The Martian and the Need for More Good, Populist Cinema, by David Bax
I’m in my annual, year-end, movie catch-up mode right now and so I was eager to attend a screening of The Martian last night. A well-earned wariness of Ridley Scott and poor reviews from some of my favorite critics (Stephanie Zacharek, J.R. Jones) kept me away the first time around but the offer of a free screening in a technologically up to date theater, plus the fact that most people actually seemed to have really liked it, was too much to resist. As it turns out, my caution was ill-advised. Not only is The Martian a very good movie, it represents exactly the kind of big budget, crowd-pleasing cinema that major studios can, and ought to, do well.
I think I’ll give the lion’s share of credit to Drew Goddard’s screenplay. Though it bears ornamentation in the form of comedy, which becomes essential as situations grow tense and precarious, it mostly refuses to revel in itself, despite the long runtime. That focused leanness helps to keep Scott on a leash. The film is simply too wrapped up in process and forward momentum for him to stop and indulge his bloated visual tendencies. And the humor that Goddard brings all but bars Scott from the stultifying portentousness of something like Exodus: Gods and Kings, his most recent bore of a film.
That’s not to say there isn’t spectacle all over the place, which returns me to my earlier point. The Martian is precisely the kind of film that requires the kind of massive financial backing a major studio can provide. That’s not to say there isn’t a hypothetical, great indie to be made from this story; I just mean that for The Martian to succeed in the manner it does here, a lot of money is necessary. The CGI-assisted vistas of Mars, the weightless interior of the spaceship, the all-star cast; these things cost. That’s not to mention the masterful use of 3D, putting this film in the rare company of Gravity, Life of Pi and a handful of other live-action movies where the extra dimension is actually vital.
There’s more to The Martian, though, than just its hugeness (though the detractors mentioned above would disagree). There may not be too many heady insights and Matt Damon’s protagonist spends very little time pondering his place in the universe for a guy all alone on an entire planet for a couple of years. And while the viewer’s heartrate will increase and decrease dramatically over the story’s hills and valleys, there isn’t what you’d call an emotional catharsis. Luckily, Goddard and Scott don’t fill that void with lightweight uplift, like too many middlebrow dramas do. Instead, they have made what is essentially a work of jubilant propaganda, a film that extolls the virtues of science and excites the mind at the possibilities it provides, the idea that there may be an answer for just about everything if we look hard enough and know our stuff. This is a movie that seeks to remind us – or convince us, if convincing is what we need – of the importance of space travel and scientific exploration. This is the movie Interstellar wanted to be but wasn’t able to cut through its own pompousness to achieve. It’s become a cultural cliché that being a nerd is cool now but, when we say that, we tend to refer to an interest in things like comic books or fiction of the fantasy genre. Those things are great but Damon’s Mark Watney – a brilliant, hilarious, Fonz-loving space pirate – is the coolest goddamn nerd since Buckaroo Banzai.
The Martian is currently ranked seventh in box office grosses for 2015. It will likely be kept off my personal top ten list in favor of the more poetic, intimate and outré films I tend to prefer. But it’s the kind of movie we’ll still be talking about decades from now. It’s smart, lively, exciting, funny and moving. It’s The Shawshank Redemption, it’s The Godfather, it’s Titanic. It’s exactly the sort of big, beautiful grandstander of a movie that finds a permanent place in the cultural subconscious. While we seek more avant garde and esoteric work from other outlets, it’s the standard to which we should be holding the major studios.