Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity, released in the US exactly two years ago, proved that popular cinema could be adult in its themes as well as thrilling in its execution. But originality can’t usually be converted into influence unless there is some commercial success involved. Had Gravity failed to take $700m worldwide, two new films by veteran directors – Ridley Scott’s The Martian and Robert Zemeckis’s The Walk – probably wouldn’t have gone into production. Studio executives, no less beloved of their talismans than any gambler, have now ring-fenced this chunk of the autumn schedule for sophisticated spectaculars. That’s how it will stay until something flops and the effects of Gravity are seen to have worn off.
The Martian and The Walk are opening superstitiously close to Gravity’s release date but the similarities don’t end there. Both are also in 3D and full of magical special effects; they revolve around death-defying solo missions in which there are no villains, only the prospect of failure (ie, death). But neither borrows Gravity’s boldest assets: 90 minutes of action and an on-screen cast of two.
In The Martian, Matt Damon plays the astronaut and botanist Mark Watney, left behind on Mars by colleagues who assume he has been killed in the violent storm that forces them to flee. He is now 140 million miles from home with only one year’s food supplies left. All means of communication with Nasa were blitzed in the storm. And wifi is notoriously spotty on Mars, don’t you find? (Doubling for the Red Planet, Wadi Rum in Jordan has a sultry barrenness.) But that’s no reason to get down in the mouth. The film follows Mark’s efforts to survive. To grow potatoes, he makes water by burning hydrazine rocket fuel, then harvests his own excrement and fills the entire base-camp with soil, transforming it into a strong contender for the next Turbine Hall installation at the Tate.
All the while, he is keeping a video diary in which he is sassy (“In your face, Neil Armstrong!”) as he outlines every step of his plan to make contact with Planet Earth. It’s almost as if he knows he’s a character in a movie. This is intercut with scenes of the Nasa team (led by Jeff Daniels) making its own calculations about budgets, resources and PR. Both sides of the picture have their own appeal but together they conspire against one another. What with all the fuss about him on earth, Mark never seems very alone. Without suspense, his experiments don’t get far beyond the level of an averagely engaging episode of Tomorrow’s World.
The detail in Drew Goddard’s screenplay, adapted from Andy Weir’s novel, is painstaking but only in selective ways. Each stage in the process of creating water is demonstrated, for instance, but there is no evidence at all of the parents Mark claims are waiting for him back home. We see other astronauts’ families. Could Mark be imagining his? If so, it could be a solitary sign of the deterioration that would surely take hold after facing extinction alone for so long.
Perhaps any film that makes Matt Damon the focus of so much time and energy is on a hiding to nothing. Though there’s still a trace of the amorality he displayed in The Talented Mr Ripley or Gus Van Sant’s Gerry (a far scarier film about being lost in inhospitable terrain), there isn’t much here to distinguish him from Buster Crabbe as Flash Gordon. That retrograde innocence reaches all corners of the movie, from the corny soundtrack choices (“Starman”, “I Will Survive”) to the anachronistic crowd scenes showing public places across the globe crammed with well-wishers, all of whom have rejected smartphones and snarky live-tweeting to follow Mark’s story on giant video screens instead.
Robert Zemeckis has already made one gripping film about isolation: that was Cast Away, starring Tom Hanks. In The Walk, he examines a different sort of solitude. If you’ve seen the documentary Man on Wire, you’ll know the story: Philippe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a high-wire walker who resolves in 1974 to cross from the top of one of the towers of the newly opened World Trade Center to the other. (Why? Because he can.) The weakness of this dramatised version is its limited editorial voice: Philippe talks directly to camera and assumes all voice-over duties, so there’s no relief from his egotism. (The screenplay finds him a good deal more charming than we do.) Stripped of the intriguing flaws shown in Man on Wire – he no longer cheats on his girlfriend after completing the wire-walk – he is an oddly neutered sort of narcissist.
But the film has more than enough spectacle. Zemeckis, who made Back to the Future and Who Framed Roger Rabbit, is a peerless visual magician, adept at placing the camera in off-kilter places: inside a photograph of the World Trade Center, so that Philippe seems to be drawing his line between the towers on the very lens, or directly in the path of an arrow. (For once, the use of 3D is justified, as well as cheekily old-fashioned.) These are mere appetisers for the big coup: putting the camera up on the wire itself so that we can marvel at New York as dawn streaks the city pink and gold. The special effects and green screen technology are flawless, not least in the digital reconstruction of the twin towers. Any poignancy arising from seeing them in their gleaming infancy cannot be attributed to the film. It does itself proud all the same by letting the images speak for themselves.
The Martian (12A) is directed by Ridley Scott and out now. The Walk (PG) is directed by Robert Zemeckis and out on 2 October
This article appears in the 30 Sep 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide