After nearly four decades of frantic, omnipresent terror, cosmic frailty, and industrial malice, it seems that director Ridley Scott has finally found happiness. Or perhaps he has simply given up trying. For a director whose films – not his best ones, nor his worst, but all of his films – have always been defined by an almost Lovecraftian stigma against the niceties of joy, Scott using the ripe old age of 77 to find solidarity with lighthearted entertainment is a surprise to say the least. After marauding against the dying of the light – or marauding toward it, more likely – for so long, his poetic fatalism – once bracing and disarming in his youth – has grown interminably stale over the past decade and a half. The self-serious likes of Robin Hood, Exodus, and even Gladiator all entomb themselves in a crisp outer-coating of operatic pretension that makes the hypothetical “fun” at their core go down like acid. Shockingly, or perhaps expectedly, Scott’s new foray into the dark heart of science fiction, the genre that made him famous, is … not quite so dark after all. It is the closest Scott has come to throwing his hands up, giving in, and letting a little light in.
Whether this is for the benefit of the audience is another question entirely. As pleasant as it is to see Scott relax for once, the resulting film is never more than exactly that – pleasant and relaxed. Certainly, this is a leg up on the morose and needlessly grim, opaque films Scott has released time and time again since the turn of the century, all buckling under their false weight and drowning in their glossy seriousness. Scott the populist makes trivial films, but The Martian is the first in an eon to legitimately accept its own triviality. This I take to be the frankincense and myrrh supplied by Andrew Weir, who wrote the book upon which the film is based, and Drew Goddard, who adapted the screenplay and brings his crowd-pleasing, pop-fried sensibilities to bear on a film that knows it is nothing more than a glorified excuse to watch Matt Damon solve consequence-free problems. Thankfully, the film runs with this sensibility and never once mires itself in the muck of its own machinations.
Which is to say, The Martian is a totally superficial film, but it is proudly superficial, if not perfectly superficial. It does not know the candy-coated pleasure of last years day-glo sci-fi extravaganza Guardians of the Galaxy, for example, but every so often The Martian approximates the fortuitous, off-the-cuff, almost spectral thrills of that motion picture. Darius Wolszki’s crucial reds and harsh, almost monochromatic jagged lines are the girders of a Mars that most certainly pops, but it isn’t the unforgiving used-universe cruelty of Scott’s Alien we are watching. The red doesn’t bruise; it snaps and crackles, and watching Mark Watney (Matt Damon) conjure up an escape out of his magic top hat where we might expect a rabbit to lie is never less than amusing cinema.
If the film’s best decision is to reduce the narrative to its bare essentials – “get man off Mars”, sans any of the portentous philosophizing and spiritual fluidity of Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity – its second best decision is to characterize Watney as a bitterly gleeful enthusiast, like he mistook the spaceship for the frathouse and never left. Watney approaches his challenges not as obstacles or conundrums, nor even as possibilities if truth be told, but as opportunities to gloat. He is, essentially, a one-man sports team, with the film as an audience cheering him on. His biggest fan, of course, is himself, which turns out to be an oddly humble gesture for a film milked on escapism. Damon’s character is giving us a cue about how to watch the film: don’t take any of it too seriously.
In the moment, it must be said, The Martian is never less than fully acceptable, winsome escapism – which is something you never expected to say about a Ridley Scott film, did you? Surprising, and surprisingly deft, The Martian is, precisely because it hardly a Ridley Scott film at all. Probably because it was made twenty years beforehand, directed by Ron Howard, and named Apollo 13, a work, like our present subject, of carefully modulated, clean, precise thrills. Yet it is exactly that precise sheen that fails the film when you leave the theater. Watching The Martian is pitted halfway between pleasant and painless, but it is hardly ever endearing. It fails no filmic tests, and scores at least a B in all areas. A passing grade, surely, but it is functionally interchangeable with any number of patented adult entertainment vehicles released in recent years. It is no Gravity, the film it has primarily met comparisons to; that flawed, often confused film also had a few words for cinema as an art form. It sought not simply to escape from the real world, but to escape from the limits of film, and in doing so to push the ends of experiential cinema forward in somewhat stuttering, but nonetheless pummeling shock waves. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a rumbling avalanche of pure cinema all the same, a work that refused to be left unheard and demanded to be dealt with.
Comparatively, The Martian is content with sitting there in the crowd, waving its hands so that we notice it for the duration of its stay, and then tiring itself out as we pass on to the next viable subject. It doesn’t help that the film bites off more than it can chew when we desert Watney for excursions to Earth and a spaceship where his fellow space travelers mourn after accidentally leaving him on Mars under false impression of his early demise. Highly talented actors like Jessica Chastain, David Oyelowo, and Michael Pea are stranded as purely functional, mechanical cogs. Because The Martian is a purely functional, mechanical machine. It functions well, functions perfectly at times, without any damage or rust or bandages or even little personality-filled cracks so you can catch a glimpse at how the internal machine actually functions.
It is a self-cleaning mechanism of a film, waxy and coated in precision, but sometimes you crave a few cracks, a few idiosyncrasies, a little consequence or damage, just so you are reminded of life. The mechanically peppy The Martian is infinitely superior to the mechanically unsmiling, humorless films Scott has cranked out in recent years, but it doesn’t hold a candle to genuine zing of, say, Guardians of the Galaxy, or the maniacal haunt of, you know, Alien. Those films were replete with tangents and idiosyncratic holes where their interest came alive. They were replete with cracks. And they let you fall deep into them. Comparatively, The Martian just isn’t bumpy enough of a ride.