A Decade at the Oscars: The Martian
Updated: Feb 16
41) Moneyball (Bennett Miller, 2011)
42) Hugo (Martin Scorsese, 2011)
43) The Martian (Ridley Scott, 2015)
44) Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky, 2010)
45) American Hustle (David O. Russell, 2013)[i]
With the 61 Best Picture nominated films of the last decade that I have seen ranked and debated, it is now time to start watching and placing the 27 that remain. The Martian is the first of these: a film in a genre that I love (sci-fi), made by a director I adore (Ridley Scott), this was sure to be a winner, or at least I hoped so, and it was certainly towards the top of the red list that I was most excited to watch for the first time. Unfortunately, the reality is less a triumph and more a shrug; a movie in the vein of the great Apollo 13 (Ron Howard, 1995), but lacking its predecessor’s incisive intensity.
The plot of The Martian is fairly simple and high-concept: a man becomes stranded on Mars after a space mission goes wrong, and he has to fend for himself, trying to survive whilst he waits to be rescued. This allows the film to explore interesting avenues of the nature of humanity and what it takes to survive. Rather than simply showing Matt Damon’s Mark Watney as an action hero conquering Mars, Scott portrays him as a vulnerable but brilliant scientist who must problem-solve his way through this impossible situation. Therefore we get to explore his fascinating attempts to repair his shelter and grow food, to explore the planet and find ways to communicate with his colleagues back on Earth. It is this section of the movie which is the most gripping, as Watney faces a daily battle for survival that you feel could be lost at any moment: his very mortal existence always just a few seconds from being wiped out by the tempestuous red planet. It is also in this section that the film bears the closest resemblance to Apollo 13 – though set on land at least, rather than in a tin can floating through space. The best parts of both films are watching unfathomably intelligent people work out how to persevere in the most dire of circumstances, and enjoying the attempts of the geniuses on Earth to add their brainpower to the fight too. The only problem is that The Martian, unlike Apollo 13, is a complete work of fiction, and therefore lacks some of the gravitas and relevance of Ron Howard’s film.
The casting of Matt Damon in the lead role here requires some consideration since the majority of the film rests squarely on his shoulders, as a man who has the freedom of an entire planet to himself. It is, of course, a very similar part to the one he had played a year earlier in Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, and the differences between the two characters are compelling. Both The Martian’s Watney and Interstellar’s Mann are brilliant scientists abandoned alone on a planet in the depths of space, and yet from the same starting point, they take very different trajectories. Whilst Mann is driven insane by the ordeal and becomes an antagonist, Watney remains stoic and rational and is very much the beating heart of morality in The Martian. On the one hand, I don’t exactly want to fault this – we like to cheer on good, sane men, and if Watney had gone down the route of Mann then The Martian would have been a completely different movie and not the one Scott wanted to make. But on the other hand, the way the final shots of the movie show Watney back on Earth, still teaching in the space programme and laughing and joking about his time on Mars suggest that it hasn’t really affected him as a person at all. The trauma of the narrative we have just witnessed seems to fall off him like the proverbial water off a duck’s back, and this can only lessen the impact of the rather epic scenes we have just witnessed. If the man who has experienced the events of The Martian just shrugs his shoulders at them, where does that leave us as a viewer?
My overall impression of The Martian is that it failed to surprise me, playing out with the kind of mediocre predictability that I had feared it might. It rather mechanically goes through the science-y survival bit and then abandons this pretence of realism and thinking your way out of problems in order to display an action-packed and, at times, ridiculous rescue. This ‘happy ending’ and the aforementioned coda only damage the first three quarters of the film which, while predictable, do at least provide intrigue and suspense in a beautiful, lonely setting. As for where this film ranks in my listing of Best Picture nominees, it is firmly rooted in the well-crafted but unexciting 4-star section. All four of the films around it are works that I remember watching and enjoying when they came out, but which have not remained rooted in the memory. All are films which I know I need to see again, but which I can’t imagine moving very far up or down the leaderboard upon second viewing. They are not films with great depth – they are Oscar bait, with strong performances across the board and which fit the refrain of ‘a good story, well told’, but which I doubt are in anybody’s top 10 lists of the past decade – words, indeed, which perfectly summarise The Martian.
At time of writing, The Martian is available to watch on Netflix.
[i] See the full ranking from the start of this process here: https://www.finalshotfilmblog.com/post/a-decade-at-the-oscars