As I write this, Ridley Scott’s The Martian has reached a US domestic haul of more than $197 million, with foreign receipts added its worldwide take is some $459 million, making it one of the directors most successful films. It hasn’t been released in China or Japan yet either so there’s plenty yet to be added, so it is sure to cross that magical $500 million barrier. It’s nice to see Scott with a genuine hit under his hat after a decade of his films struggling to find a sizeable audience.
It’s just a pity its The Martian. It is easy to assess why it has been so successful- it is based on a very popular book, has a likeable and popular lead, and is pretty much the perfect Ridley Scott vehicle for mainstream audiences- a simple story told with great visuals. It’s a good movie. But it’s a pretty weak Ridley Scott movie. Think Thelma & Louise over 1492: Conquest of Paradise.
Maybe ‘weak’ isn’t the right word. Its just that… well it didn’t involve me somehow. Maybe its unfair, I read the book so I knew what to expect. Other than an unnecessary coda the film is largely faithful to the book and doesn’t take any liberties so any weakness in the film is surely inherent in the source material. And it certainly looks as spectacular as you’d expect for a Ridley Scott film. Indeed, how he manages to make a film as ‘big’ as this for ‘just’ $108 million is quite astonishing, frankly (something he likewise achieved with Prometheus). You certainly get plenty bang for your buck. And yes its great to see Ridley back in the sci-fi groove now after so many decades. There are some amazing sets and shots in The Martian that reminded me of 2001, and hints at what a film like that might look like if done today. But that’s just it; 2001 would never get made today. We can do better visuals now than Kubrick could ever have dreamed of, but we cannot tell the same kind of story. There is no room for the awe, the strangeness, the alien-ness of space anymore. Its more cosy and familiar now. I don’t think there is any moment in The Martian where we doubt our hero will ever fail to survive, or we really feel the stark terror and loneliness of life alone on an alien world. We’re too busy smirking at disco music.
God that planetoid in Alien was so strange and alien… so dark and moody and dangerous and nightmarish. Mars looks spectacular enough but its just another desert, frankly. I guess I just prefer Scott’s more arthouse, darker, rawer works, those films with his flair for visuals coupled with a darker twist. They are inevitably more esoteric, less audience-friendly. Not necessarily better movies, I’ll admit that, certainly, but I do find even a flawed film like The Counsellor rather more interesting and rewarding. However some might say that I’m talking utter tosh and The Martian proves that Ridley is better when he keeps it simple. The box-office would seem to confirm that. The tone of the film just felt wrong, somehow. Maybe it was just that disco music. It rather worked in the book, but onscreen, it was just distracting, undermining any tension.
Maybe I’ll enjoy it more second time around. I just expected Ridley to stamp some of his darkness on the project but it just turned out light and fluffy and entertaining like the book. I expect that, knowing that now, I’ll react to the film better next time. But I’ll still wonder at what it might have been. Maybe he’s keeping a three-hour version under his hat for a Directors Cut edition that will add some of that darkness and awe. You never know with Ridley. Afterall, Kingdom of Heaven was pretty poor at the cinema, but its later extended version is one of the very best films he has ever made.