Director Ridley Scott returns to science fiction with his film of The Martian, based upon Andy Weir’s novel of the same name. For Scott, working from an excellent screenplay by Drew Goddard, it feels like a homecoming.
The film follows astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon), part of an expedition to Mars. During a nasty sandstorm, he and his fellow travelers decide to evacuate the planet for their own safety. Struck by flying debris and assumed dead, Watney gets left behind as the sole inhabitant of the red planet. Of course, because this is just the set-up, and because Watney is played by Matt Damon, we know he will survive, lonely and without sustenance on the surface of the planet. From there, the film becomes all about Watney surviving long enough for a rescue mission to get him home.
Yet for such a simple premise, the film never stalls, never boring the audience or becoming unengaging for even a moment. Scott, a master of epic vistas and of scientific verisimilitude treats his audience to remarkable visions of Mars and of the Hermes, the ship that carts the travelers throughout the solar system, courtesy of some remarkable special effects and beautiful 3-D photography by cinematographer Dariusz Wolski. In particular, the wide shots of Mars, barren and composed of burnt reds and rusty hues convey the quiet mystique of the planet with rich intensity. Most impressive are some anti-gravity sequences which do not play as action sequences for excitement’s sake–though they are both full of balletic action and quite exciting–but just the day-to-day life aboard a spaceship, familiar territory for Scott, director of Alien and Prometheus. Part of the power of those films comes from the naturalistic style of the performances: at times, it feels more like watching human behavior than a plot. Scott finds a similar tone here.
Matt Damon doesn’t quite get to put on the one-man show that Sandra Bullock carried in Gravity, but much of the film rests on his shoulders as the sole performer of his scenes. The actor brings his own personality to the role; Mark Watney isn’t a great character, but Damon fleshes him out into an relatable protagonist. Much of the film alternates between Watney struggling to survive on Mars, and of Mission Control back on Earth trying to get him home. If Watney gets help from the people of Earth, Damon helps the movie flow with the aid of a remarkable supporting cast, in particular Jessica Chastain as Captain Melissa Lewis, Watney’s Commander, and Chiwetel Ejiofor as Vincent Kapoor, the NASA scientist burdened with finding a way to rescue Watney. All the actors take on their roles with utter conviction, including Kristin Wiig in an effective dramatic turn.
The Martian continues the recent trend of thoughtful, credible science fiction begun with Curon’s Gravity and continued with Nolan’s Interstellar, and after a summer of superhero junk wrought with bad science and noise, it refreshes the soul. That said, it never quite becomes the directorial (or actor) showcase that made Gravity so spectacular, and because the movie is more about plot than character, it doesn’t have much of an emotional punch. Interstellar, despite its flaws, had rich characters and made a statement about the intangible elements of the human spirit, and thus packed more of an emotional wallop. The Martian, like a good deal of Scott’s work, lacks the poignancy to make it endure as a classic. However, that does nothing to diminish its power as entertainment or as a technical marvel. Scott directs with utter precision and cerebral fortitude, and the movie is a cinematic gem, if not a treasure.
That the mire of Blade Runner soured Scott on sci-fi for a full thirty years is our loss; few directors feel more at home and suited to the genre. He might be the only director in the genre that makes an apt comparison–for good or ill–with Stanley Kubrick’s work in 2001: A Space Odyssey. For the record, that distinction is both praise and condemnation, as The Martian demonstrates.
|Directed by||Ridley Scott|
|Screenplay by||Drew Goddard|
|Based on||The Martian
by Andy Weir
|Music by||Harry Gregson-Williams|
|Edited by||Pietro Scalia|
|Distributed by||20th Century Fox|