By Matthew McKibben | October 2, 2015
Director: Ridley Scott
Writers: Drew Goddard (screenplay), Andy Weir (novel)
Starring: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Michael Pena, Sean Bean, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Mackenzie Davis, Donald Glover, Benedict Wong
Of all the works of contemporary tenured master filmmakers (directors like Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, James Cameron, Terrence Malick, et al.), I’ve always found Ridley Scott’s output to be the most uneven. For every Gladiator, there’s a Kingdom of Heaven. For every Thelma & Louise, there’s A Very Good Year. For every Alien, there’s a Prometheus. That’s not to say that his worst movies are bad, but they’re certainly misfires that failed to connect both critically and with audiences. Ridley Scott is a brilliant visual filmmaker, but his movies have always kind of left me cold. Movies like Alien, Blade Runner, and Legend are all beautifully crafted, shot, acted, etc. but there’s always a detachment between the the viewer and the characters on screen. You want Ridley to survive the alien because you’d be a monster not to, but you don’t really get to know Ripley as a human being until James Cameron fleshed her out in Aliens. That dynamic was true of most his movies until he finally broke through the mold in 2000’s Gladiator. With Gladiator, Ridley Scott finally produced a movie that combined his peerless visual storytelling mastery with the heart that made you really buy into what you were seeing.
In many respects, The Martian is the ultimate Ridley Scott movie, as it combines elements from all of his best works. If you liked the cold detachment procedural quality of Alien, there’s some of that in here. If you liked the squeamishness you felt while watching parts of Hannibal, that’s in there, too. If you like Ridley Scott making crowd pleasing Tony Scott movies ala Thelma & Louise and G.I. Jane, there’s plenty of that here. If you enjoy epic storytelling like Gladiator and Heaven and Earth, there’s also a lot of that here, too.
The plot of The Martian is fairly straightforward. As a NASA mission to Mars wraps up, Astronaut (and botanist!) Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is presumed dead after a catastrophic storm forces the team to evacuate the planet. Being very much not dead, Mark Watney finds himself alone and with rapidly dwindling supplies in his NASA engineered living space. With only his brainpower, ingenuity, and will to survive, Watney must find a way to stretch out his rations, create new ones, and signal to the outside world that he is still alive.
The Martian is a thinking person’s science-fiction film, though I think a more accurate descriptor would be “science-fact,” as everything done in the movie (and book) to keep Mark Watney alive on Mars and the crew racing to retrieve him, has a strong, well researched basis in science and mathematics. The Martian is certainly one of the greatest movies ever made about the power of the human mind, in all it’s computational and empathetic glory.
On a science-fiction family tree, The Martian falls more in line with Alfonso Curaón’s Gravity and Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 than it does with movies like Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar or Duncan Jones’s Moon. The Martian isn’t concerned with alien lifeforms or (Moon spoiler alert) cloning or examining existential crises through the prism of the infinite vastness of space. The Martian is more concerned with plausibility and keeping it (for lack of a better word) grounded in reality and the mechanics of survival, than it is about examining man’s place in the universe. For my money, Apollo 13 will always be the gold standard for science based adventure stories. Because it actually happened, I found it easier to be completely carried away by the events unfolding in Apollo 13 than the events in The Martian. Despite its goal of being as scientifically sound and accurate as possible, I never really got past the notion that what I was seeing was the work of fiction. The Martian is tense, grip your armrest entertainment, but not quite as relatable as a work which dramatized events that actually happened to real people.
Matt Damon does solid but not outstanding work as stranded astronaut Mark Watney. Matt Damon’s skills as an actor are perfectly suited to a movie where a stranded astronaut has to constantly think his way out of dangerous situations. He’s always been the guy in movies who you can tell has a thousand different trains of thought happening simultaneously. Where the movie suffers a bit, though, is Matt Damon is perhaps too cool under pressure. You know the danger Watney is in because it’s obvious what he’s up against, but his fate never really seems in doubt. Matt Damon always seems to have it under control.
Being the NASA fanboy that I am, I can see that Damon’s coolness under pressure is built in to the script and direction. He acts as an astronaut would truly act if placed in such situations. When the you-know-what hits the fan, astronauts aren’t prone to freak out. Being people of science, they mentally go through their checklist of what to do next and then they get to the doing of it. And on that level, the movie works conceptually. I intellectually know that what I’m seeing is how it would actually be. But if you’re not going to cast someone who naturally brings warmth to the screen like Tom Hanks, you might be better served giving the audience a little more of a tether to pull us in to what makes this person tick as a human being.
The whole movie has a much lighter tone than I was expecting, both in terms of its humor and its overall “we’re all in this together” theme. Knowing the kind of filmmaker Ridley Scott is, I think I was expecting the movie to have more of a naturalistic tone. Going in to the theater, I think I was expecting something more like the first 15 minutes of Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood than something more resembling Top Gun in space. I wonder if either intentionally or unintentionally, Ridley Scott made The Martian as an homage to his departed brother Tony Scott, who seemed to specialize in making feel good, edge of your seat roller coaster movies like Crimson Tide, Days of Thunder, and Top Gun.
This is especially true of everything taking place earthbound and with the astronauts tasked with retrieving him. The Matt Damon stuff on Mars is about what you’d expect from Ridley Scott, but the back and forth dialogue between scientists and NASA bureaucrats (namely Jeff Daniels and Chiwetel Ejiofor) seems like it was ripped directly from one of Tony Scott’s movies. The earthbound stuff had a very 90s action-adventure movie feel to it. This is a thinking person’s movie, and a lot of time is spent showing engineers and scientists in deep thought, trying to figure out solutions for getting astronauts to Watney before his rations run out. Ridley Scott and screenwriter Drew Goddard put in a lot of clever editing, music, and a surprising amount of humor to keep the “we’re deep in thought” stuff surprisingly zippy. I don’t want to spoil the joke, but there’s a meta joke in this that is probably one of the funniest things I’ve seen on screen all year.
If there’s any doubt whether to go 3D or not, you should definitely try to go the 3D route. ILM and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski really brought that planet to life and the extra dimension really works in this movie. The score isn’t entirely memorable, but there are numerous song cues in this that really work well with what you’re seeing on screen.
The Martian is easily one of the best crowd pleasing movies of the year and I hope it’s a massive hit. Although it may be too much to ask of it, I hope it revives public interest in both NASA and in the study of math, science, and engineering. While I was never able to fully move beyond the “it’s just fiction” wall, I found myself fully engaged and caught up in the story.