Monday, October 05, 2015

The Martian (Ridley Scott)


I'd written about the source novel before, my basic verdict (if you don't like clicking on links or reading articles) being: fun and funny, excellent science and tech (grasp of human psychology not as good), rather unevocative, been done before only better.

Ridley Scott's movie gets this much right: jettisons Weir's clunky DOA prose in favor of photorealistic images of Mars (actually the Wadi Rum in Jordan, encarmined via filters), a series of vast landscapes surrounding a tiny lost spacesuited figure, John Ford-style.

Not to mention the style of Howard Hawks: basically smart brave men and women who've spent time together, facing impossible odds including the loss of one of their own (not saying Scott achieves anywhere near the wit and psychological subtlety of Hawks, mind). And David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia, which was also shot (if not exclusively) in Jordan--arguably the definitive 'man lost in desert' film, down to human figures fading in and out of the horizon. The process by which Lean introduces us to the desert's vast reaches (from Egypt to match flame to sunrise to Akaba) is gradual yet so absolute that when we see a row of steam funnels gliding behind sand dunes midway through the shock feels surreal--water in all its forms seems not just unusual but miraculous in that film.

Fortunately Mark Watney (Matt Damon) isn't as completely cut off--Weir grants the astronaut hours of disco music (an easy source of yuks), a library of '70s vidoes (Three's Company in the novel, the more wholesome Happy Days in the movie) and eventually a means to communicate (Scott improves on Weir by adding actual radio dialogue, not to mention editing the 12-minute time lag out of Earth-Mars conversations). 

Fortunately? Improves? Actually no--if anything Scott (and Weir before him--warning: skip rest of the paragraph if you plan to see the movie) lets Watney off the hook. For a castaway Watney seems if anything a little coddled, the disasters carefully tailored only to be so disastrous and no further--there has to be a way out, either extra rations left behind (including a crucial box full of unmashed unpowdered potatoes) or an entire ascent vehicle fueled and waiting a few thousand kilometers away. More tellingly Scott (and Weir before him) make sure Watney feels nothing but support from his compatriots--they rise uncomplicatedly and even heroically to the occasion, working their collective asses off to recover the abandoned prodigal.

Compare the movie to Lean's, who manages to convey a sense of the loneliness Peter O'Toole's T.E. Lawrence must have felt, even if his was a mere trek across the Middle East, even if he's usually among armed men (it's Lawrence's sensibility that sets him apart, not mere distance). When Lawrence walks into General Allenby's office and admits to killing a man, Allenby gives him the standard-issue warning: "Well then let it be a lesson."

Lawrence shakes his head: "No. Something else."

"What then?"

"I enjoyed it."

I'd heard criticism of the science content, that this is really a series of lectures with special effects generously piled on top like so much salty-caramel icing hiding the dry cake inside. Actually the movie reduced the book's lecturing; if anything I think we need more lectures filled with scientific content in movies, not less. Find it reassuring that a major Hollywood director would choose to helm a multimilliondollar production that prominently features potato farming, not to mention nightsoil (an ancient fertilizing trick updated to the 21st century); in my opinion it beats watching nine-hour movies (broken into three parts) crammed with endless ongoing discussions about Rings of Power and Dark Lords--at least with fertilizer and potatoes you're learning something immediately practical, not pining for some Lost Age of Elves.*

*(Funny, the most hilarious line in the movie is uttered by actor Sean Bean, involving the Council of Elrond (Bean played Boromir, and yes attended the meetings); funnier still that exactly two people in the theater (including me) laughed at the joke, the rest wondering what the hell we were howling about--)

A hundred million dollars were spent to make Jordan look like the Red Planet, and a Hollywood star look as if he'd spent over a year on a starvation diet. More persuasive are the video diaries, which seem inspired by John Carpenter's Dark Star (that said Carpenter's recording sessions--written and improvised by Dan O'Bannon--were much funnier). 

Have the same basic complaint about the film I did for the book: that this was a lot of literal-minded scientific accuracy in the service of a stripped-down story of survival; anyone looking for larger meaning will starve from lack of calories. Scott prettified it some with digital effects; Damon and Jessica Chastain (as Watney's commanding officer Lewis) along with a significantly more diverse supporting cast** helped bring the story to fitful life

**(Rich Purnell in the novel I had assumed--hey, Weir didn't exactly discourage me did he?--was white)

But this is no The Right Stuff (perhaps the best and funniest NASA recruitment film ever made), no Mars Attacks! (which like the best Tim Burton films had a bright toylike appeal), not even a Mission to Mars (which despite the syrupy Spielberg ending does feature Brian de Palma's camera doing its characteristic catlike glide--in zero gee, yet!). This particular Martian is plenty accurate and fairly enjoyable, but that's about it; nothing here to make you sit down and write the folks back home on Earth about.

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