(dir. Ridley Scott)
|20th Century Fox|
In the 21st century, most of our science fiction has become a warning about the future. If we’re not watching characters confront death in post-apocalyptic or dystopian landscapes, we’re witnessing futures that are clearly on the road to ruin. To put it simply, the future as depicted in film, is shit. Even space, once the optimistic cradle of mankind’s hopes and dreams has become filled with dangerous alien lifeforms that can’t be beaten, isolation and silence all begging the question of what kind of madman would venture into this black nothingness where no one can hear you scream. Ridley Scott helped set us on this path with two of the most monumental science-fiction films ever created, Alien (1979) and Blade Runner (1982). He continued this bleak look into the future with the ambitious Prometheus, a cinematic version of the statement “God is dead.” With The Martian, Ridley Scott returns to the future for the fourth time, but this time around he’s brought an entirely new aesthetic and attitude.
The Martian, based on the novel by Andy Weir, follows astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) who is accidently left for dead on Mars by his crew in the middle of a blinding storm. Watney, equipped with only the limited resources and tools left at the habitat, must survive the harsh landscape until help can arrive from Earth in over a year’s time. Featuring a supporting cast of Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sean Bean, Kristen Wiig, Donald Glover, Benedict Wong, MacKenzie Davis, Michael Pena, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, and Aksel Hennie, The Martian is a massive love letter to scientific ingenuity and the capabilities of the human spirit.
With a cast as talented as The Martian’s, it should come as no surprise that all of the performances are good. But, they’re good in an expected way. No one strays too far from their comfort zone in terms of the characters, and no one is surprising in their delivery. This isn’t a knock against anyone in the film, they provide what the movie needs, creating uniform quality all around. Matt Damon is the standout by default because his character is given the most to do, and the greatest range of emotional situations. There’s always a sturdiness to Damon’s performances, a quality that isn’t overly gripping or enigmatic, but one that nonetheless provides a tether with which all other actors ground their characters. As Watney, Damon gives the other characters and audience someone to ceremoniously root for. He’s not the everyman, but the optimal man, the best and brightest that the world has to offer.
The most surprising element of The Martian comes from behind the scenes in the form of screenwriter Drew Goddard. Goddard, a disciple of Joss Whedon, has long held his geek cred through projects like Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, Cloverfield, Cabin in the Woods and Netflix’s Daredevil. But with The Martian, Goddard steps out of his comfort zone a little by delivering a science-fiction story that places the science about ten steps ahead of the of fiction aspect. Of course, a lot of genius science involving Watney’s survival and NASA’s efforts to save him in record time are a result of author Andy Weir. But Goddard successfully manages to make all of that science understandable for general audiences and often funny. Humor is The Martian’s biggest asset and it helps the film deliver the kind of general adult audience appeal that will play especially well with older moviegoers. The fact that the film is funny almost magically lessens the film’s most glaring flaws of too many characters, too many plot conveniences, an overly long runtime, and a somewhat pat look at international and political relations, resulting in a final product that remains entertaining and inspirational.
Ridley Scott’s attention to space is unmistakable. The vast landscapes of Mars, the sleek and efficient isolation of Watney’s Hab, the winding gray corridors of NASA, and the neatly compartmentalized space station are all filled with the kind of detail Scott is known for. One of the most frequent criticisms of Scott’s work is his attention to objects and locations over characters, but here Goddard’s script largely takes care of that problem. Yet while the film is “A Ridley Scott Film” it also feels like something Steven Spielberg, Robert Zemickis, or Ron Howard could have directed, only without their respective penchants for father-son dynamics, love stories, or sometimes saccharine dramatic developments. While elements of his style are there, as is his emotional efficiency in terms of establishing relationships and getting them where they need to be, The Martian, for better or worse, is a bit light on the thematics and style that make a Ridley Scott film.
The Martian is incredibly intelligent, but everything is on the surface in a way that Scott’s films tend to avoid. There are no hidden meanings, no villains or monstrous forces, no plot reveals, no mediations on death, or questions that leave audiences pondering and debating the film for months and years to come. It’s old-school sci-fi that is somewhat refreshing, but also requires a bit of an attitude adjustment for those looking for something deeper. Mark Watney, though he becomes frustrated and even convinced he’s going to die at times, never loses his mind, never questions his place in the universe, and never loses hope. And those ready to bring him home may argue and debate over the best means, but their motives are all the same, to save a life through their belief in human progress. It’s a film that rejoices in science and humanity instead of making us question and fear it. Like the song that plays over the credits (The O’Jays’ “Love Train”), The Martian is a worldwide love-fest. Subjectively, I’m less interested in this kind of science-fiction, but it is absolutely necessary for the genre and in terms of quality and intent, The Martian is of one of the best and brightest invitations to believe in the future.
The Martian is shamelessly optimistic and incredibly smart. It may very well be the kind of feel-good sci-fi we need right now, and unlike Brad Bird and Damon Lindelof’s similarly preoccupied Tommorowland, The Martian actually succeeds in creating a testament for scientific innovation and human compassion. While the film feels more like a product of Drew Goddard and his influences, The Martian is objectively one of Ridley Scott’s best films.