Release: Friday, October 2, 2015
Written by: Drew Goddard
Directed by: Ridley Scott
The Martian is made of the same cosmic stuff that turned Ridley Scott into a household name. His latest is an instant classic sci fi epic about mankind’s place in the bigger galactic picture. If Interstellar was a humbling experience insofar as it confirmed that yes, the universe is . . . big, The Martian makes it far more personal, stressing just how fragile we are in a place we don’t really belong.
While the scale of this journey doesn’t encompass quite as vast a distance — Mars is a mere 34 million miles away as opposed to the untold thousands of light years Matthew McConaughey et al covered in search of another Earth-like planet — The Martian mounts a fascinating and thoroughly convincing case arguing what could happen if we ever choose to visit our nearest planetary neighbor. Credit where credit is due, of course: Scott adapted his film from the 2011 Andy Weir novel of the same name, relying on strong, contemporary source material to tell a profoundly human story rather than resorting to centuries-old documents that threaten plagues and the end of civilization, or stories that are better left on paper.
I don’t know if it’s just the thrill of seeing a once-great director returning to form after a few unsuccessful (to say the least) outings, or whether The Martian is just this good, but October has all of a sudden become exciting. I’d like to think it’s a bit of both, the buzz intensifying in the looming shadow of this season’s scheduled releases. I know it’s fall, but love (for cinema) is in the air.
The Martian tells the inspiring story — one so polished it actually takes more effort to dismiss as entirely fictional — of American astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon, third in line behind Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley and Russell Crowe’s Maximus in terms of greatest characters Scott’s had to work with) who becomes marooned on the Red Planet after a severe storm forces the crew of the Ares III to abandon their mission. Not realizing he is still alive after being struck violently with some debris and tossed from the launch site, the remaining crew — comprised of Commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) and cadets Rick Martinez (Michael Peña), Beth Johanssen (Kate Mara), Chris Beck (Sebastian Stan) and Alex Vogel (Aksel Hennie) — escape the planet’s wind-swept surface and prepare for the four-year journey back to Earth.
It’s Cast Away in space, only this island is capable of producing greater anxiety than any spit of land on Earth ever could. To make matters worse there’s no Wilson, but Damon’s Watney, despite an affinity for talking to himself via web cam, doesn’t strike you as the sort who always needs someone around to talk to, even in the face of protracted isolation. Instead of striking up a relationship with an inanimate object Watney sets about working his problem logically and with a sense of humor that’s almost unfathomable considering the circumstances. As a result, we get one of the year’s most uplifting movies, with Scott opting to take the detour around dourness by stranding his not-so-helpless protagonist in an endless sea of despair and self-pity, though no one would blame Scott if he had.
I’m sure conspiracy theorists have been having a field day with this film, suggesting the fact that there was some sort of clause in Scott’s contract stipulating the distinct tonal change; a precautionary measure taken to distinguish the plight of Mark Watney from that of Ellen Ripley and to ensure that no wormhole-traveling between films would result. In all likelihood, Scott’s adaptation is nothing more than a faithful adaptation of the source material, and if that’s the case then The Martian has jumped high up on my list of books I must soon read (a list that is embarrassingly short, I have to say). Even if this film will never actually tie into the Alien universe, it suggests that perhaps Scott feels most at home when he leaves ours behind.
The Martian focuses more heavily on the work of our fearless astronaut as he sets about trying to establish his food rations, quickly deducing that it will be impossible to make his supplies last for over 400 days. Putting his botanist background to good use, Watney begins growing a crop of potatoes in the confines of the protective HAB, MacGyvering a water filtration system out of literally thin air. Indeed, he’ll be getting more than his daily fiber intake over the next few years. (Hopefully he’ll have enough ketchup to last.) Periodically we cut back to Houston, where Jeff Daniels’ Teddy Sanders, the head honcho of NASA, Mission Director Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Annie Montrose (Kristen Wiig), a NASA spokesperson, have little else to do besides look on and wonder firstly how the hell Watney has survived and secondly whether retrieving him is a viable option.
Sean Bean is also in as Mitch Henderson, whose supervision of the crew serves as a stark contrast to Sanders’ colder, more stern and conservative methods. And then of course there’s the brainiest of them all in astrodynamicist Rich Purnell (Donald Glover), who lends valuable insight into how best to safely retrieve Watney. These earthbound characters don’t fair quite as well in terms of allotted screen time but given what they have to work with, all deliver impressive work and each help lend gravity to the developments, if you’ll pardon the pun. (If you don’t, then . . . well, fine . . . I guess it’s over between us.) Long faces and variations on looking exasperated constitute the bulk of these performances, but that doesn’t mean Scott’s misjudged their talents by saddling them with less showy roles.
Even so, this is the Matt Damon show. He may have been better as something else in the past (what role hasn’t this guy tried on for size?) but right now I’m coming up short. A botanist and self-proclaimed space pirate, Watney is a breath of fresh air, his morale-boosting video diaries marking a totally unexpected departure tonally from what we might have expected out of a story about being the first man stranded on Mars. These entries not only manifest as glimpses into the science behind space exploration, but they help advance the narrative as the weeks and months go by, revealing a timeline marked by their ‘sol’ number.
Of course it’s not a complete review until I mention how exquisite the cinematography is. I feel obligated to talk about it this time because, as overwhelming as it often is — the Martian landscape looks a little like Monument Valley (it was actually filmed in Jordan and Hungary) but there’s enough free play in the digital composition to make it look entirely authentic — the visuals (brought to you by Dariusz Wolski) aren’t at the heart of the film. Bless you, Ridley, for you only recently released a film that epitomized style over substance. On that basis alone (the basis of avoiding repeating history), The Martian deserves praise. Still, given the sleek spacecrafts, high tech gizmos and Martian sunsets that bleed dark purple, this movie is as stylish as anything that’s been released this year. It’s a beautiful, sometimes haunting spectacle that reveres the alien world and offers endlessly entertaining and optimistic commentary on the future of our cosmic endeavors.
Recommendation: This isn’t the only place you’ll read the words ‘a return to form for Ridley Scott.’ Before actually knowing what this movie was like I was kind of iffy about seeing this, and I wouldn’t have expected to declare this a must-see. But that is what this has become, a must-see for fans of the director, a must-see for the ensemble cast, and a must-see for space nerds like myself who enjoy good stories set in the most atmospheric space imaginable — outer space itself. The Martian is a downright fun movie.
Running Time: 141 mins.
Quoted: “F**k you, Mars.”
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