There are so many potential pitfalls in Ridley Scott‘s new big screen feature, The Martian, that I lost sleep thinking about them. Oh, this movie is going to be overblown and dreadful, I thought. Boy, was I wrong.
But just to tick off some of the more obvious potential problems: The Martian planet could look phony. It doesn’t. The script could be moronic and trite or technical and boring. It is neither. The whole thing could be one serious melodrama: “Bring him home” was the weepy tag line used in the film’s advertising. It could be nothing but patriotic cow flop. It isn’t any of those things, either. More ominous, as the trailers suggested, it could turn into corporate-bashing, a film in which the evil powers that be – in this case Jeff Daniels playing NASA head Teddy Sanders – decide to leave astronaut Mark Watney (played by Matt Damon) on Mars with a cold and calloused disregard for all things we hold dear – namely, human life. But it doesn’t do that. Sanders has at least two tough choices to make in the film and he flatly fires a top lieutenant at NASA, Mitch Henderson (played by Sean Bean) for going behind his back in a critical moment. But that doesn’t leave Sanders stranded as some emotional oaf. He’s just doing his job, which is to calculate risks, be mindful of public relations and keep expenses down. (That’s not an easy play when we’re talking about rescuing a stranded astronaut on Mars.)
The balances in this movie are extremely critical. Will the audience get bored of Matt Damon, with his boyish intellectual aplomb, talking to himself as he explains the next survival strategy he is plotting. Like Tom Hanks talking to the volleyball named Wilson in Castaway, the problem is that Watney, the star of the show, has no one to talk to. The Martian solves this by having Watney (Damon) telling the ship’s log what he is going to do next, which puts him in the position of a schoolmarm trying to keep everything cheerful despite the point that, hmm, the nearest other human being is 141 million miles away.
One ploy Scott uses to keep this cheerful self-talk going is to have the stranded Watney munch on some crunchy snacks while explaining his next move. “Well, all I gotta do, crunch, crunch, is science the hell out of this, crunch, crunch.” This makes it seem like Watney is just a busy, casual guy, rather than, say, an astronaut stranded on a lifeless planet. This works, mostly, but it does get a bit old to have all this loud crunching going on. “I’ll either survive, crunch, crunch, or I will die, crunch, crunch.” Watney is an astronaut-botanist, but he keeps tossing snacks into his mouth like a goofy peanut farmer.
Beautifully, however, the movie does not slide into melodrama or bog down in technical explanations. This is not “Aliens 36,” so the science is going to be heavily scrutinized by a smartphone audience. If you can’t really grow a potato on Mars, this movie is going to bomb. If you can, well then, we have a movie!
And what a movie it is. The scenery is splendid, the script is spot on. The balance between the tensions on Earth and the dangers on Mars is masterfully done. Who knew that Ridley Scott was really an old theater guy at heart? Good to know.
If there is a flaw or two, Daniels is really not in his element as the crusty head of NASA. The part requires someone older and meaner. Watney is maybe a little bit too Matt Damon. It’s like he’s having a little party all by himself on Mars. But this isn’t such a bad thing. Sci-fi isn’t often staged for playful comedy, let alone Ridley Scott sci-fi, goodness knows.
Flat out: The Martian is an extremely well done, enjoyable picture that might even have the inventor of the form, Stanley Kubrick, rolling over in his grave. Scott even pays homage to Kubrick with his opening sequence. It’s just another clever turn in a very clever, extremely well balanced, beautiful film.