The Martian (2015)

2016 #25
Ridley Scott | 142 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA & UK / English | 12 / PG-13

Oscar statue2016 Academy Awards
7 nominations

Nominated: Best Picture, Best Actor (Matt Damon), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing, Best Visual Effects, Best Production Design.



Ridley Scott’s latest arrives on Blu-ray in the UK today, with a disappointing dearth of special features (disliked Exodus gets a 2½-hour making-of, four hours of additional features, plus a commentary; award-winning The Martian gets 24 minutes plus a few in-universe documentaries — what?!) Never mind that, though: how good is the film deemed the best comedy or musical of 2015? (If you somehow missed that news, you’ll appreciate the addition of a “seriously” here.)

In the relatively near future, mankind is on its third manned mission to Mars. When a colossal storm rolls in, the decision to made to evacuate the Mars base. During the escape, biologist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is struck by debris and apparently killed, and his crew mates are forced to leave him for dead. He isn’t dead, though, but he is injured and alone on a planet 140 million miles from home, with no way to communicate with Earth, and not enough energy, oxygen, or food to see him through the four years until the next Mars mission is scheduled to arrive. Refusing to give in to inevitable death, Watney only has one choice: science the shit out of this.

That sounds like a laugh-a-minute premise, right? And there’s a major subplot about disco music, so it’s practically a musical too!

No, the HFPA are just idiots — The Martian is neither a comedy nor a musical. It is the latest in a growing subgenre of serious-minded near-future sci-fi adventures, though, following in the footsteps of 2013 Oscar winner Gravity and 2014 Oscar washout Interstellar. Where The Martian differs is in the element that tricked Golden Globes voters into thinking they could get away with giving it a comedy nomination (and win): rather than being stuffed to bursting with po-faced peril, it has a lightness of touch and regular doses of humour, making it probably the most feel-good serious sci-fi movie since ever.

Whether that’s appropriate or not is another matter. A well-argued review by the ghost of 82 assesses that the film has none of the darkness or loneliness you should expect of a man stranded alone on an alien world with a slim chance of survival or rescue. I don’t disagree that the film doesn’t contain much of that feeling, nor would I argue that such a tone isn’t a viable way to frame this narrative, but I don’t think that’s what Scott was aiming to convey. This telling of the story (I haven’t read the original novel, so can’t say how it compares tonally) is an adventure; a feel-good tale of hope and survival against the odds. The film doesn’t offer us despair because Watney doesn’t despair — he just gets on with trying to fix it. On the couple of occasions when his fixes go wrong, his chirpiness breaks down, his frustration comes out, and in some respects it’s all the more effective for being limited to those handful of occasions — we’re suddenly reminded that, in spite of his optimism and his success and all the fun we’re having watching it, he’s stranded 140 million miles away and even the slightest mistake can spell total disaster.

Matt Damon is a talented enough actor to lead us through all of this. Best remembered in recent years for serious fare like the Bourne films (“serious” in the sense of “not comedic” as opposed to “realistic”), Damon has done his fair share of comedies before now, and skits for TV shows and the like too. This is perhaps his first film to bring those two sides together as equally necessary parts of the whole — serious when he’s struggling with science problems or facing the reality of his situation, funny when he’s taking it all as light-heartedly as he can. Sometimes, such as in emotional conversations with friends or colleagues stuck millions of miles away, he even has to do both at once.

While Damon is stuck on Mars by himself, a starry supporting cast actually get to interact with each other. This is a quality ensemble and, short of writing an epic essay of a review where I just praise them all one by one, there’s little to do but list their names. That said, Jessica Chastain gets the most brazenly emotional beats as the commander who chose to leave Watney behind and has to face the consequences of her decision; Jeff Daniels treads a line between being an evil bureaucrat and just a regular bureaucrat (apparently consideration was given to turning him into a full-blown villain; thank goodness they swerved that bullet); Chiwetel Ejiofor brings easy gravitas to NASA’s director of Mars missions; Michael Peña provides some additional comic relief, if not as strikingly as he did in Ant-Man then at least as effectively; and Sean Bean doesn’t die. No offence to Sean Bean, but let’s be honest, at this point in his career that is the most notable facet of his appearance here. That and the Lord of the Rings reference.

It would be too damning to describe Ridley Scott’s direction as unremarkable, but at the same time it feels lacking in distinctiveness. Apparently there was some interview where he commented on how easy he found directing The Martian, I think with intended reference to the use of digital photography, but I think you get a sense of that from the film as a whole. That stops it from being over-directed, at least, and it’s certainly not poorly made, but if you didn’t know then you wouldn’t be nodding along going, “oh yes, this is definitely a Ridley Scott movie.” I’m not sure that’s a bad thing. Considering his fiddling is what scuppered the promising screenplays that initiated both Robin Hood and Prometheus, and his other works this decade (The Counsellor and Exodus: Gods and Kings) haven’t exactly met with great acclaim, maybe his dropping in almost as a director-for-hire (screenwriter Drew Goddard was attached to direct, but got sidetracked into the now-cancelled Sinister Six Amazing Spider-Man spin-off), and helming the film in a kind of directorial autopilot, is part of what saved it from a similar fate.

I’ve read at least one review that described The Martian as “an instant sci-fi classic”, and at least one other that described it as “no sci-fi classic”. I’m going to sit on the fence of that debate for the time being. What I will say is that it is undoubtedly an accomplished piece of entertainment. For a film that primarily concerns itself with a man applying scientific principles to tasks like “growing potatoes”, that’s surely some kind of achievement. In our current climate (both in society in general and in the “more explosions less talking, please” state of blockbuster cinema), to make space travel — and science in general — seem fun and appealing to the masses is no bad thing whatsoever.

5 out of 5

As mentioned, The Martian is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK today.

It placed 17th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2016, which can be read in full here.

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Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

2014 #109
Anthony & Joe Russo | 136 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Captain America: The Winter SoldierAfter the dullest, messiest movie of their first phase, and his goody-two-shoes depiction in The Avengers, Marvel finally nailed Captain America earlier this year with his second solo outing. Sadly, it’s still undermined by its share of niggles.

The Winter Soldier picks up two years after the Avengers assembled, with man-out-of-time Steve Rogers, aka Captain America (Chris Evans), a fully-fledged member of Team America: World Police S.H.I.E.L.D., working alongside Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) to run all kinds of black ops missions. But when the life of director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) is threatened by a mysterious assassin known only as the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), Cap begins to uncover a massive conspiracy of nefarious nastiness…

To say much more would be spoilerific, though chances are you’ve heard what happens even if you haven’t seen the film, because it’s had major implications for much of the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Still, I’ll assume you don’t know, just in case.

That said, the problem with Marvel’s massive shared universe (where the events of one film impact not only on future films but tie-in TV series, etc) is that, watching Cap 2 just seven months after its release, the film already feels like very old news. It was dissected into the ground by bloggers and commentators while it was still in cinemas; it had a huge effect on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which by now has rolled past it into new territory; and it feels like Friendly argumenteverybody moved on to being more excited about Marvel’s end-of-summer new-franchise-launcher, Guardians of the Galaxy. Cap 2 still has things to offer as a standalone film, but watching it now feels like watching a press conference after you’ve read a summary of the key points: there’s probably something to be gained from experiencing the whole thing, but it’s also like a slow-paced unveiling of surprises you already know.

It’s probably best to put aside the parts of Winter Soldier that have an impact beyond the film itself and just focus on it being a story in its own right, then. They promised us a ’70s-style conspiracy thriller, and there’s some of that DNA in there, although it’s been cleverly reworked to fit the slick CGI-filled world of the modern epic action blockbuster. So the conspiracy plot is actually not too complex, but there’s enough of it to give the film a different flavour. Many bonus points are earnt for trying to do more things with superhero narratives. It’s been widely noted that there are only about three or four superhero plotlines (and that’s if we’re being generous), so it’s good for Marvel — who are currently churning out two superheroic movies a year, and before long will be upping that to three — to be bringing something new to the table.

The style of story also becomes the springboard for a different tone to the action sequences: grounded, almost gritty, with practical effects and stuntwork — it could almost be a Bourne movie rather than a superhero one. They even manage to take a minor and silly Marvel villain, Batroc the Leaper, and turn him into a cool and worthwhile adversary. Until the climax, anyway, which is your usual CGI blow-out — an increasingly familiar pattern for Marvel films (and one we’ll come to again soon in Guardians of the Galaxy).

Fully-formed FalconAlso introduced is sidekick hero the Falcon (Anthony Mackie), who I have little to say about directly. He’s a sidekick who’s introduced fully-formed — he’s been using his ‘superpower’ for years as just part of the military; it’s not new or exciting to him, which lessens some of its power for the viewer too. “Origin story” may be the most over-used of all the superhero stock stories, but there’s a reason for that. If you skip it then you cut to the chase, that’s true, but does it also lessen the impact of characters to not see how they started? Maybe storytellers just need to come up with fresh ways of giving origins, rather than skipping them altogether.

Despite his presence in the title, the Winter Soldier also has a fairly small part to play in the final mix. He’s a henchman, not the main villain — but he’s an important character in the comics, so naming the film after him is really a signal to fans. Unfortunately, the Big Reveal of who he is has been a little bungled: comic book fans already know, so it doesn’t matter to them; and the element it ties back to in The First Avenger was so throwaway that casual viewers aren’t going to remember it. The Winter Soldier does its best to retrospectively big up the necessary elements, with callbacks to the first film and new flashbacks to bolster relationships. Whether it’s too little too late is perhaps a matter of personal preference.

Talking of that shared universe again — well, it’s hard to avoid, because Winter Soldier is every inch grounded in what has come before and what will come after. Mackie described the film as “Avengers 1.5”, and that’s pretty true. It picks up on events and characters from both The First Avenger and The Avengers, some of which have very significant roles to play in the film’s own storyline; Who is the Winter Soldier?and then it refuses to wrap everything up, putting certain things in place ready for Age of Ultron and leaving still other doors open for Cap 3 — including the bloody Winter Soldier, despite his name being in the title! Goodness knows when or how they’re going to deal with that, considering the next Cap film is based on another highly significant comic book story arc, Civil War.

For me, however, the way it ties in to and impacts on the wider Marvel universe is when the film is at its weakest. There’s a benefit in utilising our relationships to these characters for emotional or dramatic effect, and at times it does that well, but when it’s raising more questions than answers, and when it can’t even complete the storyline that’s in its own title, is that a good thing? This isn’t part of a TV series, it’s a movie — is it so much to ask for a complete experience, one that builds on previous movies and has teases for the future (if it must), rather than just the latest segment of an apparently-never-ending story? Marvel’s shared universe is turning out to not be a group of films which happen to feature the same characters crossing over, but ones where the status quo between a film and its own sequel can be completely changed by events in a ‘separate’ series. Is that OK? It seems to work for them, and many people are getting a great amount of enjoyment from spotting the links and piecing together the arcing stories, so I guess it is.

The audacity of certain twists, plus the unusualness (for a superhero movie) and quality of the action sequences, is likely responsible for the massively positive reception that greeted The Winter Soldier on its cinematic release. With the surprise value of the former removed, and arguably exposed as just another round of questions to be answered in future instalments, Captain America re-Bournewhat’s left? There is strong action, albeit undermined by muddled character investment; and there is an interesting thriller/conspiracy story, albeit undermined by a feeling of “once you know it, you know it” — it’s not all that complicated or all that surprising, including the revelation that the one character significant enough to be behind it all is behind it all (gasp!)

Believe it or not, I did quite like The Winter Soldier while I was watching it; but the more I write, the more it frustrates me. There’s undoubtedly some quality filmmaking here (as far as superhero blockbusters go — it’s never going to please a sniffy cineaste), so perhaps I need to stop getting so hung up on its connections to other films. Or perhaps Marvel need to stop tying all their movies so tightly together. There’s surely a reason this doesn’t have a number in the title — it’s meant to be Captain America vs. the Winter Soldier, not Marvel’s Avengers Universe: Episode 9. But, however many borderline-unique elements it’s at pains to include, the latter is what it is.

4 out of 5

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is on Sky Movies from Boxing Day.

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2014. Read more here.