Ken’s Note: Welcome to the inaugural entry into a new column. In “3 Screenshots,” I will try to add a little bit of formal criticism to a discipline (film journalism) that too often offers more evaluation than analysis. It’s relatively simple. I will take three screenshots from a recent movie and talk about how form–elements of mise-en-scene–contributes to the movie’s effectiveness.
I’m starting with Ridley Scott’s The Martian because I was recently asked to do a guest lecture in a class and I noticed while preparing that the film really rewarded close scrutiny.
One feature of the film illustrated by the shot above is that there are a lot of shots where Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is in between foreground and background. In this scene, Mark has fixed his own injury but not yet gotten down to the work of trying to save himself. The very small color pop of the water bottle pulls us to the foreground while the central location of the coffee maker pulls our eye to the background. Mark is in between those two planes; he is at a crossroads.
The foreground/background tension is reinforced through lighting. The table is more brightly lit than the background, drawing our attention to what is literally right under Mark’s nose: a pad of paper. The artifacts in the foreground represent brain power, while the coffee maker in the background represents technology. Mark is stuck between using his mind to figure things out and passively relying on technology. The parallel vertical lines extending up from the table both suggestively limit Mark’s territorial space and subtly connote a rigid, regimented environment. Mark is going to have to break out of conventional thinking if he is going to survive.
The Martian‘s story shifts between three settings: Mars (where Mark is stranded), the ship (where his former partners are heading home), and Earth (where a rescue must be planned and implemented). Each location has some distinctive visual features. I noted, for example, that shots on Earth are often more dense. There is simply more visual information to process. The above shot is a good example. Teddy (Jeff Daniels) is in the corner of the frame, and there is usually a bustle of activity around him. I think the screen density reinforces the contrasting problems at the two locations. Mark has a lack of resources, so he must be ingenious to survive. Teddy has a multitude of distractions, so he must keep himself and others on track. I would note, too, that the film often puts windows behind Teddy, both for light and to remind us that the world is still turning (and time still passing) as Mark waits for rescue.
In addition to screen density, color is also used to help create three distinct environments. The color green (which an artist reminded me is a complement to red) is largely scrubbed out of the movie. There aren’t a lot of clothes or artifacts with that color in space. When we are on Earth, we are mostly indoors. Thus, about the only time we see green is when the potatoes start to grow on Mars or when the astronauts return. The relative absence of that color for nearly two and half hours makes the shot above very striking. We aren’t necessarily aware that our senses have been deprived of that color, so when there is so much of it, the impact is like a deluge. I think this is a nice touch. Rather than telling us what Mark is feeling, the film creates the effect in us, so that we are feeling the same thing, albeit to a lesser degree.
The Martian is a dramatically engaging film that is carefully crafted. The form reinforces themes, sometimes boldly, sometimes subtly. I enjoy films that reward close scrutiny, and I felt I could pause the movie at any point and mediate on the elements of composition. When I did, I often noticed little details that I missed on first viewing.
That’s one mark of a good film.