Easily and obviously Ridley Scott’s best film since Black Hawk Down (2001), and instantly joining that film, Gladiator, Thelma and Louise, Blade Runner and Alien as among the best of his 23-film oeuvre, The Martian is big-screen, all-ages, mass-market entertainment at its best. It excels in every department – cinematography, script, VFX, sound, design, editing – but perhaps most of all in casting. How’s this for a role call: Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Michael Peña, Sean Bean, Kate Mara, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Mackenzie Davis, Donald Glover – all of them perfectly cast, bringing dimension and heart to a tale that is simultaneously monumental and bracingly simple.
Oh, there’s Matt Damon, too, and, to judge by the poster, he’s the only one in the movie. That’s not what’s going on at all. This is not Castaway In Space, and it’s not even Robinson Crusoe. Damon’s spirited, jaunty, cocky yet vulnerable botanist astronaut Mark Watney is stuck by himself on Mars, yes, left there alone when his crew had to split the red planet fast, leaving him for (presumed) dead; but there’s a whole lot of action going on down on Earth – at NASA, not in mundane living rooms (we don’t waste time with Mark’s family or civilian friends) and, in the second half of the film, stuff happening among the crew who left Mark behind, and who are still in space, on their way back to earth.
Jessica Chastain leads this crew, and on Earth, Jeff Daniels plays the Director of NASA, and both embody compassionate leadership as expertly as you could possibly want. Each is surrounded by well-meaning, highly intelligent and competent co-workers, all devoutly determined to bring Mark home alive. Conspiring against them are not clichéd evil politicians, let alone evil aliens, but the simple constraints of time and space: Mark’s only got so much food, NASA can only get to Mars so fast – how’re we gonna do this?
Watching them figure that out while we watch Mark, on Mars, try to extend his resources to give the folks back home more time forms the dramatic spine of the movie, while also providing the chance to revel in scientific detail that is always fun and never dull (and this from your humble reviewer who gave up high school science and math at the first opportunity – the “tenth grade” – spending his final two years baking in languages and history). For the emotional side of things, we’ve got Mark’s crew, who have to deal – in their no-nonsense, astronaut-trained way – with having left Mark behind, and now with having to possibly aid in getting him back.
There are so many things – again, clichés – that could have been in this movie that simply aren’t. No wife and child back home to fret and cry, no President concerned about getting re-elected, no relentless reporter determined to get the big scoop, no Russian space program using NASA’s screw-up to score points on the international scene, no frivolous crap. By confining the story entirely to employees of NASA, Scott keeps the movie’s focus laser-sharp and free of sentimentality… and then, to let it breathe, he allows us to laugh.
This movie is funny. It has way more laugh-out-loud moments than many a Hollywood “comedy”, and they all come from an authentic place, arising organically from situation and character. I saw the film with a Sunday crowd of civilians and they were vocally loving it. Some of the laughs had legs, rolling and extending, filled with surprised delight – no one expected this sci-fi tale to be so funny, so joyous.
The Martian isn’s nearly as tense as Gravity, because it’s not trying to be that film. It’s nowhere near as dense as Interstellar for the same reason. The Martian is its own, unique and wonderful beast, with a bizarre (in the best possible way), unique tone that is full of fun and wonder. It’s a feel-good romp with lashings of science, a sci-fi flick with laughs, an ensemble comedy, a crowd-pleasing blockbuster. It’s incredibly refreshing to come out of it impressed with the cast, the one-liners, and the story rather than the special effects (which are excellent, by the way). Ridley Scott has found new joy and buoyancy with this delightful tale. You’ll come out smiling, and singing the ‘70s disco hits that (completely organically) permeate the film. ‘70s disco hits? If that surprises you, you’re in for many, many more treats. Highly recommended and one of the best films of the year.