Ant-Man), Kate Mara (so so in Fantastic Four) and the Winter Soldier himself Sebastian Stan who all manage not to wink knowingly at the camera during the Iron Man references. NASA is staffed by Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sean Bean and Kristen Wiig and there are a couple of nice performances from soon to be more famous young actors Donald Glover and Mackenzie Davis.

Apparently Scott delayed work on the Prometheus sequel when he came across this script and that proved to be a good call. The Martian has given a much needed boost to his reputation and hopefully he has learnt that scripts are a good place to start.

Is this one for the kids?
The Martian is a 12A and should appeal to young teens who like something other than superheroes and dystopian futures (although there are elements of these types of films in there too). There is a small amount of swearing but given the protagonists situation we can forgive him that. Looking at the premise this could have been a highly tense or harrowing film but actually it isn’t. In places it is gently amusing and while there are a few edge of the seat moments it has a surprisingly low feeling of peril. It is a fairly easy watch and even with all the science talk isn’t too challenging. All in all it is a good one to see with the family.

The Ripley Factor:
Ridley Scott was of course the one who gave us Ripley in the first place and whatever else may be wrong with his films he has always had strong female characters. The Martian doesn’t showcase empowered women though, as with Alien and Thelma & Louise, it just has good characters across the board. Some of them are men, some of them are woman and no issue is made of gender which is actually just how it should be.

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