There’s a reason that Ridley Scott has made a name for himself in the world of cinema, having been the architect behind classic films the likes of Alien, Blade Runner, Gladiator, and Thelma and Louise. However, his most inherent vice has always been his inconsistent ability to pick decent scripts. This has especially become prevalent in the last decade of his filmography, with Scott having been behind some truly awful movies such as Prometheus, The Counselor, and the utter failure Exodus: Gods and Kings.
It’s enough to discourage the cinema lover into believing Ridley Scott wouldn’t have any good films left. Nevertheless, a lot of attention was given to his adaptation of Andy Weir’s novel The Martian. Itself a popular source material, it seemed like an atypical fit for Scott’s usually grungy style of Sci-Fi. Perhaps that was just the difference and the challenge that Ridley needed to prove naysayers wrong. That’s precisely what he did, and the result is so great that you’ll wonder why he’s been wasting his efforts on such sub-average material prior.
While in the middle of an extended mission surveying the planet Mars, a devastating storm forces a NASA crew to evacuate the planet, with the exception of Mark Watney (Matt Damon), who becomes lost in the storm, and is presumed dead. However, Watney has actually survived the storm, and with help likely to take four years to arrive, begins pushing his science skills to the limits to provide the necessary resources to survive. While that’s going on, back on earth, several key figures of NASA (including Jeff Daniels and Chiwetel Ejiofor) begin brainstorming to help Mark survive until help can arrive.
Upon first impressions of the movie’s premise and advertising, it’d be very easy to make comparisons to Gravity and Interstellar, especially the latter given Matt Damon’s character and involvement in both projects. However, The Martain separates itself from both of those bleaker films thanks to its shamelessly optimistic spirit. Adapted by Drew Goddard of Daredevil and Cloverfield fame, much of the movie is primarily focused on Mark’s struggle to survive the planet, taking a very deceptively simple presentation style and lacing it with subtle complexities.
Mark is practically tailor made for Matt Damon’s acting style. Using his intelligent and charismatic presence to its best potential, Mark is consistently endearing thanks to his unapologetically jokey and hopeful worldview. Despite facing impossible odds, it’s always enjoyable and admirable to see him continue to thrive relying on his wits and improvisational thinking. That doesn’t mean he can’t be pushed to his limits like us all, but it’s much to the movie’s credit that it never overwhelms the audience with contrived dread. It’s actually a much more wholly realized representation of the optimism vs pessimism themes explored in Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland.
But beyond Mark being a great character, the screenplay is smart and economical in all of the best ways. One common vice of movies of this scale and scientific prominence is the need to overwhelm the viewer with painstaking, but heavy and unnatural exposition of scientific facts. Knowing that this would be a turn off to viewers, Goddard is smart in how he delivers this much needed information with seamless fashion. Throughout the movie, Mark continually updates his video journals with the step by step process of his survival, with the footage acting as his only means of expression in his isolation, and allowing for both a proper device for him to vent, and to relay the information with smile-inducing confidence.
On top of that, while I wouldn’t necessarily label the movie as a comedy, the fact still remains that this is one of the funniest movies I have seen all year, with both Goddard and Scott working in well matched tongue-in-cheek harmony with one another. As Mark establishes contact with those on earth, his endearing sarcasm is allowed to be let loose in often glorious fashion, but more tickling is his trial, error, and eventual triumph over certain tasks, often with an infectious childlike enthusiasm. This enthusiasm even makes its way into the soundtrack selection, with a wide range of 70’s disco hits - brought by his team’s commander played by Jessica Chastain - which Mark consistently laughs off as awful, and become part of the movie’s charming heart and soul.
Admittedly, the sequences on earth and with Watney’s crew are the less interesting of the film, but they’re still intercut with such excellent precision, never dragging on too long, and making fine use out of a massive ensemble cast. Give major kudos to Scott’s longtime collaborator Pietro Scalia for assembling it all so well and flowing so naturally. In fact, Scott’s entire crew of technicians is at the peak of their abilities with this movie. Arthur Max’s production design (which deserves serious Oscar consideration) coupled with Dariusz Wolski’s photography use the sandy dunes standing in for the red planet’s surface to beautiful effect, while the sound design and effects work supervised by Richard Stammers merge both the familiar and strange in sensory to compliment the movie’s thrilling scope. At the center of it all is Ridley Scott being ever the master of technical proficiency that he’s always been, and doing the material he’s been given justice with such loving spirit.
When all is said and done, The Martian is one of Scott’s finest films, and his best film in well over a decade. Bringing out the best of all parties involved, its lovably geeky sense of scientific accuracy and hilariously biting sense of humor do a splendid job of differentiating it between its other science heavy space epics, while also not avoiding some of those bleaker side events. It’s a welcome return to form for its director, and a promising turn in the right direction for his future career.
It’s just a shame we’ll have to endure another Prometheus movie in the process.
****1/2 / *****