Directed by: Ridley Scott.
Written by: Drew Goddard based on the book by Andy Weir.
Starring: Matt Damon (Mark Watney), Jessica Chastain (Melissa Lewis), Chiwetel Ejiofor (Vincent Kapoor), Kristen Wiig (Annie Montrose), Jeff Daniels (Teddy Sanders), Michael Peña (Rick Martinez), Sean Bean (Mitch Henderson), Kate Mara (Beth Johanssen), Sebastian Stan (Chris Beck), Aksel Hennie (Alex Vogel), Mackenzie Davis (Mindy Park), Donald Glover (Rich Purnell).
There is a reason why movie stars are always cast in the roles of men (and the occasional woman) who trapped by themselves for most of the movie – and the reason is simple charisma. Movie stars are often not the best actors, but the best ones are an innate ability to get you to like them immediately. Think of Tom Hanks in Castaway or Robert Redford in All is Lost or Sandra Bulllock in Gravity. You immediately like them and are willing to follow them anywhere the movie takes them. They can also hold the screen with ease. Matt Damon is a movie star with the best of them – and he is key to why Ridley Scott’s The Martian works – and is actually one of the best big budget films of the year. Damon spends most of his screen time by himself, talking to himself (or the audience through his video diaries) and thinking through a series of complex problems that threaten his life as he is stranded on Mars. The film is basically about a group of really smart people getting together to solve a series of complex problems, using science that people much smarter than I have deemed at least close to reality. There is Damon’s Mark Watney on Mars of course – but back at NASA there are a lot of other really smart people also working on a series of problems. And following the lead of casting Damon in the lead to make him instantly relatable and likable, pretty much every supporting player is played actors more than capable of carrying a movie by themselves, who give affable performances, and for the most part get along. Sure, there are times when the people at NASA disagree – but there are no villains here. Just really smart people, doing really smart things.
The film opens with a crew already on Mars – a sudden storm hits, Watney is struck with flying debris, making the rest of the crew think he’s dead (his “biometer” says he is)– and they cannot find his body, but don’t have time – if they don’t take off now, they’re all dead. Of course, Watney isn’t dead and when he wakes up to discover the rest of the crew gone, it would be easy for him to simply give up. After all, he now has no way to contact NASA, and even if he could, it would take years to get him help – and he doesn’t have the food supply to last, let alone a place that has been designed to stand up for that long. But no matter, Watney takes things on, one problem at a time – and eventually when NASA finds out he’s alive, they do the same thing.
Ridley Scott has made science fiction movies that ask bigger questions about what it means to be human, and where we fit into the grand scheme of things. His Blade Runner (1982) is a masterpiece of the genre, and even if Prometheus isn’t well loved, I actually quite liked it – and appreciated the fact that Scott and his collaborators were trying for something grand. The Martian is not one of those movies. The movie is almost a comedy – full of witty banter and comradery, and asks no greater questions other than the most mundane – like how to grow potatoes on Mars, without enough water, in soil that has never grown anything. And how can he get a Mars rover to travel farther than it’s supposed to – and is there a way to prolong the battery life, etc. The film is based on a book by Andy Weir – a scientist himself – and he takes these questions seriously. He also takes the more complex questions about the logistics of sending help to Mars seriously as well. The movie retains the books sense of humor – it actually heightens it in many of the scenes in NASA, where the film almost has the feel of a Howard Hawks comedy from the 1940s – where talented people just bounce off each other.
The Martian isn’t groundbreaking in anyway – but it is rock solid, mainstream entertainment – Scott’s best film in years, a genuine movie star vehicle for Damon, and an ensemble comedy when it’s at NASA. You know the outcome going in – but that hardly matters. Neither does the running time – which is nearly two and half hours – but flies by. The Martian is pure, mainstream entertainment – done better than most movies of this size and scale in recent memory. If it doesn’t reinvent the wheel at the same time – well, it doesn’t really need to.