Looking at Ridley Scott’s two last science fiction films, The Martian and Prometheus, provides strong evidence that Scott picks his scripts with little concern for plot and character. Prometheus is one of the best recent examples of the kind of film I wouldn’t mind framing and hanging on my wall, because that’s how it’s easiest to appreciate its merits; however, once you start watching it for its storytelling and paying attention to its characters and dialogues, it turns into a frustrating, deeply silly movie that falls apart the more you think about it. And that’s unfortunate, as Prometheus is a film that desperately wants you to think about it.
The Martian benefits from Scott’s strengths – it’s beautifully shot and well worth seeing in 3D for its extraterrestrial vistas – but it also holds up as a story and as a character piece. I’ve heard before that Scott prefers not to direct his actors too much, casting them instead for what he knows they’ll bring to the parts and then getting out of their way. To mangle a line from The Martian, Matt Damon acts the shit out of the script: while his performance falls very much within the typical range of most of his roles, it’s a role that Damon excels at: astronaut Mark Watney is a smart, professional, somewhat geeky guy with a sense of humour doing his utmost not to go to pieces in an extreme situation.
The script also works well; it is smartly constructed and structured with an elegant simplicity, with Watney’s Martian grind running in parallel to the endeavours back on Earth to keep him alive until a rescue can be mounted. I’m by no means a scientist of the kind that NASA might send to space (though I could always be relied on to read Moby Dick or Huckleberry Finn to any blinded, dying astronauts), so I’m perhaps not the best to judge the film’s scientific accuracy, but The Martian always feels believable, without being slowed down by overexplanation. We get enough of an idea to understand how Watney manages to cultivate potatoes on Mars or how he produces water from fuel. (It takes no understanding of science whatsoever to appreciate the subtle humour of Matt Damon blowing himself up.) It is this fundamental credibility of the film that makes it so effective, and as a result the audience is more than willing to buy into the very few sequences where Watney owes his luck less to quality science than to the Gods of Entertainment. (I’m by no means someone for whom a happy ending is the best option by definition, but The Martian is no space-based Open Water that swaps snappy sharks for inhospitable Mars, nor should it be.)
Will The Martian join Scott’s iconic classics, Alien and Blade Runner, in the sci-fi pantheon? I don’t think so; it’s a film that does admirably what it sets out to do, and it’s a fantastic example of craftsmanship on all levels, but it lacks something extra. Blade Runner created a future cityscape so compelling, all cyberpunk dystopias aspire to look like it, and its characters functioned both on a human and a near-mythological level. Alien has its lived-in future and two of the most frightening monsters we could ever imagine to be waiting in our closet in Giger’s elegant, sexualised nightmare and in Ian Holm’s chilling android. The Martian is the kind of film that will create future generations of science nerds truly excited about their vocation, but it works primarily on one level. On that particular level, though, there’s no doubt that Scott movies the shit out of it.