Let’s get the lede out of the way, shall we? The Martian is the smartest and most satisfying movie Ridley Scott has directed in at least a decade. And thanks to Drew Goddard’s wickedly-funny screenplay, it may even be his funniest movie! Borrowing elements from Apollo 13, Gravity, Cast Away and perhaps even MacGyver, this pastiche of sci-fi and survival dramas, based on Andy Weir’s best-selling novel, works simultaneously as an ode to hard science and problem solving, and as a good old-fashioned crowd-pleaser. It’s a film that finds the 76-year-old Scott back in his comfort zone, armed with a renewed sense of confidence after the quadruple disappointments of Robin Hood, Prometheus, The Counselor and Exodus: Gods and Kings. Yes, The Counselor was pretentious garbage and No, I don’t care what you think because I’m never changing my stance on that.
Matt Damon plays Mark Watney, a NASA astronaut on a Mars space mission who is violently separated from his group, and left for dead, after a ferocious sandstorm forces them to abort their mission and return to Earth. By the time Mark regains consciousness and manages to get back to the ground station – dubbed the Hab – he finds himself in the unenviable position of being stranded on an inhospitable planet 140 million miles from home. With his radio communication signals obliterated by the storm, food supplies limited to a few months, and the next space mission scheduled to arrive only in four years, Mark has to depend on his wit, mathematical ingenuity and his botanist background to prolong his ordeal until the next mission arrives. As he states in the trailer, “I’m going to have to science the shit out of this.”
To keep his mind in check and not lapse into insanity from the prolonged period of loneliness, Mark keeps himself busy by, among other things, creating video journals—a format that Andy Weir’s novel also incorporated—in which he relays the details of his engineering experiments, one of which includes growing potatoes using his own poop as soil. Unlike Chris Nolan’s Interstellar, which based many of its concepts on theoretical science and physics, most of the science that we see in The Martian is rooted in practice. Although I can’t say how realistic all his ideas are, it definitely is entertaining.
Mark also uses the journals to voice his frustrations and wax philosophical, but a lot of it is also spent mocking the crap TV and music tastes of his former crewmates. Imagine being stuck on Mars and the only thing you have to make do with for four years are Three’s Company episodes and ABBA. Okay, I don’t mind ABBA all that much but for four years? That alone makes me feel sorry for the guy—forget all the live journal stuff and funny voiceovers.
Still, Mark wouldn’t be half as likable without the right actor playing him. Save for Tom Hanks, Damon has to be the most likable leading man in Hollywood right now. Being the only actor on-screen for at least half of the film’s running time, Damon’s tasked with selling Mark’s harrowing ordeal as well as making light of the situation. But the actor comes through with a hugely appealing performance that hits the right mix of nerdy, jokester and roguish charm, thereby allowing Mark to come off funny, endearing and more importantly, believable. An early scene in which he has to self-operate is particularly brutal and bloody but it right away instills that this is someone who is extremely intelligent, resourceful and knows what he’s doing. If there’s a key to this movie’s success—it’s Damon’s winning performance.
Damon may take center stage but that doesn’t mean that The Martian is a one-man show a la Cast Away or 127 Hours. Close to half of the movie is set on Earth and revolves around the scientists, engineers, corporate executives and publicists at NASA, all who are working around the clock to find a way to bring the “Martian” home alive. Among the huge supporting ensemble are Chiwetel Ejiofor as the overworked rescue mission director, Jeff Daniels as the stodgy head of NASA, Kristin Wiig as his uptight publicist, Sean Bean as the rebellious chief engineer of the Ares III mission, and Donald Glover as an eccentric physicist. The incomparable Jessica Chastain takes the lead as the commander of the Ares III crew with strong support coming from Michael Pena, Kate Mara and Sebastian Stan. These segments may not be as exciting as the ones set on Mars, especially since the actors don’t get much to play with, but they’re a lot like the ground sequences in Apollo 13—integral to pushing the story forward. These segments also work as a tip of the hat to the tenacious attitude, collaborative spirit and problem-solving capabilities of the engineers at NASA. I wouldn’t be surprised if this movie leads to an uptick in applications at the agency.
Although a lot of what we see—from concerned scientists to control rooms—adheres closely to a recognizable formula we’ve seen plenty of times before, it never feels tired or clichéd. While I did have some reservations about the film’s first act (it’s a bit rushed and too eager to skip over some of Mark’s Fix-It Felix experiments to get to the more exciting stuff), Scott and film editor Pietro Scalia iron out those kinks during the robust middle act before building to a soaring last act.
Eventually, the beauty of The Martian lies in its lean and frills-free narrative. There are no good guys and bad guys here nor major twists or revelations. This is a movie about people working together towards a common cause. Some may critique this no-frills approach as a weakness but I found it to be rather refreshing, especially coming from a filmmaker like Scott. The Martian may lack the ambition (Alien), thematic complexity (Blade Runner) or the sweeping scope (Kingdom of Heaven) of some of Scott’s best work (or even his worst—Hi, The Counselor!) but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s one of his lesser efforts. Like the NASA scientists at the crux of his tale, Scott’s direction here operates on the principle of efficiency. He takes a simple story—that of an astronaut stranded on Mars—and turns it, with the help of Drew Goddard’s smart script and Matt Damon’s blindingly charismatic performance, into a fun and exuberant adventure. Sometimes, that’s all you need.
Director: Ridley Scott
Screenwriter: Drew Goddard
Cast: Matt Damon, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels, Kate Mara
Producer: Mark Huffam, Simon Kinberg, Michael Schaefer, Ridley Scott, Aditya Sood
Running time: 141 minutes
Companies: 20th Century Fox
Rating: PG-13 for some strong language, injury images, and brief nudity