Sunday, 4 October 2015

The Martian

The Martian, 2015, 20th Century Fox. Directed by Ridley Scott. Starring Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Sean Bean, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie and Chiwetel Ejiofor

I walk into the dank meeting room below the community centre, the florescent strip lights highlighting the faded patch work carpet under my feet. I nervously clutch my Costa latte – it’s too damn late to be drinking it at this hour, but alcohol isn’t allowed at these meetings and my nerves need something stronger than tea. I glance toward my peers as I take a seat in a hard plastic chair, sat in a circle across from the one friendly face in the room. Brian, our community outreach officer, nods and smiles in acknowledgement of my arrival, but I can’t find the words to say hello, and instead grimace and nod in return. 

As the final few people shuffle through the plywood door and take their seats, Brian claps his hands together. I just know he’ll start with me – I was warned outside by an anonymous smoking companion that he always begins with the newest member. “Some rubbish about ‘drawing you out’ or something,” he’d said, as he dragged on his Marlboro. Brian looks everyone square in the eye and I catch my smoker friend roll his eyes. He’s already utterly jaded to this; some people just can’t be changed, no matter how often they talk about their feelings.

“So welcome back everyone, and since we’re a little late, let’s just jump in with introducing our newest friend. So,” he says, gesturing to me, “Tell us a little about yourself, why are you here?” He looks at me, pleasantly and expectantly; he’s the only one who does. I lick my lips, take a deep breath – and begin.

“So, er… hi everyone, I’m Elspeth-”

“Hello, Elspeth,” they drone in response.

“Right, yeah, hi. Well, I’m Elspeth and I hate Ridley Scott films,” I breathe a sigh of relief as Brian smiles encouragingly. I look to the slightly askew banner above his head – Ridley Scott Haters Anonymous it reads in Comic Sans. I suppress a sneer as I note the faux jauntiness of the font.

“Tell us more, Elspeth,” Brian says, soothingly.

“Well, I guess it started when I saw Alien for the first time – I’d been told it was this masterwork of sci-fi and horror, but it did absolutely nothing for me. Same with Blade Runner; I knew I was supposed to be a cornerstone of dystopian cinema, but I couldn’t help myself comparing it to the book, and it bugged me that, if humanity was on the brink of extinction, how come they could fill out a cityscape of that size? It seems like a nitpick, but it stopped me from enjoying Harrison Ford, and that’s old school Ford up on the screen – it made me think I’d lost my mind, but I couldn’t get behind him or the story.” I take a swig of my now freezing cold coffee and carry on, finding that getting this off my chest at long last was empowering.

“I tried one last time with Gladiator – I thought that surely this’d be the one I understood the hype for. It had such a pedigree, but still, there was something missing. Maximus is such a noble character, he becomes impossible to relate too. I found him lacking in any faults and though I get that’s probably the point, it’s about a good man in an impossible situation, I get that, it still doesn’t make him particularly knowable or even likable. So yeah, I sort of gave up on Ridley Scott with that.”

Brian, who had been nodding like a wobble dog the entire time I had been talking, looks at me with friendly concern. “So why have you come tonight then? I’ve been asking you for a while to head down to these sessions, why now?”

“Because… I saw The Martian this week.” My smoker friend groans, and a woman to my left scoffs. Brian’s eyes widen in suppressed shock.

“You paid money for a Scott film? That’s against step one of our twelve step programme, did you not read the pamphlet I sent you?”

“I know that, but it looked fun and like Gravity, but on Mars and with Matt Damon - and I love Gravity and Matt Damon!” The woman to my left tosses her hands up in despair as the rest of the group shift uncomfortably. Brian holds his hand up and they settle again, but this time they each throw me a filthy look.

“So you had a relapse, that’s fine, that’s what this support group is for, right guys? That’s when we need each other the most!” He says, cheerfully. He snaps back to concern as he looks again to me. “Do you want to talk about it? Was it a very terrible experience?”

I wish I had more coffee. “Well, it was about twenty minutes too long and there were probably too many characters; there’s one romantic subplot that could have had more time or maybe even jettisoned entirely.” My smoker friend mutters ‘Typical Scott…’ under his breath. I steal myself for what I say next.

“But apart from that, it’s probably the finest science fiction film I’ve seen in a long time.” The room stills. I have their attention.

“Matt Damon is at the height of his charm in it – when the film is on Mars and focuses on the problems he faces, you really get behind him and what’s more, you like the crew who leave him for dead when they have to abort their mission. And this makes sense; they all have to be smart because they’re astronauts on the debut NASA Mars mission, and they have to be likable and light-hearted because they’re spending nearly two years together; it makes sense for them to be making light of their situation and ribbing each other, and what’s more the screenwriter Drew Goddard takes full advantage of this and there are some truly enjoyable interactions within this group.

“But where the film really works is where you get to see smart people work out impossible problems, and what’s more, it’s not effortless for them. A huge part of the gentle humour that runs throughout the film comes from the long suffering Development team as they stare in horror at their encroaching deadline, and from how Jeff Daniels and Kristen Wiig work out a way to keep the press at bay, whilst still courting all the good PR they can. Sean Bean and Chiwetel Ejiofor only have their astronauts’ safety in mind and the dynamic this creates is fascinating and very fun to watch. They make mistakes on Mars and Earth and the film builds to a truly gripping climax as the margin for error gapes like a canyon before them and you do wonder if they’ll actually get their spaceman back in one piece.

“I guess it’s got all the human reality of a workplace drama, but it has all the scope and excitement of a massive sci-fi epic. Some shots are just a wonder to behold and the editing gives a beautiful flow to the entire piece. But more important than any of this, and what can sometimes be missing from other Ridley Scott films, is that it has a sense of humour about itself. Though Matt Damon isn’t quite as full on as Chris Pratt, the disco soundtrack keeps the tone light, which is probably a lesson well learned from Guardians of the Galaxy. It really is remarkably good.”

Brian stares at me, all friendliness abandoned, his face a blank mask. “You… you actually like it? Really like it?” I stand and pick up my bag; I feel ten feet tall.

“Sorry Brian, you’ve been asking me to come for ages and I really did mean what I said before – I don’t like Ridley Scott. But the thing is, not every Scott project is the same, and the problems I found in his other big works are just not present in The Martian. You should all check it out, even if you do hate Ridley Scott like I did.” I turn and, throwing my coffee cup in the bin, leave them to their support meeting. No, I think, I will probably never get on with Alien, Blade Runner or Gladiator, but I think, if Scott carries on making films like The Martian, even I may call myself a fan one day.