Monday, 28 September 2015

Review: The Martian

World of Blackout Film Review

The Martian (3D) Poster

The Martian (3D / thematic spoilers)
Cert: 12A / 141 mins / Dir. Ridley Scott / Trailer
WoB Rating: 5/7

Seriously Hollywood, can you just stop putting Sean Bean in films? You're only encouraging him. Now, The Martian represents great value for money to your average cinema-goer as a) It's almost two and a half-hours long, and b) It's pretty much two films rolled into one. There's the survival-thriller about an unintentionally abandoned explorer, left to fend for himself in a hostile environment which will kill him without a second thought, and then there's the heart-wrenching, rescue-mission, adventure, in which morality and plucky idealism come head to head with practical limitations and financial bureaucracy. I'll leave it up to you to guess which of these wins the battle for screentime…

Credit where it's deservedly due, The Martian is a visually gorgeous film, and to make a pleasant change, the 3D only makes the dusty, ochre landscapes of our celestial neighbour look even more welcoming*1. It just goes to show that 3D can be used well in live-action; it's just usually not. The settings of a desolate planet and semi-claustrophobic space vessel also allow Ridley Scott to retread some of the steps he took in Alien, although as cinematographer Dariusz Wolski was also Scott's DoP on Prometheus, you get the impression that it was an intentional group-decision rather than a subconscious one.

The film itself? Well, as I've intimated, I found it more of a mixed bag. Matt Damon is pretty great and carries the role in a stoically self-deprecating way. The crew of his (ex-)ship, The Hermes, give everything they can, given their limited screentime. Jessica Chastain gets to do most of the lifting (and does it well, as always), but Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, Michael Peña and Askel Hennie are little more than pencilled in, with the focus falling more on the Earth-bound NASA team charged with formulating an efficient exit-strategy for their stranded astronaut.

And the only real problem I had with the film is that far too much of its time is spent on Earth watching Chiwetel Ejiofor and Jeff Daniels bicker about public relations, while Kristen Wiig and Mackenzie Davis pull concerned faces, and Donald Glover gets to be the clichéd, unconventional, "I've got a crazy idea… but it just might work!" guy who finally unveils a plan which should have been the first thing they thought of.

Short version: Anything which takes place on Mars or in space is awesome. Anything which takes place on Earth is an embarrassing mess full of mis-cast roles and hackneyed dialogue. The more the second one comes into play, the more loudly the wheels of the screenplay squeak. And to be fair, this could be the exact state of affairs in the book, but I wouldn't know as I haven't read it yet*2.

Vaguely spoilery question, highlight-to-read: Speaking of the book, can anyone who's read it tell me if Mark's burning of Martinez's crucifix in order to release the energy required to create life-giving water is covered in any more depth? Obviously the context is given fully in the film, but I thought this might have raised a question on the comfort of religion versus the facts of science, similar to Elixabeth Shaw's quandary in Prometheus. Then it's just never mentioned again.

Back on Mars, there's also the question of gravity. Occasionally, the exterior shots have been filmed in a higher frame-rate and then slowed down to standard to simulate the lower gravity (slower-falling objects, dus-plumes etc). But only very occasionally. The rest of the time, Mark's just padding around (indoors and out) as if the g-ratio is the same as Earth's. When it's not. Which is odd in itself, because quite a lot of work's gone into the zero-g effects onboard the The Hermes. As much as the film loves talking about science, it has a real problem showing it.

Astronaut Watney's mental health is also an issue which seems to be deftly avoided by the film. While his semi-emaciated form appears after months of surviving on dwindling rations, the extent of his inevitable breakdown is characterised only be him referring to himself as A Space Pirate, in a typically glib manner. I know I made pretty much the opposite point for Sandra Bullock's unstable character in Gravity, but in order for Watney to be so rational and upbeat after 300+ days alone on a world which is trying to kill him, he'd have to be unhinged to begin with. Obviously the mental strength and agility of potential astronauts is tested and measured before they get anywhere near a spacecraft, but we learn nothing of Watney's life on Earth, other than the fact that he has parents (…). No bar is set by which the audience can measure his stability, it's all just taken as read that he doesn't turn into a psychopath after a month without human contact.

Ultimately, Ridley Scott seems fascinated by the mechanics of survival on a hostile planet, but less interested in the isolation and insanity which would go hand-in-hand with it.

Watch The Martian for the visuals, and leave the existentialism to Interstellar

Oh, and as if they would live-broadcast the rescue-mission on TV so that the world could potentially either hear the astronauts dying, or get really annoyed when NASA cut off the audio-feed of the astronauts dying…

Is this film worth paying £10+ to see?
For the spectacle, yes.

Well, I don't like the cinema. Buy it, rent it, or wait for it to be on telly?
You're probably not going to watch it more than a couple of times, so a rental.

Does this film represent the best work of the leading performer(s)?
Matt Damon comes out of this very well, as do the crew of The Hermes.
Everyone on Earth, though..?

Does the film achieve what it sets out to do?
In terms of story, I couldn't tell you.
In terms of tension, sometimes.
In terms of visuals, yes

Will I think less of you if we disagree about how good/bad this film is?

Oh, and is there a Wilhelm Scream in it?
There isn't.

…but what's the Star Wars connection?
So let me get this straight: You can include a direct Lord Of The Rings reference in the screenplay (in one of Sean Bean's scenes, no less), and an Iron Man reference elsewhere, but no love for the GFFA..?

Okay, The Martian stars Jeff Daniels as the largely unconvincing Head Of NASA™, but in 1981, Jeff appeared in a movie called Ragtime, which also featured the late, great Bruce Boa; better known to audiences either as The Waldorf Salad Guy from Fawlty Towers, or General Rieekan in The Empire Strikes Back

And if I HAD to put a number on it…

Shorter version: The Martian is basically a longer and more measured take on this…

*1 Seriously, we've got a pretty good idea of it now, and if that is what Mars looks like, I want to go. Granted, I want to go largely because it looks so much like Tatooine, but even so. Anyway, I'll be the guy standing atop the rock formations, making barking noises and waving a gaderffii stick…

*2 No really, I've barely got time to read all the 'Journey To The Force Awakens' material which is coming out before December 17th. I certainly don't have time to read standalone novels when I can just watch a movie of it in two and a half hours...

• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.

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