A Possible Return To Form: The Martian

Ridley Scott is a figure who isn’t unfamiliar with the backdrop of space and the element of Science Fiction, with his greatest of works are derived from such concepts — which early in his career have since proved to be an influential blueprint of modern filmmaking. We found Scott three years ago with a prequel to his franchise opener, Alien, and marking itself as a grand return to the Science Fiction stage that has since defined him. To much of the masses, Prometheus was hailed as a cinematic failure, a subpar homage to the original film, leaving many deeply frustrated by its abundance of narrative and thematic gaps. Since then, such a response has yet to shift the outlook of the many, but I am one of the rare few who saw upon its value.

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Within that three year gap between Prometheus and The Martian, the science fiction genre have boomed, sparked by the rousing success of titles like Gravity and Interstellar, with Scott’s film clearly existing to capture similar successes, and given the track record of his recent films, the odds of such a film attaining critical and general acclaim would be against his favour. To my surprise, The Martian since the moment of its release have been graced with mass admiration, almost as if a welcoming return for the polarising filmmaker. As expectations began to formulate through the overwhelming responses it has received, there was an almost sense of certainty in the film’s inability to captivate me, but despite such confidence, I was surprised in its overall effect, unshakeably proving that Scott has indeed found himself in a comfortable groove.

The Martian does not dwell on the ambitious themes that Prometheus dwells itself on, but even through its simplicity, such a shortcoming matters little to one’s enjoyment. It is a film that establishes the attention of its audiences through the bluntness of its premise; a man left behind in a desolate planet, forced in a state of careful and calculated survival, in the hopes of salvation’s arrival from Earth. Mark Watney (Matt Damon) maintains survival through the minimal tools at his disposal and the accumulated intelligence he possesses in the scientific field. It is a premise that is far from novel, variance only found in the location and circumstances laid upon the protagonist, but it manages to remain infectiously charged through the insertion of well-timed humour in the personalities of its characters, freeing them from the expected formalities in their role, allowing a gateway to be found for audience to both empathise and admire. The Martian could easily be a film that maintains a tactical aesthetic that highlights the struggle of its protagonist and those hard at work to ensure his rescue, recalling the direction brought with Ben Affleck’s Argo, but Scott instead allows room for its characters to breathe and reveal their unique charms that justifies well beyond their narrative purpose.

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Scientific exposition deviates itself from the complexity found in Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, but instead finding a middle ground that is both intellectual and emotionally involving, the latter established through the film’s aura of comedy, buffering the audience from its potential trajectories of melodrama and articulate expositions. Watney feeds the audience through the recorded personal journals for NASA, documenting the specifics in a manner that feels natural and plausible, rarely does it cross the threshold of contrived storytelling that many films seem to fall in — adding onto it is the charm brought by Matt Damon’s performance allowed such routine segments to be consistently entertaining. The Martian is not afraid to proclaim its superficial intentions, to note its desire to exhilarate the audience rather than to reach for anything overly profound. It is a film that viscerally compel us, empathetically placing us in Watney’s position, to feel that survival, heart-pounding instinct.

The film’s shortcomings are funnily enough, derived in its simple ambitions, concerning itself desperately in the survivalist concept of its premise, lacking on that penetrative quality that would emphasise Watney’s tale. The film restrains itself to expose the protagonist’s psychological and emotional condition, possibly in the fear of containing too much, like the direction that was provided in Scott’s Prometheus. The Martian’s distance from the intrinsic aspects of such a protagonist, have barricaded the film from grand excellence — leaving us with a film that is neither too intellectual neither too visceral, it fails to reside a camp of either the impulsive and desperation of Scott’s Alien or the contemplative burn of Blade Runner, Mark Watney is far from the poignantly stimulated essence of Maximus in Gladiator or Frank Lucas in American Gangster. The Martian thrives, a little too much, on the rawness of its emotional storytelling, relying on much of the suspense and thrills that it has to offer, and not enough investigation of the individual that is enduring such torment.

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Lensed by the reliable Dariusz Wolski, capturing the vast and lonely desert terrain of Mars that familiarly recalls the aesthetics of John Seale’s efforts in Mad Max: Fury Road. It perfectly captures the isolated atmosphere that emphasises our protagonist’s struggle and potentially dire outlook, providing the structure and texture that one would come to expect from a depiction of our neighbouring planet, where one could truly feel the extremities in temperatures in the planet’s weather cycle. Although far from the artistic merit that Seale and Adam Arkapaw were able to capture with their desert-like aesthetic in Mad Max: Fury Road and Macbeth, respectively, Wolski’s effort is close, simply lacking that supplemental thematic push from Scott’s direction. The score from Harry Gregson-Williams swells at the right moments, drenching the audiences suspenseful or triumphant highlights, one that is far less manipulative than one would anticipate from such a plot. Its most memorable segments comes in the film’s final moment of triumph, the score accompanied by scenes of cheer and relief, efficiently placing me within the atmosphere, leaving me with a grin that extends from ear to ear.

It is a film that markets itself through the impressiveness of it’s casting, with minor roles, given to pitch perfect actors, delivering equally fitting performances, overall accumulating in an ensemble piece that neither intrudes in the importance of our protagonist nor do some fall in the shadows by the performances of its more seasoned performers. Simply having roles filled by Kristen Wiig and Childish Gambino, in roles that are both distanced and familiar from their comfort zones, adding further to the film’s seemingly naturalistic world, matching wits and impact with the likes of Jeff Daniels and Chiwetel Ejiofor. It can be argued, much like with Scott’s direction, that more could have been provided with Matt Damon’s performance, a greater emotional range from an individual who has suffered so much, but despite these issues, if Scott’s direction reserves itself from such depths into his character, then the blame would fall further on him rather than Damon. It may indicate that I seem disappointed by Damon’s performance, but in actual fact, I was pleased with what he has provided. Damon resonates the character’s sense of resilience, one that infectiously draws its audience closer, allowing him to seem sympathetic but also welcoming as a human being.

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I hope The Martian would mark as a return to form for Ridley Scott, one that would utilise the most of his position as a commercial filmmaker, to once again invigorate and challenge the audience in a manner that more or less reflects the impact of his earlier masterpieces. This is a film that maintains its entertainment value from the moment it begins to the moment it ends, an emotionally engaging tale that keeps its audience hanging, anticipating the ultimate outcome of their extensive efforts.

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