There were two questions I was pondering about director Ridley Scott as I walked into his latest film, The Martian: “Is Ridley Scott any good any more” and “was he ever really an auteur in the first place.” The reasons for the first question should be obvious: the dude has had a bunch of misfires lately. He’s made some really misguided movies Body of Lies and Robin Hood (the Russell Crowe one… you’d be forgiven for having forgotten that one) and even when he makes movies that have a lot going for them like Prometheus or American Gangster they still have a whole lot working against them keeping them from their full potential. I didn’t even bother to see his last two films, The Counsellor and Exodus: Gods and Kings, which were both by all accounts disasters. The second question is a bit trickier. Scott works at a certain scale that certainly would seem to indicate that’s he’s playing the same game as someone like James Cameron or Christopher Nolan, but his movies tend to vary a lot more wildly. He makes movies in many genres at many scales and he doesn’t do his own screenwriting. He’ll come back to certain milieus like the swords and sandals genre, and when he does those movies seem to have a bit more linkage but would you really assume that something like Thelma and Louise was made by the same person who made Black Hawk Down? I’m not sure that you would. I guess if his style is personified by anything it’s a sort of extreme capability to mount very expensive productions and when the writing matches the craftsmanship he can make things that are really great spectacles, but lately he’s been working with some really poor scripts and the results haven’t been pretty. But, the good news there is that every Scott movie seems to have some potential and that meant there was good reason to be excited for any given Ridley Scott film.
The Martian is set in an unspecified year in a near future in which man has recently landed on Mars and as we begin we see a group of astronauts on a subsequent mission to the red planet. The mission seems to be going well until the crew realizes that there’s a big storm heading their way and they decide to abort the mission. In the rush to escape the planet a botanist named Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is hit by debris in the storm and seemingly killed. Reluctantly, the rest of the crew leaves Watney’s body behind and begins the journey back to Earth. One problem: Watney wasn’t dead. He wakes up the next morning with little oxygen, runs to the relative safety of the Martian station that the crew left behind, tends to his wounds, and starts to assess what he’s going to have to do if he’s to survive on this distant world until help arrives. Back on Earth, after the people at NASA finish mourning Watney’s supposed death, they start looking at satellite images of Mars and realize what happened. From there the film becomes a sort of speculative procedural as various people on Earth, the crew of the Aries 3, and Watney himself do what they have to try to keep this stranded astronaut alive and hopefully save him.
The Martian is a movie about someone stranded in space and attempting to return to Earth and as such it will almost certainly draw comparisons to Alfonso Cuarón’s highly successful 2013 film Gravity but it’s kind of a misleading parallel because the two movies have vastly different tones and outlooks. Gravity was all about the incredible challenges of space travel to the point where it opened with a title card that gave a variety of factoids about why “life in space is impossible.” The Martian is certainly aware of the challenges of space travel but it also definitely believes that human ingenuity can overcome them. The characters in the film are all highly competent people with strong ethics and hardly any of them have any major weaknesses beyond the occasional humorous character quirk. Damon’s character is certainly under a lot of stress over the course of his ordeal but he copes with it by constantly making witty asides and the scenes back at NASA have a certain manic workplace energy. The film was written by Drew Godard, a former TV writer who previously worked with both Joss Whedon and J.J. Abrams but the film feels far more indebted to Aaron Sorkin what with its fetish for fast paced conversations between incredibly smart professionals. Ridley Scott adjusts his style to the material as well and seems to have taken a page from Robert Zhemekis, particularly the “world dedicated to a project” elements of Contact and the isolated person trying to survive elements from Cast Away.
Ridley Scott has also assembled a hell of an ensemble cast to bring the movie to life. Matt Damon was a good choice to play the lead and seems to really understand the sort of desperate sarcasm required of the role. The rest of the cast is just as good though and features a staggering number of recognizable actors. For instance, the rest of the Aries 3 crew consists of Jessica Chastain, Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, and Aksel Hennie while the people back at NASA are played by the likes of Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sean Bean, Kristen Wiig, Donald Glover (who really steals a handful of scenes, and Jeff Daniels. Jeff Daniels is probably the one casting choice I might take issues with if only because his presence here gave me some less than desirable flashbacks to “The Newsroom” but otherwise most of the casting choices here are really solid and they all manage to really click with the material and have the necessary chemistry to keep the film’s energy flowing. It also has that great looking sheen that we’ve come to expect from Ridley Scott’s film’s and has some really strong but not unnecessarily flashy special effects.
If there’s any real weakness to The Martian it’s that it might just be a little too “up” for its own good. Here’s a little spoiler that isn’t really a spoiler: Matt Damon gets off the planet alive at the end. This is something that should be readily obvious to any viewer within the first fifteen minutes or so of the film as soon as they get a grasp of the film’s tone and outlook. That kills a lot of the potential suspense in the film but maybe that was never the point. The interest here isn’t whether Damon will escape so much as how he can escape. Beyond that, there’s also something a little hard to swallow about just how perfect most of the characters are in this film are. Hardly anyone in the film even brings up the question of whether or not it’s worth all the resources being spent saving one person and hardly anyone even seems to “crack” under the pressure in any big way. But you know, maybe there’s something kind of refreshing about that. I’m more than willing to wallow in humanity’s shortcomings but it is nice to see a movie that manages to focuses on what we’re capable of at our best and to do it in a way that never feels too cheesy. I never would have guessed that Ridley Scott would find such a humorous and entertaining way to bring this story of survival to the screen but hey, it wouldn’t be the first time that guy has operated outside of his comfort zone.
**** out of Four