Director: Ridley Scott
Runtime: 141 minutes
For a movie about terrifying circumstances, Ridley Scott's The Martian has something you wouldn't normally expect: a sincere, deeply-entrenched air of optimism. Without straining too hard for 'feel-good' moments, Scott's adaptation of Andy Weir's best-selling novel is an exhilarating adventure because it refuses to get bogged down in existential crises. Seeing as how many of Scott's films are laced with either fatalism or downright nihilism, there is something truly invigorating in seeing the 77 year old make a movie that is basically a love letter to human ingenuity.
Set several decades in the future, The Martian wastes no time in dropping us off on the Red Planet and getting the ball rolling. Hardly a few minutes have gone by before a high-spirited NASA team is forced to abandon their mission and set course for Earth. But in the chaos of their escape (the cause of which is a colossal Martian storm), astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is struck by debris, and left for dead. Which, of course, he isn't.
There are so many points in the first act of Drew Goddard's screenplay that look like gateways to despair. Will we anguish with the NASA crew over their inability to rescue their colleague before take off? Will Mark Watney spend his final days on Mars pondering the meaning of life millions of miles away from home? The answer to both prompts is a resounding and triumphant 'No.' From the moment Watney drags himself back to base camp, he's on the go, thinking of what he has to do to survive long enough for the next NASA mission to reach Mars.
Scott - along with editor Pietro Scalia and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski - plunges headfirst into Watney's enthusiasm, to the film's great benefit. For a director who has long been regarded as a visual craftsman, he has scaled back rather marvelously. This is not a pretty or lush film, even with all of the sleek sets. It's an immersive, get-your-hands dirty endeavor that, like Mark Watney, likes to simply get the job done. The film may lack obvious moments of cinematic innovation or poetry, but it still thrills as an expertly calibrated and engagingly old-fashioned crowdpleaser.
Better yet, it's a crowdpleaser with actual smarts. The Martian is a tribute to human perseverance, but it's also a gushing ode to the unifying power of scientific progress. Characters throw around plenty of technical talk, but the smooth editing and dynamic performances (even the smallest roles are filled by actors who seem thrilled to be involved) erase the possibility of the film turning into a NASA training video.
First and foremost, The Martian would not work as well as it does without Damon's performance. Mark Watney can be a bit of a smart ass, but Damon keeps the character grounded, and nails all of Goddard's one-liners and off-the-cuff remarks. Even when facing life or death odds, the characters in The Martian still have room for laughter. Damon's co-stars all bring their charisma, ranging from Jessica Chastain's guilt-ridden commander to Kristen Wiig as NASA's prickly head of PR.
Yet none of these characters are especially well-rounded, and that includes Mark. And yet The Martian proves to be such rousing entertainment because it balances a cast of one-note characters with a smart sense of its story's stakes. There isn't too much to write about any of the individuals on screen, but we can sense their intelligence, their drive, and their desire to succeed and survive. Scott's latest cinematic foray into space hasn't produced another Ellen Ripley, and that's perfectly fine. What matters is that he's assembled a cast of charismatic actors who make for solid stand-ins for humanity as a whole. The Martian may start as Mark Watney's story, but it ends as joyous statement of what humanity is capable of when the lines between individuals and entire communities vanish in the name of survival. The dangers of space are terrifying, but The Martian reminds us that in the face of overwhelming odds, sometimes the perfect antidote is just a touch of optimism.