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From Darkness to Light: The Case for Ridley Scott and The Martian

Ridley Scott’s masterpiece Alien rewrote the rules of horror and science fiction. His murky, acid rain-drenched noir Blade Runner did the same thing. In many ways, no one has been able to rewrite those rules, though many have tried. No one has gotten what Sir Ridley Scott go so right back then: he humanized the horror. He made the sci-fi feel real. Why did it feel so real? Because it didn’t fall outside the realm of what we know to be possible. Alien breaks no rules of nature, and it doesn’t even seem that hard to imagine ourselves tooling around in a spaceship controlled by an AI with an ulterior motive. The beauty of Alien is that it always felt like a future within our grasp if we weren’t careful. That is what makes it so frightening. Watch the film now, four decades later, and none of it feels dated. It still feels authentic within the persuasively elaborate universe Scott created.

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Now, 40 years later, Scott has once again made a film that feels every bit as real as Alien did in 1979. Even though no human has yet set foot on Mars, so real does his film appear to be, people can be forgiven for thinking it’s a true story. It feels real for the same reason Alien did — Scott thoroughly and completely builds a visual, precisely tangible world that never feels inauthentic. But this is where the relationship between the two films stops, because The Martian has become the yang to Alien’s yin, the bright hope that springs eternal from whatever darker tendencies of the human spirit.

Where Alien is about watching crew members be eradicated one by one at the hands of a vastly superior species, The Martian is about rescuing our species, starting with every last crew member of the Mars mission, even the one who got left behind. Alien is about fear of the unknown, fear of outer space and science. The Martian about the opposite of fear: curiosity. It’s is a celebration of science above all, and a tribute to our ever-inquisitive humanity. In Alien, nothing but her instinct for self-preservation saves Ripley. In The Martian, it’s love that saves Watney — manifest in a selfless concern for others. In Alien, knowledge withheld is our handicap, ending in devastation. In The Martian, knowledge shared is our advantage, leading to redemption — solutions to seemingly insurmountable problem galvanized by human connections that inspire us to prevail.

In Alien, we watch the crew members killed off as the film becomes one relentless lesson after another to see who can survive the creature and who can’t. Though they do agree to leave no one behind, because the “shuttle only takes four,” there is never a sense in Alien that our reckless species deserves be preserved. In fact, there is a pretty good argument against it. In Alien, we are outmatched in every way: Acid for blood? Superior intelligence? How many sets of teeth?

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In The Martian, we realize we’re outmatched by alien forces in many ways. “Fuck you, Mars” (incidentally, that’s a line that takes the novel’s “I’m pretty much fucked,” and turns it on its head). But we also see how to survive far past our shelf life. Watney is able to hang on for one reason and one reason only: science. In showing us how he does it, the Martian has quietly become, along with The Big Short, one of the most essential and important films about humanity’s doom and salvation in recent memory. Because of its massive popularity it won’t get enough credit for that, of course. If too many people like something it must not be good, right? Wrong. So many of us love The Martian because it’s majestic.

There are only two redeeming traits of human beings when you clear everything else away: our capacity to love and care for each other and our innovative spirit. Whatever that thing was that made our ancient ancestors migrate to every corner of the globe (too often, tragically, killing everything in our wake), is also the thing that will eventually help us reverse our own destruction. If we can invent things to enrich life and lift civilization — conveniences that carry unintended consequences of polluting and ruining our world — then perhaps that same inventiveness can help us get off of the planet we’ve made uninhabitable. But that’s if and only if we can invest our faith in science instead of prayers, and that is a daily struggle here in America with conservative forces threatening to keep us in the dark.

Andy Weir wrote The Martian while trying to solve the problem of how the first explorers might survive on Mars. He crowd-sourced the problem and invited readers of his blog to help challenge him to perfect his idea. His book is full of funny moments because it isn’t even about success or perfection. It’s about fucking up. It’s about mistakes. It’s about failure as an inevitable step in the desperate effort to machete our path toward problem solving. And ultimately, survival. But Drew Goddard’s adaptation of Andy Weir’s book is revelatory on a whole different level. He not only cherry-picks the best lines, he makes them even funnier. It was then up to Ridley Scott, creator of some of the industry’s darkest movies about humanity’s fate, to lend the film its heartbreaking humanity. It is easy to give up hope on the human race, to just strap ourselves in and wait for the coming storm. But The Martian is a film that offers a rare glimpse of a better road out — a chance to say “Yes, we can do this. We can evolve beyond our own selfishness.”

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Ridley Scott as a director and as a human being has, in some ways, come full circle. The fear and panic evident in every claustrophobic frame of Alien has been replaced by the endless horizons of possibility on the red planet. In Alien it comes down to one woman saving herself. In The Martian it comes down to a global effort to save just one man. Then as now, a woman still commands the ship, still calls the shots. Commander Lewis, who spearheads the effort to rescue the man who got left behind, is every bit as capable and badass as Ripley in Alien. In The Martian’s vision of the future, women are commanders of ships, countries work together in harmony not opposition, there is no limitation imposed by skin color when it comes to genius. Scientists of dramatically diverse backgrounds think of ways outside the box to invent a nearly inexplicable way to get Mark Watney to meet his rescuers before his time runs out.

It’s easy to forget Ridley Scott directed a film like Thelma and Louise. So much of his work we associate with action, visual effects and, oh yeah, outer space, that the gentle touch he has with humanity often gets lots. In his latest film, by far his most playful and joyful effort, that touch is evident when Mark Watney (Matt Damon in one of the best performances of the year) sees a sprout of green. In Andy Weir’s book this evidence of life is stated as fact — he’s a botanist, he planted it, it grew. In Ridley’s version, life itself is the miracle.

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“Hey there,” says Damon, gazing upon something only nature should be able to do. But in dire circumstances nature needs an assist for the miracle to happen. We can use our knowledge and skill to grow things as much as we can use it to destroy things. The Martian is the best film of the year because it offers a new way of looking at our future, a pathway out of the madness. It is also just purely entertaining in a way few films are anymore. Scott’s light touch throughout is a tribute to the director’s adeptness, his evolution, and ultimately his redemption.

2015 will be marked by the damnation that it should be marked with. We are going to hell in a hand basket and there is no question about that. It isn’t a matter of interpretation. It is a matter of choice. The space program needs to be valued and preserved. It needs to be funded. The Martian has now influenced a whole generation of dreamers, of maybe one day astronauts. That’s the kind of world I want to live in.

As Alien ends, Ripley slips into her space suit to blow the sleeping alien out of the airlock to drift off into movie history. Ridley Scott’s influence on everything that followed in American film is immeasurable. Alien’s impact is brought back to vibrant life with its companion and its opposite — this time Commander Lewis slips into a space suit to do that thing humans do better than anything else: we save each other. As despondent as I have become about the human race overall, as cynical as I’ve become over our inevitable fate, I had a moment of optimism while watching Ridley Scott’s new vision of the ominous and wondrous promise outer space. I remain beholden to him for that gift, a better way to wake up in the morning. Ridley Scott – at the top of his game, an evolved, compassionate man who makes us laugh, cry, believe and hope.

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