In recent days, getting excited over a Ridley Scott film has become a dicey proposition. Exodus: Gods and Kings was just terrible; The Counselor was meh to the highest degree, even with that bonkers car-humping scene; and while I dig Prometheus (despite myriad programs, it’s a gorgeous, moody film), it’s a hugely flawed movie. Still, it's hard not to feel at least a twinge of glee when the guy behind Alien and Blade Runner makes a sci-fi movie, and his latest, The Martian, is a movie you should be stoked about, and it ranks among the year's, and the director’s best.
Astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is part of the first ever manned mission to Mars, and when a freak storm causes the team to abandon the planet, he is going to be the first person to die there. An accident causes him to be left behind, presumed dead by his team, stranded on the surface of the Red Planet. With resources limited and time running out, Mark has to find a way to survive where every single move is life and death. So, no pressure or anything.
The Martian could very easily have bogged down in hopelessness and despair, but the remarkable thing, which sets it apart from so many other films, is that it remains stubbornly optimistic. While fear and desolation do creep in at the edges, the film is all about staying positive in the face of overwhelming adversity and straight up MacGuyvering your way through each and every problem. Mark faces mind-boggling challenges—he’s short on food and water, his shelter is only designed for a short stint, and none of it matters if he can’t find a way to communicate with NASA anyway—and he tackles each one at a time.
Start with one problem, find a solution, and move on to the next, and so and so forth until they’re all taken care of. The Martian is a celebration of science and intellect. Mark Watney may be an astronaut, but he’s not your typical action hero; he uses brains instead of brawn, and he’s sure to become a cinematic icon for the scientifically inclined everywhere—he gets by on instinct, training, and intelligence.
Above all else, The Martian is a masterfully executed balancing act in almost every regard. For a movie primarily about a man alone on Mars, a futuristic Robinson Crusoe struggling to survive, it’s surprisingly funny. But this humor itself is a number of different things and the meaning evolves over time. By turns it’s a personality trait, a celebration of small victories, a defense mechanism in the face of defeat, and even desperation. Sometimes you laugh with Watney, others his laughter almost makes you weep, and Damon walks this line flawlessly, convincing himself as he convinces the viewer.
Though The Martian is one disaster after another, the script, adapted by Cabin in the Woods director Drew Goddard from the novel by Andy Weir, never feels like it’s simply dumping endless shit on top of Watney. In a setting where in every action, no matter how minor, his life is literally on the line, that’s simply the reality of the situation, and Mark never takes it personally, never gives in to the temptation to curl up, cry “what me,” or give up. It’s a constant barrage of tension, not heaping piles of abuse.
This balance also extends beyond what goes down on the surface of Mars. The film frequently cuts away to the team at NASA, first as they attempt to come to terms with losing a man, and then, after they learn he is alive, as they attempt to bring him home. I was initially worried about these scenes because as you watch, you’re so invested in Mark’s story and you want to stay with him, that this feels like a distraction, like it will impinge on the main narrative thrust. Fortunately, Scott and Goddard keep these moments quick and punchy. They get in, do what they need, and get out, and it doesn’t hurt that they are filled with fantastic actors like Jessica Chastain, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kristen Wiig, Donald Glover, Jeff Daniels, Michael Pena, Sean Bean, Kate Mara, and more.
There’s never been a question about whether or not Ridley Scott has visual chops as a director, but they’re taken to the next level here, and The Martian is a movie that begs to be seen in 3D. The stunning panoramas of Mars give the film an almost western frontier vibe, and even though he uses a number of devices like Watney keeping a video dialogue—a clever way to dump a ton of technical information on the audience without it feeling oppressive—and cameras mounted on the survival habitat and rover, actually add interesting elements instead of coming across as obnoxious intrusions as they easily could have.
The Martian is many things: an epic space adventure, a story of one man’s determination, fighting for survival in the most hostile environment imaginable, an effects-driven tentpole, a small human story, and much more. You can enjoy it if you’re looking for spectacle and action, for drama and emotion, and anything in between. Whatever you’re in the mood for, The Martian will likely deliver. And there’s an ABBA song (the Bowie is a bit too easy), what’s not to love? [Grade: A]