The Martian - A Hopeful Exploration of Space and Survival

Ridley Scott just turned 78 at the end of this year and yet, “The Martian” feels like the work of a young, virile filmmaker. The kind who hasn’t been jaded by the world’s shortcomings and doesn’t take himself so seriously that he feels compelled to enshroud all humanity in a Science Fiction epic. 

It’s hard to write about films that take place majorly in space without mentioning the big two in the past three years - Interstellar and Gravity. Both of which got Space right, but got humanity utterly wrong. And that’s not to say their protagonist’s intentions weren’t real. They all want the same thing: to survive. It is, and always will be, humanity’s best trait.

In this Space-trifecta, we follow the course - usually of one individual - as they attempt to escape their destiny as space dust. In Gravity, it’s with the help of Ryan Stone’s daughter. In Interstellar, it’s with the help of Cooper’s daughter, Murph (played by Jessica Chastain, where she emboldens the revisited role with Scott). But in The Martian, Mark survives with equal parts himself and the rest of humanity. What a concept.

Within the murky existentialist drama of Interstellar and Gravity, the hope barely breaks through the surface to reveal itself amongst the plight of the story. It beckons the cry of the underdog and re-affirms its ethos of hopelessness to no end. Ridley Scott’s approach is different. And I think it’s the markings of a fantastic script and brilliant direction.

Mark Watney, despite the odds, never feels like he’s out of depth for survival. It’s his innate intelligence and happy disposition that actually counters the idea of the underdog. You aren’t thinking to yourself, through the course of his journey, will he ever survive? But rather, how could he not? 

A novice plot requires constant reminders of the hero’s conflict and thus accenting their hopeless effort. But here, it’s the conflict and possibility. So many possibilities, in fact, that in the third act they have to choose one. And yet it never detracts from the tension.

Ridley Scott dodges three major pitfalls of most science fiction films with The Martian. 1. He refuses to fall into the dystopian milieu of his predecessors, including his own Blade Runner. 2. The film doesn’t rely on score as its narrative compass (due in part to 2001′s brilliant, yet irreproducible music). And finally 3. It uses humour. Science fiction can’t use comedy. 

This is what defines Ridley Scott for me, not as a good filmmaker, but a great one. There are sci-fi comedies, no doubt. Galaxy Quest, Paul, and the latest Box-Office smash, The Guardians of the Galaxy. But there are no sci-fi comedies that are weighted so perfectly in both genres. When I list of those preceding examples, they’re more or less comedies. But The Martian is not. It is an astute exploration of scientific fiction and politics within the scientific community and it’s really quite hilarious.

And it’s the necessary jolt to the otherwise drab genre. While Nolan explores the metaphysical and philosophical implications of space and Cuaron puts you in space, Scott outlines human’s need for outer space and more importantly, why we’re a species worth saving.

But this could all be chalked up to Goddard’s wonderful script. Let’s just take in account the technical prowess of The Martian. For one, there isn’t a film that felt so short to me this entire year. Due in part to Pietro Scalia’s (the longtime Sicilian editor to Ridley Scott and Gus Van Sant) truly remarkable grasp on pacing. This isn’t a topic I like to tread lightly. The overlooked artistry of pacing is a definitive measure in my mind. The Martian could be one of the best edited films of the decade. 

The use of titles, monologue as transition, time-lapse, and most importantly who to cut to when someone else is talking. This is pairing of two maestro’s at the height of their careers. There’s no fat on this film. It’s lean and its pace is astonishing. Where other sci-fi films rely on music to tell their stories, The Martian is music. It’s rhythm is close to perfection. I’d rewatch this film simply for the cuts.

Also - the cast. Ridley Scott casts the perfect ensemble and gives each character just enough time so we feel their importance, but no one overshadows each other, and yet they all stand out for me. Kristen Wiig and Chiwetel Ejiofor offer up knockout performances. 

And they aren’t easy performances. When you consider the urgency of a timeline-based story, it’s very easy to bypass beats for comedic relief. And yet they all managed the script effortlessly. This is one of the anomalies of The Martian. It feels so urgent, so rushed, and yet never so much as to give time for those comedic beats. 

Perhaps that’s where Ridley Scott’s genius lies in the twilight of his longstanding career: rushing to get the important stuff on screen, but never so hurried as to miss the funny stuff.

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