Notable Festivals: Toronto International Film Festival
As long as we’ve known of its existence, Mars has captivated our imaginations. For centuries, we’ve looked up to that reddish orb in the night sky and wondered what revelations await us there. Subsequent explorations have brought its mysteries into clearer focus, inflating our desire to set foot there even while shutting down our most fantastical theories of little green men roving its surface. The most disappointing revelation — that it was a dry, dead planet with no life to speak of — did little to dispel interest in our cosmic neighbor. Even before the discovery of briny water on the planet’s surface in 2015, Mars had been widely regarded as mankind’s foothold into wider space; a waystation towards our ultimate destiny as interstellar beings.
While we have yet to set foot on Mars’ surface ourselves, our cinema has already made the voyage several times. Most of these films naturally fall within the realm of science fiction, conjuring up outlandish scenarios that see the Red Planet as host to extraterrestrial monsters, or ruins from ancient civilizations. Very few cast a sober gaze upon the rusty landscape with an eye toward scientific accuracy. 2015’s THE MARTIAN, directed by Sir Ridley Scott, proves without a shadow of a doubt that Mars is already plenty dramatic without the addition of aliens or cosmic mysticism. Indeed, the story pulls its thrills from a very simple premise: what if a lone astronaut were left behind on Mars and forced to engineer his own survival? The tantalizing narrative possibilities are what initially drove author Andy Weir to hammer out the source novel in serial form some years earlier; they’re also what compelled Twentieth Century Fox to leap on the film rights in 2013 and attach megastar Matt Damon, high-profile producer Simon Kinberg and buzzy writer/director Drew Goddard (fresh off his breakout with CABIN IN THE WOODS). Scott became involved only four hours after Fox sent him Goddard’s script, calling it a no-brainer of a project (2). Almost everything about THE MARTIAN was (and is) a slam-dunk, from its conception on through to its casting, direction and release. Furthermore, it would arrive at a critical time in Scott’s career, delivering a much-needed hit after a long string of diminishing returns and flagging cultural relevance.
THE MARTIAN doesn’t specify an exact time setting, but it gives subtle hints throughout that we’re not too far into the future; likely somewhere around the 2030’s, when the real-life NASA wants to achieve a human footprint on Mars. The crew of the Ares III is eighteen days into their mission on the Martian surface when a devastating storm hits, forcing them to prematurely return home. They leave with their ranks diminished by one— botanist Mark Watney (Damon), presumed dead after being blown away by an airborne chunk of equipment. Watney wakes up a short while later, astonished to find he’s still alive. Realizing he’s been left all alone on Mars — with very little chance of survival — the plucky botanist sets about transforming the Ares mission’s surface habitat into a permanent residence. This new mission poses no shortage of complications and challenges, ultimately resulting in Watney’s reverse-engineering of every available technological resource to produce liquid water, heat, and even a small farm of Martian-grown potatoes. These intimidating logistical problems, which would very easily doom a layperson, extend to making contact with NASA to inform them that he’s still alive; he achieves this by discovering and reworking the long-defunct Pathfinder rover. Having given himself a fighting chance at survival, Watney now must ready himself for his compatriots’ return and the execution of an extremely risky rescue.
THE MARTIAN runs the risk of dragging thanks to an admittedly dry plot that structures itself around life-or-death puzzles Watney must solve using math and science. Thankfully, the film’s ensemble cast brings liveliness and vitality to the proceedings, infusing the plot with creative wit and tons of comedic banter while making a supremely appealing case for a STEM education. Watney’s rakish sense of humor sets the tone, which Damon delivers with an unparalleled degree of likeability. His encyclopedic knowledge of engineering imbues him with a blunt, clinical determination, which is offset by an inherent playfulness. Despite the immediate stakes of his predicament, Watney always takes a moment to revel in the “magic” of science; his joy of discovery is palpable— and infectious. Even when he inadvertently blows himself up, or his habitat is destroyed by an unexpected breach, Watney never loses his good spirits; Damon’s Oscar-nominated performance illustrates why that just might have made the difference between life or death. His effortless, toothy grin goes a long way towards making us believe in the camaraderie he shares with his Ares crew mates, led by Jessica Chastain as the mission commander, Melissa Lewis. Funnily enough, both Damon and Chastain had only a year prior appeared in INTERSTELLAR, another large-scale space adventure directed by Scott acolyte Christopher Nolan. Unlike that film, however, THE MARTIAN actually allows Damon and Chastain to share the screen. Chastain is easily one of the most gifted actresses working today, and her graceful, almost ethereal, physicality brings nuanced dimension to the tactical, yet compassionate, intelligence demanded by her character’s position. In the process, she manages to join the hallowed pantheon of richly-developed female heroines that populate Scott’s filmography. The remainder of the crew is comprised of notable character actors, all of whom manage to carve out some distinct flair despite sharing the collective trait of an intimidating intelligence. There’s Michael Pena as pilot Rick Martinez, who possesses a jokey charm to rival Watney’s own. There’s also Kate Mara’s Beth Johansson and Sebastian Stan’s Chris Beck, who share a sweet chemistry as clandestine lovers while never losing sight of their mission duties as the systems analyst and flight surgeon, respectively.
THE MARTIAN breaks up the tedium of Watney’s isolation by simultaneously tracking NASA’s response back on Earth, where the remainder of Scott’s eclectic cast finds plenty of opportunity to shine. Jeff Daniels heads up this group as NASA chief Teddy Sanders, a stuffy bureaucrat with a droll wit and an even rarer quality amongst people in his position: an unwavering faith in his team that gives him the confidence to take calculated risks. He shares a somewhat-acerbic relationship with his Ares mission director, Vincent Kapoor, embodied in a passionate performance by AMERICAN GANGSTER’s Chiwitel Ejiofor. These two face a considerable challenge on two fronts: not only do they have to find a way to bring Watney home alive, but they also have to deal with the firestorm of an eager media that’s hungry to turn the whole endeavor into a ratings spectacle. Towards this end, NASA media relations director, Annie Montrose, becomes an important player; Kristin Wiig brings her signature comedic touch to the role, dexterously puncturing the sober seriousness of her male compatriots at every opportunity. She’s joined by the respective eccentricities of co-stars Mackenzie Davis and Donald Glover, both of whom signal a diverse new generation of NASA leaders coming into its own; Davis as Mindy Park, the mission control analyst who discovers Watney’s survival when she notices equipment on the Martian surface moving around on its own, and Glover as astrodynamicist Rich Purnell, a disheveled rocket scientist who frequently sleeps in his office and proves instrumental to Watney’s retrieval with his proposal of a radical rescue maneuver. Sean Bean and Scott Free regular Benedict Wong also put in memorable appearances as members of THE MARTIAN’s earthbound cast, the former as the embattled director of the Hermes ship program and the latter as a plucky Jet Propulsion Lab director. Wong’s performance in particular holds a lot of thematic value to the film’s story, as his successful coordination with the Chinese space program points both to America’s waning space dominance as well as the necessity for joint international ventures going into the 21st century and beyond.
A film of this scale (budgeted at $108 million dollars) promises no shortage of insanely-complicated production logistics— especially one in which the story is concerned with everything going wrong. The fact that Scott and his team were able to pull off the brisk 70 day shoot with virtually zero disruptions or complications points to the seasoned director’s unparalleled ability to maneuver titanic productions. A large portion of the shoot’s success can be attributed to the efforts of his fellow producers Mark Huffam, Michael Schaefer, Aditya Sood, and Kinberg. Scott’s core team of technical collaborators also bears a major degree of responsibility for THE MARTIAN’s success, beginning with returning cinematographer Dariusz Wolski and his intuitive handling of digital filmmaking tools. Indeed, THE MARTIAN solidifies Scott’s conversion to the digital realm, marking his fourth consecutive picture shot on the format and his third shot in 3D. A fleet of top-of-the-line Red Epic cameras imbue the 2.35:1 image with a razor-sharp clarity and a pristine glossiness that subtly reinforces the film’s near-future setting. Scott and Wolski forge a variation on their signature blue/orange color dichotomy, using these two dominant hues to immediately distinguish between the Earth and Mars. The Red Planet naturally adopts a dusky palette of reds, oranges, and browns, while Earth takes on a cold blue cast. Transitory settings like the Hermes spacecraft and the Martian habitat structure deal in appropriately-neutral shades. While his signature red beard may have faded to white, Scott’s signature visual flair hasn’t lost an iota of vitality and power over the decades; THE MARTIAN holds strong with signature atmospherics like otherworldly sandstorms, silhouettes, lens flares, and beams of concentrated light. The camerawork retains Scott’s characteristic blend of classical and handheld photography, while further building upon PROMETHEUS’ usage of “helmet cam” POV shots— a relatively new addition to Scott’s stylistic toolbox, enabled by the advent of compact GoPro cameras that are physically mounted to the actors via a rod attached to the back of their spacesuits.
Scott’s incorporation of these in-world cameras points to the utilitarian designs of 2030’s-era spaceflight, which only seem fantastical in that they showcase exciting technologies that lie just beyond our current reach. Working once again with regular production designer Arthur Max, Scott paints a tempered portrait of a near future that we can recognize as a natural extension of our present. The filmmakers secured the crucial support of NASA itself, who consulted on the designing of the spacecraft and habitats one might see on a future Mars mission. As such, the gear on display throughout THE MARTIAN may prove uncannily close to what we actually bring along to the Red Planet with us in real life. The intricately-detailed habitat and spacecraft sets demonstrate just how much Scott and Max thought through every possible aspect of long-haul space travel, right down to how food is stored and how human waste is disposed of. Nothing — not even the 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY-style artificial gravity wheel — feels too far-fetched, all design ideas having been based on sound scientific principles conservatively extrapolated fifteen or twenty years into the future. The fact that Scott and company refuse to think of the film as “science fiction” speaks volumes about their commitment to realism; that Mars has never felt more immediate and tactile is a testament to his effortless ability to conjure immersive worlds within his work. With the exception of a few exterior locales built on a soundstage in Budapest, the Wadi Rum region of Jordan doubles for the bulk of the Martian landscape, needing very little in the way of on-screen augmentation save for a few computer-generated elements and stylized color grading. Scott’s longtime editor Pietro Scalia deftly stitches the locations and sets together to weave a convincing temporal continuity, closing the vast swath of empty space between the Earth and Mars in a single cut. Composer Harry Gregson-Williams also returns to Scott’s fold, his last major effort for the director having been 2005’s KINGDOM OF HEAVEN. Gregson-Williams builds on his trademark orchestral palette with pulsing electronic elements and otherworldly accents that appropriately evoke the alien landscapes on display. Arguably the most distinctive of THE MARTIAN’s audio elements, a surprising amount of 70’s music works its way into the film— justified by Commander Lewis’ unabashed love for disco, soul, and classic rock. The film derives a great deal of playful humor from this aspect, imbuing Watney’s intimidating struggle for survival with a constant levity. Most of these tracks — David Bowie’s “Star Man” or Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive”, for instance — are used with tongue firmly in cheek, the filmmakers knowing full well that we’re having too much fun with it to care how on-the-nose they actually are.
After a prolonged series of misfires and outright disappointments, THE MARTIAN instantly reminded audiences why Scott is one of the best filmmakers in the business. Its winning mixture of cosmic suspense and earthy humor earned a wide audience to the tune of $630 million in box office revenue, making for Scott’s highest-grossing effort to date. A tidal wave of positive reviews swept the production team through a breathless award season, which they maneuvered with a clever — yet controversial — strategy. Seeking to optimize their chances, the filmmakers submitted THE MARTIAN to the Golden Globes for consideration in all the usual categories. However, this being one of the only major awards shows that separates major categories by drama and musical/comedy, there was an arguable opportunity in aiming for the latter. This scheme paid off, with THE MARTIAN ultimately running away with the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture (Musical or Comedy)— however, the win was not met without controversy by audiences and the Hollywood Foreign Press, who ended up changing the qualifications so that dramas with comic overtones (aka THE MARTIAN) had to be entered in the Drama category. The film’s awards campaign would culminate with a slew of Oscar nominations, recognizing THE MARTIAN’s considerable achievements with nods for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing. Best Production Design, Best Visual FX, and Best Director— Scott’s first nomination in the fourteen years that had passed since BLACK HAWK DOWN.
While the filmmakers may have gone home empty-handed on Oscar night, they had already won the real prize— they had fashioned something of an instant classic; one of the best of its decade. As a paean to the Obama-era social climate of hopefulness (and its embrace of science and reason), THE MARTIAN has taken on new resonance in the years since his successor took office. The film’s ideological virtues — optimism, diversity, fortitude, and resourcefulness — may seem quaint or even naive in light of today’s tumultuous atmosphere of cynicism, hate, and petulance, but they now shine more brilliantly and urgently than ever. It’s somewhat ironic that a deeply conservative filmmaker has rendered such a progressive vision of the 21st century, but then again, Scott has never really bothered himself with the frothing Fox News echo chambers. He’s simply been too busy working, steadily constructing a compassionate (if idiosyncratic) mosaic of humanity’s past, present, and future. That is where his artistic allegiances lie, and THE MARTIAN’s upbeat portrait of the near future suggests Scott’s belief that mankind’s best days are still ahead. The film’s technical and artistic excellence also suggests that, just maybe, the same could be said of Scott himself.
THE MARTIAN is currently available on 4K ultra high definition Blu Ray via Twentieth Century Fox.
Written by: Drew Goddard
Produced by: Mark Huffam, Michael Schaefer, Ridley Scott, Aditya Sood, Simon Kinberg
Director of Photography: Dariusz Wolski
Production Designer: Arthur Max
Edited by: Pietro Scalia
Music by: Harry Gregson-Williams
- IMDB Trivia Page
- “The Long Way Home: Making The Martian” documentary; 2016, dir: Charles De Lauzirika