Saturday, November 7, 2015

"The Martian"

Ridley Scott’s career has been a long, bumpy and sometimes frustrating one, continually demonstrating firm discipline worthy of such master artisans as Michael Curtiz or Robert Wise but rarely tuning it to the consistent personal vision achieved by artists like John Ford or David Lean. A classical yet versatile filmmaker, Scott reaches greatness in sporadic bursts, like a cinematic Halley’s Comet that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope.

The Martian is one of the comet's brightest appearances. Not great so much as exceptional in its balance of craftsmanship and heart, it surpasses above-average crowd-pleasing fare like Apollo 13 by making its own impeccable show of remarkable expertise across the board – acting, direction, cinematography, editing, score – a note-perfect reflection of the solidary ingenuity displayed by the screenplay’s characters. That sounds ridiculously self-evident; of course the entire cast and crew need to be on their A-game for the movie to work, otherwise why even bother? Thing is, inventiveness, competence and teamwork are at the forefront of the story’s main themes. In the hands of a competent but mostly unimaginative director like Ron Howard, these themes are illustrated to produce agreeable sentiment. In the hands of someone like Ridley Scott on the top of his form, these ideas become part of the film’s formal and dramatic structure, and function as its very lifeblood, the electricity that keeps its pace steady and regular.

It says something about easy melodrama’s hold on modern visual storytelling when it is noteworthy that characters that are experienced scientists react to occupational hazards and unexpected setbacks with professional self-control1. When a violent dust storm causes botanist Mark Watney (a never-better Matt Damon) to get knocked out of sight by a satellite dish during an emergency planetary evacuation, the expected last-ditch attempt to find him despite warnings of its futility takes place but without the requisite screaming and bickering. They know he is most likely dead and that circumstances cannot permit them to risk any more lives. All the shock, regret and self-blame is expressed by the actors’ faces and bodies. Likewise, the rescue operations that take place on Earth upon news of his survival keep conventional interpersonal drama to a minimum.

Not that The Martian diverges from mainstream storytelling and dramatic techniques by any means; it simply works harmoniously with its characters to make those techniques matter. There is not a minute of screen-time that does not fill its clearly-defined purpose, not one scene that lasts longer or shorter than it should, and yet the film manages to be more than a simple well-oiled machine. Characters are given enough space within their parameters to rise above their functions and archetypes without disrupting the balance. Watney himself matches his Boy Scout resourcefulness with self-deprecating humour that, in one of Drew Goddard’s screenplay’s more astute touches, is conveyed mostly through video logs ostensibly recorded for whichever rescue team ends up finding him in case of failure. Its true narrative purpose – to explain his actions to the audience and keep them informed on his state of mind – is a refreshing and justified take on the hackneyed old voiceover narration trope that never feels forced, yet unfortunately resists fully exploring the struggle against loneliness that this constant self-accounting implies.

Indeed, the futuristic Robinson Crusoe setting could have provided ample ground to examine our current digital generation’s impulse to monitor and report our every emotion and activity, but The Martian only scratches the surface, choosing instead to lionize science and technology as forces of unity with impressive parallel montages and match-cuts between NASA, Watney and the rest of his expedition, though the resulting connections don’t feel as deep as they did in Interstellar.

What ground Goddard’s screenplay does cover in the e-communication terrain, however, skillfully illuminates modern-day science geek culture: Using sometimes profane humour to neutralize or divert the painful and scary nature of his situations as well as make his scientific work approachable in spite of the technobabble, Watney is the kind of scientist you could very well picture as a Cracked contributor. More than simple American action hero glibness, his attitude evidences the underlying fear most heroes only hint at by bringing it to a more familiar level. This is where Matt Damon’s everyman persona – slightly overshadowed as of late by his off-screen outspokenness – truly shines; a naturally earnest actor, he delivers laughs whose unhappy roots only make them more potent. Think of his famous “Alice Jardine” monologue in Saving Private Ryan, stretched, diced and scattered across two hours of film. Only an actor of his heart-on-sleeve candor could excavate so deeply into such seemingly self-explanatory humour.

In a way, the aesthetic and storytelling choices found in The Martian constitute a response to the implicit paeans to rugged agnostic individualism of such films as 127 Hours, Captain Phillips and Gravity. To the up-close-and-personal realism and acoustic invasiveness that dominate the current trend of survival cinema, Ridley Scott replies with bright colours, inclusive framing and – one of the film’s most delightful surprises – a disco soundtrack. Even Mars itself is filmed with wide sweeping landscape pans and shots that emphasize grandeur and majesty rather than hostility and isolation.

All of these choices beautifully underline the script’s optimistic emphasis on teamwork – teamwork that briefly but noticeably includes God, both in symbolic and referential form (We’ll take all the help we can get” says Sean Bean’s flight director to Chiwetel Ejiofor’s multi-religious mission director). In doing so, Scott and Goddard also subvert the solipsistic temptation inherent in both the survival subgenre and the use of video logs as a narrative device.

Although this ongoing theme of cooperation is slightly undermined by China’s late entry to the rescue via an uncharacteristically lazy setup – two leading Chinese scientists decide to intervene upon seeing news of one of NASA’s setbacks on TV – that fails to translate blatant market pandering to natural plot development, any suspicious aftertaste is offset by the script’s subsequent compromise of having nerdy young astrodynamicist Rich Purnell (a scene-stealing Donald Glover) come up with the plan that brings about the climax.

Directed with savoir-faire acquired from years of experience, written with unaffected passion for both the science and its characters, and supported by a dynamic cast, The Martian marks one of Ridley Scott’s highlights and a welcome addition to what might become a science-fiction resurgence.

1Even the excellent Gravity was criticized for what many understandably perceived to be Dr. Stone’s excessive lack of calm and need for reassurance.

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