Filmmaker Ridley Scott has been behind the camera for almost five decades, and though he is extremely talented he remains an enigma. How one man can be responsible for both Exodus: Gods and Kings and Alien (among other horrible failures and stunning triumphs) is utterly baffling. I am a big fan of Scott’s best work like the aforementioned Alien, Gladiator, or Black Hawk Down. However his failures such as Exodus or Prometheus are so awful they tend to make one wary of seeing any more of his films. So is his latest film another failure or another best picture contender? As it turns out Scott has made another fantastic film. The Martian is a surprisingly engrossing gem. The film thoroughly captures the journey, the sacrifice, and the work of one man as he struggles to survive on a barren planet over thirty million miles from Earth and the efforts of NASA to bring him home.
Based on a book of the same title by Andy Weir, the plot is deceptively simple. Matt Damon stars as Mark Watney, an astronaut, botanist, and egotistical genius who ends up being accidentally stranded on Mars. His crew believing him to be dead after a vicious storm, leaves the lifeless planet without him. Through sheer will, determination, and a vast knowledge of science and math, Watney must stay alive, and somehow make it back to Earth. The film works very well because the antagonist is the Red Planet itself. Math and science reign supreme as Mark solves each problem with logical precision and hard work. Each problem is researched and thought through, and each solution is extremely rewarding. Parallel to Mark’s attempts at survival, are NASA’s attempts to bring him home. The team of extremely smart and capable scientists is led by Teddy Sanders, the Director of NASA, (Jeff Daniels, who is adept at playing the calculating bureaucrat) and Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the Mars Mission Director. Their struggle is almost as compelling as Mark’s.
The key to all this however is the acting. Matt Damon has always had a very likable presence when he’s on screen and he does an excellent job portraying the genius botanist with an over-sized ego. He never seems to let his situation get the better of his mental state and his cocky nature seems to enjoy conquering the problems he encounters. He keeps a daily log of his activities on the planet and his plans of survival. This serves as his narration to the audience on what he’s doing to solve the problems that the hostile red planet throws at him. This never feels hokey or gimmicky, because a well trained PhD botanist astronaut would log everything. The rest of the cast also brings their “A” game. An uplifting score matches Mark’s indomitable will as he never seems to give up hope (at least outwardly) that he will survive.
Scott’s direction is fantastic and his decision to focus on the math and science aspects as the core of the story is crucial. Scott deftly juxtaposes both the struggle of Mark’s survival with NASA bureaucracy and the logistical struggles of rescuing him. Furthermore, the pairing of beautiful wide angle shots of the Martian surface, and the lone stranded astronaut really hammer home the crushing loneliness Mark must feel. The movie is really well put together. Speaking as a lay person the science and math all seem painstakingly researched to be as accurate as possible but that leads to the only “flaw” of the movie if you can call it that.
Yes, we know now that there is water on mars, and Ridley Scott said he was aware of it but it was too late in production to change the plot. That’s fine the movie works very well in its contained universe where no water exists on Mars, and really even if they managed to show water on Mars, it wouldn’t have cheapened Mark’s struggles in any way. The filmmakers and writers probably would have constructed other ingenious problem for Watney to have to solve and overcome. The film might also be a little too long but you never feel its length. That’s because there’s hardly ever any down-time. As one problem is conquered another arises.
In spite of the scientific error stating Mars has no flowing water, the movie has no glaring flaws. It is another well made movie from the wily veteran Scott. The movie works because of the engaging story, a strong cast, and great direction, which all flow together seamlessly. The movie is everything Interstellar should have been. It touts Science and Math as almost holy instruments in the fight to survive, and does not waiver in its devotion. The characters are all extremely likable and you can’t help but root for them to succeed. The Martian is a great science fiction film that also works seamlessly as an engaging emotional journey. By the tense and emotional climax you’ll likely find yourself extremely invested in Mark’s fate (as well as his crew and the NASA team on Earth), a telling sign of a compelling film and a likable protagonist. Scott has managed to redeem himself yet again and so I say, “keep on going Ridley Scott”, unless of course he makes Prometheus 2.
TLDR: The Martian is a fantastic space epic of dogged will and remarkable ingenuity to survive against all odds on an inhospitable world and make it home. It’s one of the best films of the year. (4 ½ out of 5 stars).