Ridley Scott has had a rough time as of late. While he undoubtedly belongs in the ranks of great directors, his more recent projects (Robin Hood, Prometheus, Exodus: Gods and Kings, to name a few) have made it difficult to remember why. It’s a shame that every time I mention how much I love Scott’s work, I’ve always found the need to include an asterisk next to that statement, i.e. “I love his work pre-2001, but not much else.” It’s a shame not just because it makes me sound like a pretentious film hipster, but because Scott as a filmmaker is clearly capable of so much more and it’s been such a disappointment to see him produce one middling effort after another.
The Martian bucks this trend and then some. It is a more-than-welcome return to form for the director, complete with winning humor, edge-of-your-seat excitement, and heartfelt emotion, all anchored by a superb performance from Matt Damon. It’s the best film Ridley Scott has made in the past 10 years and one of 2015’s best. No longer shall I need an asterisk next to my professions of love for Mr. Scott; The Martian reminds us of why we loved him in the first place. The circle has been broken.
The story goes a little something like this: After disaster strikes during a Mars expedition, Astronaut Mark Watney is presumed dead and left behind on the planet by his fellow crewmates. With limited food and supplies, Watney must rely on his intellect, his good humor, and his sexy botanist skills to survive the upcoming months and find a way to make contact with Earth.
Everything about The Martian works. Chalk it up to some great source material and an excellent screenplay. Andy Weir’s novel plays out like something of a science/space travel aficionado’s attempt at fan fiction, and I mean that in a good way. While the novel never quite transcends its tendencies towards a ‘and then this happened, and then this happened, and then this happened’ plot, it’s still an entertaining read with an incredibly likable protagonist at its core in Astronaut Mark Watney. ‘Charming’ is probably the best word to describe it and charm is something Ridley Scott’s films have been sorely lacking as of late.
Weir’s text doesn’t easily lend itself to a cinematic retelling. Much of its content is comprised of Watney’s written logs and recounting of major events in retrospect. The character’s unique voice is what makes it so fun to read, but film is first and foremost a visual medium and a constant onslaught of voiceover narration would remove much of the tension. But by removing Watney’s voice, you risk robbing the adaptation of exactly what made the novel so enjoyable. I was curious to see how screenwriter Drew Goddard would work around this. I love Goddard’s work, especially Cloverfield, Cabin in the Woods, and Daredevil (the Netflix series, to be clear), and I had a great amount of faith in his abilities to pull it off in a satisfying way, and, boy, does he. And, per usual, he makes it look like no biggie. Scott hasn’t had a script this good in years, and he runs with it, fully giving himself over to the service of the story and characters. It’s a creative match made in heaven.
Of course, none of this works if we don’t care about our hero Mark Watney; it’s thanks to the screenplay and Matt Damon’s inherent likability that we do. We really do. Damon nails this role and while Goddard’s screenplay and Scott’s direction are on-point, it’s Damon who should really be commended for carrying the film on his shoulders. We root for him every step of the way, through his triumphs and his pitfalls. Will this performance earn him his first Lead Actor Oscar nod? It’s tough competition this year, but he certainly belongs in the conversation.
The supporting cast, which features an all-star lineup including Jeff Daniels, Jessica Chastain, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sean Bean (who, spoiler alert, DOESN’T die for once), and a nice little appearance from Donald Glover, among other greats. Everyone excels in their roles, especially Chastain as the captain dealing with the guilt of leaving Watney behind and Ejiofor as NASA Mission Director Vincent Kapoor, who is amongst the first to discover Watney’s survival. Seriously, everyone here is so damn likable that The Martian practically dares you to not stand up and cheer at every minor success that brings them closer to rescuing the guy.
But, if I loved everything so much, then why oh why didn’t this get a ‘Perfect 10’? Well, the general air of humor and camaraderie in The Martian actually takes away from its suspense in some ways. That’s not to say there aren’t any thrilling moments – my goodness, are there ever. But Watney’s general nonchalance in the face of life-threatening obstacles makes it difficult to experience his struggles on a visceral level. We get hints of his desperation, but only hints. The situation never feels quite as dire as it should until close to the end.
This complaint is only a minor one. More than being a great story, well-told, The Martian is a celebration of humanity, our ingenuity, and what we can accomplish when we put aside our differences and work together to achieve a singular goal. Its message is ultimately one of hope and a powerful reminder of the greatness humanity can be capable of on a daily basis. This kind of message couldn’t have come at a better time. If Frank Capra had ever made a sci-fi flick, I have a feeling it would look something like this.
The Martian is pure entertainment from start to finish, a welcome return for director Ridley Scott and further evidence of Matt Damon's talents.