There are three kinds of films prolific and beloved director Ridley Scott, who will turn 78 next month, makes: tense dramas (Thelma & Louise, The Counselor) grandiose epics (Gladiator, Exodus: Gods and Kings), and sci-fi extravaganzas (Blade Runner, Prometheus, its upcoming sequel Alien: Paradise Lost). As the title plainly states, this one falls in the third category. But as far as sci-fi extravaganzas go, this one plays as a surprisingly intimate and realistic portrait backed by stellar supporting cast. It’s also happens to be Scott’s best overall movie since [INSERT ONE OF SCOTT’S MANY DIVISIVE FILMS].
Echoing films such as Robinson Crusoe on Mars, Cast Away and Gravity, expect no aliens or overt science fiction trope in this film; the only “Martian” is our stranded protagonist Mark Watney (Matt Damon). The film is based on the best-selling e-book of the same name by Andy Weir. I didn’t read the book in the run-up to the movie to experience it fresh but the film and it recent press made me more, not less, inclined to read it and discover the adaptive permutations.
Damon gets to give a “movie-star” role that feels old-fashioned and refreshing at the same time. His natural humor and charisma power the film through the video diaries Watney keeps about his survival, a clever device to deliver what is effectively voiceover. To give you an idea of what kind of story and film this is, little time is spent on Damon brooding on his situation or anguishing over some existential crisis. It is Damon’s talent that imbues the character with pathos, the momentary breakdowns and mico-expressions of doubt and a gallows humor common in those who do in life-threatening work. Meanwhile the plot does the heavy-lifting of keeping Watney moving from obstacle to obstacle while the story expands from Mars’ surface to his outgoing spaceship the Hermes, all the way back to Earth.
Any worry that dwelling alone with Damon would wear is reassured by the ongoing plot threads of NASA’s effort to bring Watney home and Watney’s crewmates who want to rescue him. Jessica Chastain is plays the commander Melissa Lewis, Michael Pena – like in this summer’s Ant-Man – provides much of the comic relief as pilot Rick Martinez, Sebastian Stan is Dr. Chris Beck, Kate Mara is Beth Johanssen and Aksel Hennie is Alex Vogel. Each makes the most of their small roles but most importantly are serviced by the script properly to each get moments. For a film called The Martian, it’s those not on Mars that make Watney’s plight so much more compelling.
The ground team at NASA is led by director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels), mission director Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), PR director Annie Montrose (Kristen Wiig) and Mitch Henderson (Sean Bean) with assists by Donald Glover, Mackenzie Davis and Benedict Wong.
It is a film with a powerfully humanistic message about the ability to come together in times of crises and the power of science to solve pressing problems. For that reason, I predict it will be a much-needed four-quadrant hit for Scott whose last two films were box-office disappointments. His most recent, Exodus: Gods and Kings, seemed to capture everything wrong about modern-day Scott films: glorious visuals masking vapid characters and empty, nonsensical plots.
Here, with the sturdy structure and research of Weir’s novel and Goddard’s screenplay, Scott’s weaknesses are eliminated and his visual acumen fully on display without caveat. Add to it the experienced cast providing an unusually-deep bench for a “stranded guy” movie, and you have a movie firing on all its entertaining cylinders.
Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (which, ironically, also saw Damon playing a stranded astronaut) and Scott’s own Prometheus were both sci-fi epics that were considered disappointing in recent years. This film serves as an interesting rebuttal to the former film and a marked improvement over the plot and character failings of the latter. Nolan drowned his space film in treacly sentiment that didn’t feel real and ultimately broke the bounds of science.
The Martian is not constrained, but liberated by its adherence to hard science and both humanity’s ability to overcome its limits and the collective power that makes it possible to accomplish wonders. It’s emblematic of the film’s grander theme, summed up well by Watney: “I’m going to have to science the shit out of this.”