The Martian (2015): Written by Drew Goddard and directed by Ridley Scott. Starring: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Michael Pena, Kate Mara, Sean Bean, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Donald Glover. Running time: 141 minutes. Based on the novel of the same name by Andy Weir.
It’s always frustrating when a great and beloved artist comes out with something far below their usual (or “accepted”) standard. It’s especially painful when it seems to happen with everything they do for an extended period, one round of disappointment after another. At the worst of times it can leave erstwhile fans wondering if all the hype was for naught, if someone they admired has already peaked, and maybe wasn’t that great to begin with. Ridley Scott has been caught in just such a spiral for some time now, with just about every major release of his over the past 5-10 years plagued by repeated production delays and/or constant script rewrites. In a few cases, Scott seemed to morph into his own worst enemy, looking like he himself was never entirely sure what sort of movie he wanted to actually make.
Well, never fear fellow fans, because the Scott is back. The Martian is easily the best film he has come out with in years, and right up there with some of the best works of 2015 so far, and will most likely walk away with a decent profit margin and a few bits of Oscar gold before all is said and done.
It’s just a tad bit into the future, and NASA has advanced enough to actually be able to send a small team to Mars for a brief mission. However, the rise of a sudden sandstorm forces them to abort ahead of schedule, and the ensuing darkness created by the storm causes them to lose the team botanist, Mark Whitney, played by Matt Damon. With no choice but to assume the worst, the team heads back weighted with guilt, while the PR people back home break the news to the public.
Whitney, however, is not dead, just injured by a satellite that cut the feed from his suit. Finding himself as abandoned as a human being could possibly be, he almost immediately begins to work on finding some possible way to ensure his survival as long as possible. I won’t go into all the many pathways this takes, since that would require me to spoil much of the second act, but the gist of the situation is this; he can’t expect another mission to arrive for at least a few years, he doesn’t have any way to contact NASA directly and ask for help (at least at first), and while the tech he has on hand could theoretically keep him breathing and hydrated indefinitely, the remaining foodstuffs he has would barely get him through a single year in isolation, let alone 3 or 4.
So he gets to work. For the sake of future record-keeping, he films himself trying to mash together Martian sand, leftover feces, potato bits, and chemicals to make water so as to be able to grow his own food supply. Funnily enough, this provides Matt Damon with a ready-made excuse to literally act right into the camera (and thus directly to us), wisecracking about how he’s besting every other accomplished astronaut to date and lamenting the questionable taste in music of his team captain, whose left-behind laptop is the only source of entertainment he has. It’s the sort of wise-ass leading-man style we’ve gotten a lot of lately, especially in the world of comicbook blockbusters, but Damon never overdoes it, and he balances it out with a few appropriate moments of real emotional pathos, as the immensity of what he is doing (and where he is) inevitably overwhelms his otherwise extremely professional demeanor. Damon has rarely been better in his career.
In the sense that the story is your basic survival narrative, it’s not unlike Gravity from a few years back, but with the added strength of not asking us to tolerate Matt Damon and no one else for two hours. As we follow Whitney’s survival gambit, we learn that NASA finds out almost immediately via satellite imagery that he is definitely alive, and they immediately set about bringing in all manner of experts (including some Chinese ones towards the end) in what becomes a truly collective team effort to provide every sort of assistance they can, and eventually both they and the returning crew (simultaneously overjoyed Whitney is safe and horrified that they did indeed leave him there to die) come up with a daring rescue plan, leading to an immensely satisfying final act. The plot itself never rises above its Castaway origins, but the polyglot cast is so good- the list of incredible talents they brought together for this is breathtaking to behold, and everyone delivers- and there are so many interesting moving parts to follow that I can’t imagine anyone walking away from this one without at least one scene or character they loved. Nothing wrong with simplicity of substance if the execution is done with skill and grace.
The focus on team work, the importance of pooling collective expertise, and the need to never give up and never stop trying, even against overwhelming odds, are a continuation of the same theme of unstoppable optimism and hope for the future that pervaded both last year’s Interstellar and the aforementioned Gravity from the year before that. If big-budget, visually-thrilling space adventures undergirded by upbeat messages about the future of mankind are a thing now, then count me in. Given the current state of the world, this is exactly the kind of cinema we need.
If I had a nitpick, it would be that I couldn’t escape a sneaking suspicion that isolation that long, even with some limited means of communicating, should take a more obvious and visible toll on someone. Matt Damon has a few moments where his cool-guy ‘tude fails him, and he nearly breaks, but they are always short and spaced far away from each other. He doesn’t become mechanical though, and having him pull through psychologically as well as physically fits into the overall thesis of the movie that there really is nothing a person (or people) aren’t able to get through. And as long as we never stop trying to solve the problems that come our way, we will inevitably come out the stronger for it.
Amen to that.