'The Martian' movie review: Ridley Scott still has 'greatness left in him'
The Martian is the story of a man in trouble and in desperate need of saving. Brilliant and resourceful, he must marshal all of his creative powers to solve a series of difficult problems or all is lost. That man is Ridley Scott.
The Oscar-nominated British director has been mired in a late-career slump after a run of middling films that only served to dent his legacy, namely The Counselor, Prometheus, and Exodus: Gods and Kings. Scott, at the OMG age of 77, can still put together a movie, but fans have been wondering if he had any greatness left in him. The Martian answers that question with a pleasantly enthusiastic yes.
That enthusiasm comes tempered as we wonder if Scott would have approached The Martian in the same manner had he made it 30 years ago, instead of giving us something so uncharacteristically light and optimistic. Sure, there's plenty of disarming humor and even glibness in Andy Weir's 2011 self-published novel – which shares its basic premise with Byron Haskin's 1964 sci-fier Robinson Crusoe on Mars – but the novel is also a gripping, hard-science survival story.
Gloria Gaynor on Mars
In the book, NASA astronaut Mark Watney is left for dead on Mars after the rest of his Ares 3 mission crew is forced to evacuate the planet during a dust storm. Watney, the crew's botanist, must find a way to survive for upwards of four years until a rescue ship can reach him.
The material would seem a perfect match for a director who can turn the screws with the best of them. (Alien, his 1979 masterpiece, has lost none of its creepy-crawly power.) And Weir's tale has enough tension, despair, adventure, mystery, and scares to become a touchstone sci-fi adventure picture. Scott, however, had other plans. And they include disco. Lots of disco.
While it's comforting to know that Gloria Gaynor will be appreciated by subsequent generations, The Martian's greatest strength is maintaining as much of the novel's rigorous fealty to science as possible. Although the film takes place in an unspecified future, screenwriter Drew Goddard makes sure Watney's plan for surviving on a planet with no breathable atmosphere or potable water hews to credible scholarship.
In voice over and video diaries, Watney articulates the process of cataloguing his remaining food, creating water (using hydrazine rocket fuel, duh!), and using the crew's waste to fertilize rows of potatoes. He also dismantles various pieces of equipment to attempt contact with Earth and learns that Vicodin makes a decent substitute for ketchup.
Resourcefulness and ingenuity
Calling these scenes MacGyver-esque is reductive. They are inspiringly unapologetic tributes to resourcefulness and ingenuity. And making the science go down easier is Matt Damon's everyman charm. This is not Jason Bourne on Mars. This is Damon as the very personification of American can-do spirit at its most manifest.
Indeed, at times The Martian even comes across as too blithe. While NASA certainly prefers astronauts who don't panic under pressure, Watney's humor and sarcasm makes the process so relaxed that the stakes, while always present and consistently absorbing, fail to seem insurmountable.
Idealistic future and 'double-barreled bootlick'
The Martian also posits an idealistic future where NASA is not only still around, but operating in gleaming towers containing lots of fancy monitors. Inside those towers and staring intently at those monitors are various well-chosen character actors, including Jeff Daniels as NASA chief, Chiwetel Ejiofor as the mission director, and Kristen Wiig as a PR rep. Their brows furrow and the corners of their mouths turn downward as they worriedly consider the latest logistical, monetary, or PR difficulty. And they maintain military-grade calm as rescue missions fail and deadlines are blown. (It always seems to enhance a sci-fi movie's credibility when characters devote precious screen time to executing an idea that doesn't end up working.)
Even if these Earthbound scenes occasionally have a certain box-checking stiffness, it's just too refreshing to see a science-fiction movie (or any movie for that matter) where smart characters are presented with intriguing problems and then must talk out their solutions.
Less authentic is the double-barreled bootlick to the movie's target audiences: two late-innings heroes are the youthful nerd (Donald Glover, a little too broad), who demonstrates his lifesaving plan using a stapler and, of course, the Chinese, who save the day by booking the film in their theaters – I mean, by providing a booster rocket for NASA's rescue attempt.
Meanwhile, the rest of the Watney-less mission crew drifts back to Earth, led by a guilt-ridden Jessica Chastain. Other than giving Watney someone to communicate with, the ship's crew (which also includes Kate Mara, Michael Peña, and Sebastian Stan) just hangs around until forced to make its Big Decision, which results in a sub-Gravity climax that feels more science fiction than science.
'The Martian': An optimistic Ridley Scott
The Martian isn't as nail-biting as Apollo 13 or as angst-ridden as Cast Away. It wasn't written that way by Andy Weir and it wasn't directed that way by Ridley Scott. Instead, it's a neatly packaged, mainstream space adventure and it's a good one. That lump you feel in your throat as Times Square fills with those gathering to witness Mark Watney's ultimate fate might be our response to the movie's buried message: that an increasingly fractured America hasn't lost its ability to put aside political and social differences and to come together as a nation to save one of its countrymen.
If that leads to a willful disregard for the bleakness and despair inherent in Watney's journey in favor of something more optimistic, there's nothing wrong with that. Actually, it's rather exhilarating. In an era of “look at me” CGI fireworks, here's a movie with a “let's work together” emphasis on problem-solving and teamwork. Pity that's become such an alien concept.
The Martian (2015).
Dir.: Ridley Scott.
Scr.: Drew Goddard. From Andy Weir's book.
Cast: Matt Damon. Jessica Chastain. Kristen Wiig. Jeff Daniels. Kate Mara. Sean Bean. Sebastian Stan. Chiwetel Ejiofor. Aksel Hennie. Michael Peña. Mackenzie Davis. Nick Mohammed. Enzo Cilenti. Donald Glover. Chen Su. Eddy Ko. Jonathan Arris. Gruffudd Glyn. Naomi Scott. Brian Caspe. Matt Devere.
The Martian movie cast info via the IMDb.
Image of Matt Damon in The Martian movie, trailer: 20th Century Fox.