Ridley Scott’s reputation precedes him–and it often blinds multiplex audiences. It’s no secret to critics though, that his work hasn’t been top-notch for most of the last decade-and-a-half, or so. But when your second feature is 1979’s iconic “Alien”, and your 3rd was 1982’s classic “Blade Runner”–you garner a lot of gravitas. And you want to do yourself a favor? Check out the director’s cut of 1985’s troubled “Legend” (1986 in the U.S.), starring Tom Cruise and Tim Curry. It’s pretty close to great. After that Scott was increasingly uneven, though. For every “Thelma & Louise” or “Gladiator”, there was a “1492: Conquest of Paradise” or “G.I. Jane”. Ridley’s last two excellent features? 2001’s one-two punch of the highly underrated “Hannibal”, and the fantastic “Black Hawk Down”. But his financially successful “Alien” prequel, “Prometheus”, is only so-so. Come to think of it, so is his latest, “The Martian”, even though it appears to be well on its way to being Scott’s biggest hit in a long time.
After an accident on a manned mission to Mars, an injured crew member is thought dead, and left behind during an intense Martian storm. When astronaut Mark Watney (a solid Matt Damon) awakes injured (but very much alive) hours later, he immediately acts upon finding ways to survive. First up, Mark (a botanist) attempts to grow food on the red planet, as he realizes his supplies will quickly dwindle. Next, he tries to find ways to communicate with Earth, and/or his departed spaceship, with the hope of some form of rescue attempt. Once it is finally discovered that Watney has lived, there are a series of arguments, disagreements, delays and compromises concerning a mission to actually try to bring him home. It won’t be easy, and Dr. Watney will need to call upon all of his expert training, to extend his existence on the Martian landscape, for a lengthy period of time. The audiences around the world find it impossible not to root for the abandoned man. You’ll have the same issue.
This is not a bad film. But there’s very little magic here. Whatever happened to Mr. Scott’s poetry? And how about his ability to take a risk? If you desire something as shocking as a chest-bursting alien or somersaulting killer robots–forget it. “The Martian” is about as play-it-safe and awards-hungry as a mainstream movie can get. Plus, the acting is hit-or-miss, with some fine performers completely wasted. Outside of Mr. Damon, Jessica Chastain as the mission commander is quite fine. But the talented Kristen Wiig is ridiculously under utilized, and the Jeff Daniels “head of NASA” character, is too often played for laughs. I’ll blame that on Drew Goddard’s uneven script, which also beats a continuous, not-so-funny disco joke, right into the crimson 4th planet ground. And for a story where the stakes are supposed to be so high, I didn’t detect much tension at all. Of course, the movie’s look is superb, and the 3D effects are wonderful. But the film is also workmanlike–and even a little bit dull. “The Martian” is a financial hit, but artistically it’s a bit of a miss.