Watney’s Red Planet

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Matt Damon as Mark Watney became the second ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS in my birthday treat movie on Saturday, which turned out to be a bigger treat than I’d expected, and quite possibly Ridley Scott’s best film since the eighties.

THE MARTIAN — filmed in all three dimensions of outer space! 3D seems to be something directors get better at on repeated exposure — Fleischer, Dante, Arnold. Scott, speaking of PROMETHEUS actually said, “The 3D was no problem at all. We actually see in 3D all the time,” which one might charitably interpret as a senior moment, but Fiona says, “Ridley would still have said that in 1979.” One worried that he hadn’t given the matter sufficient study.

In THE MARTIAN, there’s far more exploitation of the gimmick, but not in a chuck-spaceships-at-the-lens way. PROMETHEUS’s best quality was its vivid and immersive environments, and here the planetscapes are more shapes and multi-leveled, with aerial shots that let the dunes and buttes roll past the lens. But Scott also gets great value out of little sprouts poking through topsoil, and the multiple rows of screens and workstations in NASA HQ. And in the Hermes, he’s gifted us a gyroscopic spacecraft that’s a sheer joy to observe as we fly past it or through its rotating rings. The sensual pleasure of moving through a deep environment becomes as rich as the use of smoke, rain, multiple little light sources, widescreen composition, long lens ECUs, and all the other features of the Scott visual style.

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The dumbness of PROMETHEUS, its bad dialogue, and its mainly dopey, inconsistent and unappealing 2D characters, have all been replaced here with an intelligent scenario by Drew Goddard from Andy Weir’s novel, full of nice people working together to help each other. It’s astonishingly positive. This, along with the NASA mission control setting, has led to a lot of comparisons with APOLLO 13, which is a very good film, probably Ron Howard’s best, so the likening isn’t an insult, but I think this one’s better, because it has the same virtues plus some extra ones, mostly audio-visual.

Scott’s always been rather good at casting, though his background in ads would seem to equip him solely to flick through Spotlight and pick out faces he liked. But look at ALIEN — every one of the Nostromo’s crew is a wonderfully quirky thesp. When ill-health forced Jon Finch to drop out, Scott replaced him with John Hurt, which shows flexibility as well as excellent taste. For BLADE RUNNER, Scott’s masterstroke was Rutger Hauer, but he also saw something in Darryl Hannah that nobody else had recognized, and was one of very few directors to have tapped the potential of Joe Turkel (basically Kubrick and Scott are his whole career).

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Here, Damon is a personable everyman, onscreen solo for most of 140 mins, and neither bland nor irksomely quirky. The quirks are left to the supporting cast, all briefly sketched in but suggesting the possibility of greater depths. For a while it feels like Kate Mara is going to do nothing but punch computer keys, but some more stuff eventually happens. Jeff Daniels, Benedict Wong, Donald Glover and of course Kirsten Wiig are often associated with comedies, which I guess equips them to be likable. Sean Bean seems like a stand-in for the director. And Chiwetel Ejiofor and Jessica Chastain and Michael Peña… it’s just such lovely company to be in.

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In Bunuel’s THE ADVENTURES OF ROBINSON CRUSOE, when Dan O’Herlihy leaves the island he hears his dog bark — a dog that had died some years before. This is something I sometimes quote to students as an example of the poetic power of surrealism. Nobody needs to have the moment explained, yet it comes from a place beyond the rational. There’s nothing as elegantly imaginative as that here, but there is the power of realism. The design and performances and writing create a conviction that carries us along. We don’t need interpersonal conflict hyped up when the central situation works as a magnificent plot motor.

Robinson Crusoe is a tricky figure to make work on screen, since fictional characters feed off their interrelationships with one another to become real and engaging. Someone else has to care about them before we can. Watney is alone for ages, and we get very little interaction with his team-mates, but what makes us go with him is his relationship with US, via the vidcams dotted around his Martian “hab.” Implausibly, these all provide a 3D image, something I guess you just have to go with, but it’s worth it.

Saw the film with an actual botanist, who thought it plausible enough except that Martian sunlight would be rather weak for growing veg, and Damon should have swept the red dust off his skylight to help things along.

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4 Responses to “Watney’s Red Planet”

  1. I had a wee dance in the aisle to the closing credits music, much to the consternation of other people trying to get out. You can’t take me anywhere.

  2. The film is also brilliant at extolling the virtues of gaffer tape. Basically the film industry and space exploration can’t exist without it.

  3. It’s amazing the way 3-D has gone from being a forgotten gimmick to its revival as an entirely successful modus.

  4. Some people have questioned whether 3D is really boosting profits, but the industry certainly seems convinced. What may prove to be of most value is that it’s now stuck around long enough for filmmakers to get their second or third crack at it, so the use of it is improving. I might even go see The Walk to find out if Zemeckis’s chronic bad taste has developed.

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