A disclaimer: this is a review in the fullest sense. It sets out my opinions of the 2015 movie The Martian, directed by Ridley Scott. It describes plot events from that film (although spoils much less than the film’s official trailer). If you want to know whether I recommend The Martian: yes, I do. If you like stories about exploring space that are more science-fiction than space-fantasy, this is a very solid film. If that sounds good to you, do come back and read this review after you’ve seen it.
I have a weakness for fiction which portrays processes methodically; which does not leap distractedly through the most relevant moments of a lengthy chain of causality – startBANGmiddleCRASHcruxWALLOPend – but has instead the patience to pass that chain through its rough hands one link at a time, showing the strength of every join.
An example? The blacksmithing passages in K. J. Parker’s Fencer trilogy always come to mind. When Temrai forges a fencing sword, you do not put down the book knowing how to work a smithy – but you feel confident of having been in the presence of one who does. A satisfying authenticity is created by the lengthiness of the descriptions, their attention to detail. A more extreme example is the section in Molloy by Samuel Beckett (him again!), when the wretched protagonist sucks some stones which he keeps in his pockets:
I had say sixteen stones, four in each of my four pockets these being the two pockets of my trousers and the two pockets of my greatcoat. Taking a stone from the right pocket of my greatcoat, and putting it in my mouth, I replaced it in the right pocket of my greatcoat by a stone from the right pocket of my trousers, which I replaced by a stone from the left pocket of my trousers, which I replaced by a stone from the left pocket of my greatcoat, which I replaced by the stone which was in my mouth, as soon as I had finished sucking it. Thus there were still four stones in each of my four pockets, but not quite the same stones. And when the desire to suck took hold of me again, I drew again on the right pocket of my greatcoat, certain of not taking the same stone as the last time. And while I sucked it I rearranged the other stones in the way I have just described. And so on.
This methodical quality is rare in Hollywood. The shortness of time, and the power of montage and jump-cut to show many things quickly, are native attributes to cinema. But it can flicker to the surface with a pleasing effect. The poker game in the James Bond film Casino Royale (2006) does this. We don’t watch the entire game: but Casino Royale allots much more of the film’s run-time to a simple, dull game of poker than Hollywood convention would dictate. This adds tension, and tangibility. The film feels solidly made, like the fat clunk of a large padlock closing.
The Martian could be – and may well be – designed to test this methodical effect to its furthest limit. At what point does watching a man (Mark Watney, played by Matt Damon) wander around a scientific base trying not to starve to death, become irredeemably boring? It turns out that you can push it quite a long way.
A précis: Mark’s crew abandons Mars in a storm. They think he is dead, but he survives. He awakes, patches up his injury, feels a bit upset about being the only living being on a desolate planet, and then decides to get on with things.
For the rest of the film, he continues to get on with things. There are no histrionics (from Mark, at least. When his old commander starts to throw a bit of a strop about her guilt at leaving him, the shift in tone is jarring and unwelcome). This, it is worth noting, is the kind of thing that somebody who had been extensively trained by NASA to deal with hostile environments would do. There’s no room in this scenario for raging against the dying of the light, so Mark doesn’t. He just stoically proceeds to incrementally overcome the two challenges he faces: making his food last until he can be rescued, and getting to the site where the rescue will land. He makes terrible jokes, but the film doesn’t expect you to treat them like good jokes. Various complications and setbacks ensue, and are dealt with sensibly. It’s a terribly sensible film.
It also feels – and this is the Temrai’s-forge effect – like a terribly scientific film. I don’t know much about science beyond what I can remember from Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything (not very much) and Standard Grade Biology (chloroplasts something something energy something leaves). The Martian, however, was procedural enough and, yes, dull enough to convince me that it knew what it was doing. Can you grow potatoes on Mars using vaccuum-sealed human excrement and artificial rain made from hydrogen, oxygen and a NASA-sized bunsen burner? Well, The Martian says you can, and it seems to know what it’s doing. This dependability also means that in moments of comparative crisis, the tension created feels unforced.
Simply being agreeably plodding is not enough to make The Martian one of cinema’s great achievements. But it makes it a good film. It’s no 2001, but it can sit comfortably next to Danny Boyle’s Sunshine and Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar as a high-quality 21st century sci-fi, a notch above the likes of Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity. It lacks Interstellar’s cinematographic lushness and charismatic actors, but also avoids Interstellar’s distracting philosophical nonsense and needy homage of 2001. The cinematography in The Martian is as workmanlike and dependable as the plot. The acting is also fine. The weakest element is Harry Gregson-Williams’ score, which misses the tone and gives the film a layer of extradiegetic melodrama which it could do perfectly well without.
In terms of Scott’s oeuvre, this is nowhere near the quality of Alien. But it’s closer to the level of Gladiator than to Robin Hood or Prometheus. And it’s an agreeable reminder that fiction set in space doesn’t need robot uprisings or extra-terrestrial species to make it interesting. It just needs an interesting problem, with a satisfying, solid, link-by-link chain of solutions.