I’ve liked a lot of Ridley Scott movies. I think Alien and Blade Runner (the director’s cut) were both years ahead of their time, and Kingdom of Heaven (again, the director’s cut) was severely underrated. But I’ve also disliked a lot of his movies. And then there’s stuff like Gladiator, which is crowd-pleasing, if somewhat pseudo-prestige, filmmaking at its best. The Martian is firmly in that category – but that’s not a bad thing. Hollywood doesn’t really make movies like this any more, and it’s nice to see something that is equal parts high quality and entertaining.
I consider Scott a great technical director, but not exactly an auteur. He seems to rise to the level of the film he’s making. Alien and Blade Runner are a combination of script, production design, performance, and direction – not one man’s vision. In other words, I don’t expect him to make a boring film interesting by virtue of his direction.
The Martian makes it somewhat easy for him with a decent story and an effortlessly charismatic performance from Matt Damon. Although it lacks some of the pathos of Tom Hanks’ similar work in Castaway, both Damon and the movie take themselves less seriously. I could’ve handled a little more at stake emotionally, but the lightness of Damon’s performance is in keeping with the overall tone of the film.
I don’t want to take away from Scott’s skill. In the hands of a less talented, less confident director, the combination of extensive first person narration and “found footage” could have been unwatchable. Scott does a nice job with the latter, using different camera angles and even textures to indicate what camera (surveillance, GoPro, computer, the actual film) is on Damon.
Three other things stood out to me. First, it was nice to see a diverse cast (despite some grumblings it could have been more diverse). Second, based on everything I’ve read about the increasing importance of Chinese audiences to a film’s bottom line, the China scenes seemed a total sop. Third, if you’re going for a PG-13 rating, embrace the limitations on language it brings. The Martian does not, and so many conversations stand out for what the characters AREN’T saying. It reminds me of watching the edited version of an R rated movie on NBC’s Sunday Night Movie when I was a kid. While not much can be as bad as “yippee ki yay . . . mister falcon,” having someone say “he told them to go have sex with themselves” comes close. If you want to have someone swear, be creative: the scene where we see but don’t hear Damon scream “fuck” – due to the camera being outside an apparently soundproof window – is extremely effective and a nice way to bend the rules. (By the way, it’s ridiculous that the single allowable “fuck” wasn’t used for the “Are you fucking kidding me?” message near the end.)
Everyone’s been having a good time ridiculing the Golden Globes for classifying The Martian as a comedy. But to call it a drama implies it’s in the same category as something like Sicario, which it isn’t. It’s a crowd-pleasing popcorn movie, and there’s nothing wrong with that.