Ridley Scott Strikes Back With ‘The Martian’

Matt Damon stars in ‘The Martian,’ which is not a movie about DC’s Martian Manhunter.

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Matt Damon is one of the seven best English speaking narrators on the planet, and he puts his skills to good use in the trailer for The Martian. To be honest, at first I thought it must be the long awaited Martian Manhunter solo project, set to join the Warner Bros’ Justice League universe–which is about five years too late the superhero game.

My own bit of confusion aside, The Martian is the latest entry into the ‘Stars in Space’ genre. Written by Drew Goddard (LostCabin in the WoodsCloverfieldDaredevil (sort of) and directed by Ridley Scott (who really doesn’t need any filmography reminder), The Martian is based on a sci-fi novel by Andy Weir. This is where I’d normally explain the plot, but I’ll direct you for about 3 minutes to the trailer, because “show don’t tell!”

It was probably a pretty simple pitch–Apollo 13 on Mars! But once Scott was brought on board, the project probably didn’t need much pitching. Scott can’t make whatever he want. Though as a director/pitcher, Scott hasn’t exactly been Clayton Kershaw of late. He’s more of a late career Chris Carpenter. The raw stuff is still there. He still seems plenty intense. But Scott hasn’t been able to string it all together for the past few years. He’s a director of three great movies (AlienBlade RunnerBlack Hawk Down), two really good ones (GladiatorThelma and Louise) and a bunch of movies that are at the same time provocative and boring (everything post-Black Hawk Down, especially The CounselorPrometheus).

Scott’s had an interesting career. He doesn’t need The Martian to be great to cement his legacy as once of the best directors alive, but as Mad Max: Fury Road showed about a month ago, 70 year old directors can still kick some ass.

Here’s four more interesting things about The Martian. 

1. Is the ‘Star in Space’ genre the response to the ‘Superhero’ genre?

Space movies have always attracted the industry’s most ambitious auteurs from Stanley Kubrick to the more recent entries by Alfonzo Cuaron (Gravity) and Christopher Nolan (Interstellar). Scott falls in line at the same level. We live in a market over saturated with superheros. A significant portion of the population seems to be growing impatient, and a significant portion keeps going to them. One of the best Marvel films–Guardians of the Galaxy–was essentially a combination–a superhero (with a star-making performance from Chris Pratt) in space. But The Martian doesn’t just throw one or even a few stars in space. It throws veteran space stars in space. Damon and Jessica Chastain have just come off space performances in Interstellar. Kate Mara will be coming off Fantastic Four, part of which takes place in space or at least another dimension which basically counts. They even have Donald Glover back at the home base, who in another life on Community journeyed through space. Not only do they have space veterans on screen, but behind the camera. Scott got his start in space–Aliens–and while Prometheus didn’t work like it was supposed to, I have moderate faith.

The general narrative goes something like this. Audience’s are sick of seeing New York, fictional city that’s really New York, San Francisco, or a fictional eastern European city destroyed. Let’s get off of this wretched planet. Let’s take to the sky! And if this narrative is in any way actually accurate, Star Wars is gonna be bigger than even most of us imagine.

2. Is ‘The Martian’ competition or just a warm up for ‘Star Wars’?

The Martian comes out Nov. 25. Star Wars will make a billion dollars the weekend of Dec. 18-20. That’s about a month apart (thanks math), so they won’t really compete for viewership and if The Martian can crack a third of Star Wars’ eventual earnings, The Martian would be considered a huge hit. But in the same way that the blistering, visceral action of Fury Road overshadowed the synthetic action of The Avengers: Age of UltronThe Martian could do the same to Star Wars. And I think it will come down, obviously, to the vision of Scott versus the vision of Abrams and his micro-army at Lucasfilm/Disney. It’s the old man of gritty sci-fi versus the whiz kid of sci-fi. Unless the two significantly redevelop their visual style, we know what we’re gonna get. Scott is going to give us grandness and fill a massive frame. Abrams is gonna spin around a lot, track pretty legs, and fill the frame with plenty of lens flare affects (though he’s promised not nearly as much as in Star Trek Into Darkness).

But if The Martian can chink the armor of the New Republic, then it’ll also fall on Damon and company.

3. Can Damon unseat Afflect in the eternal Damon-Affelct joust?

In the immediate aftermath of Good Will Hunting, Damon seemed to have the upper hand. Afflect went for the blockbusters and came away mostly empty handed. Damon became Jason Bourne and that seemed that. Damon became a sort of hard-boiled, serious superstar. Afflect became a punchline. But ever since The Adjustment Bureu (2011), Damon hasn’t been able to buy a hit, stringing together We Bought a ZooContagionElusium. But ever since Afflect picked up the camera with Gone Baby Gone (2007), Afflect had been gaining momentum as a director. With The Town in 2010, Afflect reached striking distance, and with the Oscar winning Argo in 2012 (coupled with Damon’s slide) Afflect socked his pal off the top spot.

But with Afflect’s momentary leave from directing to be in David Fincher and Batman movies (though sadly not a Fincher Batman movie) the door is open for Damon. Actor on actor, Damon will always will out. He’s crafted the sort of heroically empathetic star persona Afflect has never been able to find (though it’s actually why his performance in Gone Girl is great). Afflect’s Batman may blow Henry Cavill’s Superman off the screen, but he’s still leaving the window wide open for Jason Bourne to crash through.

But onto the real sibling rivalry…

4. Is ‘The Martian’ a decisive strike for Kate in the Mara saga?

When older sis Kate was playing striking, but fleeting gals in Iron Man II and 127 Hours, upstart Rooney was stealing the first 15 minutes of Fincher’s The Social Network. The following year, she’d star in Fincher’s remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and earn an Oscar nomination. Kate kept plugging away though. She turned mostly empty roles in the aforementioned movies into a role in the Fincher produced Netflix flagship House of Cards. Maybe you’ve heard of it. Maybe you hate watch it. Kate played Zoe for about a year before bowing out dramatically. And, as it turns out, she got out at the perfect time. House of Cards eventually soured and Kate’s career soon soared. She got the part of Sue Storm in Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four reboot. Meanwhile, Rooney sparkled in Her and was a key piece in Steven Soderbergh’s Side Effects. She starred in an ambitious indie Ain’t Them Bodies Saints.

So, let’s tally it up. Rooney has an Oscar nomination (plus one), and is at least in my opinion, the better actress (plus two). Kate has a more robust body of work (plus one). Kate is in a franchise (plus three). Being in a franchise is huge. It keeps you continually culturally relevant and gets you other parts. The Martian is fronted by 20th Century Fox, the same studio behind Fantastic Four. That’s not a casual coincidence, and puts us at 4-3, in favor of Kate, at this moment. My gut still says, in the end, Rooney wins an Oscar (plus two) and unleashes a few landmark performances along the way. Kate is really good, but she hasn’t really carried a movie or even a scene like Rooney has. But I’m a man if the system, so right now Kate still glides ahead.

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