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The Martian

October 5, 2015
The Martian (2015) Ridley Scott, Matt Damon

20th Century Fox

The Martian has landed in theaters. No matter what people say about The Counselor (2013), or Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014), I always rejoice when a Ridley Scott film is poised for release. When Scott, 77, directs a film, you always know going in that you’re in for a singular experience. He is a world builder, not a universe builder (though things can change).

The Martian is sci-fi lite, as it features only realistic science and is set in a recognizable near-future. The reality that Scott’s best work has come in the sci-fi genre has helped to posit his newest film as a mammoth hit. Scott has had a long, fruitful career as a director, and regardless of what he does from here on out, his golden ticket into Movie Heaven will be punched by a Xenomorph and a Replicant. That reality aside, the optimism is well-deserved, and The Martian is one of Scott’s very best films.

Based on the novel of the same name by Andy Weir, and adapted by Drew Goddard, The Martian is the story of astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) using every last bit of his cunning to survive alone on Mars. Watney was abandoned by his crew after being presumed dead during a storm that resulted in the abortion of their mission, the Ares III. Left for dead, Watney has many obstacles to overcome, not the least of which are making contact with NASA and growing food for what could be a four year wait for rescue.

About that fateful storm, nobody does “stuff flying through the air” like Sir Ridley Scott. Dirt, dust, sand, snow, locusts, it doesn’t matter. This seems to be an effect he particularly enjoys, and the man has an absolute knack.

A great number of problems are overcome in The Martian. The ultra competence of every character involved is notable. Actually, the considerable chunk of the film focusing on NASA’s rescue feels a lot like the scene in Apollo 13 (1995) when the really smart people define the scope of their problem by dumping the box of junk out on the table. The combination of ingenuity, cooperation, and coolness under pressure in this film is exhilarating. Leave it Ridley Scott to make being an engineer, mathematician, or scientist look so amazing.

Current Transformers auteur Michael Bay has long rallied participation in his films from the U.S. government and military. Ridley Scott one-ups him. NASA was heavily involved in the pre-production phase of The Martian, granting Scott and the other producers access to some of the organization’s top executives. It really shows. As mentioned before, NASA comes off great, and thus far, no significant holes have been punched in the film’s science (a la Gravity). I mention this only because it’s nice when people are able to actually focus on the film itself, rather than the technical minutia it got wrong. It’s a relief.

Getting back to the film, you can tell Scott revels in showing us how the scientific processes work out. Last month, an interview with Scott in Popular Mechanics shed light on how resourcefulness and scientific thinking affected his upbringing. Son of an engineer, Scott grew up in a problem-solving, self-sufficiency-building household. After seeing the finished product, one has to wonder if The Martian is the film Scott has been waiting all his life to make.

The Martian is the movie I didn’t know I was waiting for. It’s better than Gravity (2013) and Interstellar (2014). Rather, it is all the best parts of those movies but without any of the qualms, however niggling they may have been. What The Martian delivered, perhaps even more so than those two other recent “big space movies”, and what has been too rare in recent science fiction for my taste, was wonder and wide-eyed optimism. Don’t get me wrong, I like grim nihilism in film as much as the next guy…but remember when science fiction was fun?

The Martian is most certainly fun. Truth be told, Damon’s Watney is so upbeat, that you almost miss out on the gravity of his predicament. I could choose to find fault with this, but the tension and drama in the film never actually falter. Dread sets in after a series of setbacks, but Watney does his best to keep things light, mostly by sharing his aggressive stance toward Disco. The impossibility of his scenario speaks for itself, and the rest of the slack is capably picked up by the scenes at NASA.

Damon is great as Watney. He is a convincing intellectual force. It’s not a stretch to imagine Damon being able to grow potatoes in soil made from water he manufactured and mixed with his own feces. I think The Informant! (2009) still contains my favorite Damon performance, but it’s a credit to his acting ability that he can ace a role like Watney that scarcely resembles much his most memorable work.

The rest of the characters are well cast. Jessica Chastain is the commander of the Ares III. Chiwetel Ejiofor is NASA’s Mars missions director. Kristen Wiig is a NASA spokesperson. Jeff Daniels is the NASA head forced to grapple with Ejiofor and Wiig about how best to handle both the mission and the public. Donald Glover is an astrodynamist who swoops in late in the story with some outside the box thinking. Kate Mara, Michael Peña, and Sean Bean (among others) also do strong work.

The starry cast lends a glossiness to the proceedings, but it also helps convey the idea that everyone involved is equally important to the mission’s success, no matter their role. This helps particularly with balancing the three story threads: Watney’s Martian plight, the NASA rescue mission (the Apollo 13 factor), and Watney’s crew mates coming to terms with ditching him on Mars. Watney alone is deserving of a full film, beyond even the already considerable screen time he receives. Credit must also be given to Weir’s novel, which I have not read, because The Martian feels like a comprehensively told story, and the need to balance three almost equally compelling sides of the story isn’t a bad problem to have. In a nice bit of art-life congruence, it’s a problem Ridley Scott and the rest of the filmmakers handled with aplomb. This movie could have been well over three hours and I’m convinced I’d still have loved it. Expertly paced, The Martian runs about 141 minutes.

It’s difficult to put any film on the same level with Alien (1979) and Blade Runner (1982), but The Martian is worthy of consideration. All three can legitimately claim to examine what it means to be human, and yet the flavor has changed over the years. The existential dread of Scott’s early films has been replaced by self-assured reflection. The man hunt has become a walkabout.

Whatever Scott does from here on out, The Martian proves that he is still capable of great work, and lends a full-circle narrative for his celebrated career. There are no signs of Scott slowing down anytime soon. Turning 78 next month, Scott has been as prolific as ever in recent years and has expressed the desire to make two films each year for the foreseeable future. At this point, why not? There is talk of Scott dipping a toe in the cinematic universe pool after all, returning to the worlds of Prometheus and Alien for future films. At this point, he’s earned the right to do what he pleases, and I’ll be no less excited for whatever that turns out to be.

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