On the website They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They, Ridley Scott is rated among the 50 best directors of all time, one of only 11 living souls on the list. This rating is largely based on two films, both sci-fi efforts, Alien (1979) and Blade Runner (1982), as well as Thelma and Louise (1991) running a distant third. It certainly is not based on movies like Legend (1985), 1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992), Kingdom of Heaven (2005), or any of a half-dozen other duds; he has arguably made more bad movies than any other “great” director. Thankfully, as of late he has been making a few good ones to offset the clunkers. One of them, Prometheus (2012), his third foray into sci-fi, excited fans and now The Martian looks to do the same.
Is this saying that Scott should stick to only sci-fi? Of course not. I have enjoyed some of his other non-sci-fi movies, and I think they are at their strongest when Scott has some kind of emptiness to play with, either an emptiness of space or an emptiness of sound. Think about how quiet Alien and Blade Runner are, and think of how wonderfully paced The Duellists is, allowing us to question the actions of the combatants (unlike the noisy, stupid Gladiator). Thelma and Louise placed its lost heroines within a wide-open, and yet unforgiving, male-dominated landscape. American Gangster gave its two main characters time to regard and reflect upon one another. The Counsellor (Scott’s most underrated film) took place in large or spare rooms, with characters attempting to find their souls. And while Prometheus was a far cry from Alien, it had some of that movie’s mystery. So it makes sense that Scott would be attracted to a movie about a guy who is lost, by himself, on an entire planet.
Matt Damon plays botanist Mark Watney, one of a crew of six astronauts exploring the surface of Mars. During a storm, he is hit with a chunk of debris. He disappears into the gloom and his suit stops transmitting bio-readings. The rest of the crew assumes he’s dead and decides to evacuate before their ship topples over. When Mark wakes up, he’s all alone, with only an abandoned “Hab” to live in and a rover that will only cover so much ground before its batteries need recharging. He realizes that, if he is to be rescued, it will be a matter of years, and that he must begin to think about food. He manages to rig a system to grow some potatoes. Then he comes up with a way to communicate with NASA.
Back at headquarters, several scientists and bureaucrats argue about what to do. NASA head Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) worries about PR and funding, and engineers Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Mindy Park (Mackenzie Davis) begin working on rescue plans, or at least figuring out how to get him fresh supplies. There’s also an argument as to whether the remaining five crew members — captained by Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) — piloting a spaceship back to earth, ought to know about what happened; there’s nothing they can do about it, it wasn’t their fault, and they need to be able to concentrate.
“I’m gonna have to science the shit out of this,” says Watney at one point, and indeed the movie revels in calculations, hypotheses, formulas, experiments, failures, and results. It’s a cheerful movie, scripted by Drew Goddard (one of Joss Whedon’s right-hand men), based on the bestseller by Andy Weir, and full of tasty, great-sounding verbiage. Watney begins recording a video journal right away, speaking his thoughts to the camera, probably more in an effort to keep up his own spirits — and to communicate information to the audience — than for posterity. Scott could have given us an All Is Lost-type situation with no dialogue at all, but he has chosen entertainment over art. Damon comes alive with this dialogue, spreading a can-do attitude across what could have been an oppressive story. Because, yes, at the heart of it all is one of the scariest situations that a human could possibly imagine himself in.
Scott nicely balances little moments of terror and/or frustration as Watney deals with his aloneness. The martian landscape, which was — like every other movie set on Mars — shot on earth and colored red, looks empty and alien at all times, with Watney no more than a dot on its surface. We can never forget that everything on this planet is trying to kill our hero. Yet The Martian is far from the profound metaphysical experience that Gravity was two years ago (even though everyone who once liked Gravity has now turned on it, and I’m its only fan). The situations in Gravity had a kind of purity, and allowed for more time to reflect all aspects of life from birth to death. The Martian has some of those kinds of moments, but they are diluted by the many counterbalancing scenes back on earth and in the returning spaceship.
The Martian is no masterpiece, but it is a fine film from a talented director, somehow finding a nice balance of technology, alienation and storytelling. And best of all, he seems to be having fun with this piece; he seems to want to be here, seems to know what he’s doing, unlike several dour, droningly serious films ranging from the crushing disappointment of Robin Hood to the misguided Exodus: Gods and Kings. It would be nice if Scott, now in his late 70s, had learned that movies of sound and fury often signify nothing, but movies about nothingness can be about everything.