At 77 years old, Ridley Scott has long cemented his place amongst the greatest directors in the history of American cinema. From “Alien” to “Blade Runner”, to “Gladiator”, his films have succeeded commercially and critically over several decades. His past two efforts, however, succeeded in no way whatsoever. Both “The Counselor” and “Exodus: Gods and Kings” made many, including myself, question Scott’s competence as a filmmaker at this point in his life. Luckily, “The Martian” alleviates nearly all of these doubts.
Having yet to read the source material, one of the most surprising aspects of “The Martian” for me was how comedic and lighthearted the tone was. For a man stranded and fighting to survive, Mark Watney, played by Matt Damon, very rarely loses his charm or sense of humor. His many vlogs throughout the film allow us to easily follow his strategies for staying alive while also giving us a personal look at his mental state. Although I never quite felt a sense of hopelessness or dread that other recent survival films such as “127 Hours”, “Life of Pi”, and “Gravity” made me feel, it was a refreshing and unexpected approach. This is not to say the movie is completely without emotional sequences. Mark constantly recognizes that his survival is unlikely, and a number of missteps convince us of the same for a moment or two. Without spoiling the outcome, I will say that I always felt fairly certain that Mark would make it back to Earth alive. This lack of genuine peril was one of the films few shortcomings for me, and maybe this is a side effect of how beautiful and inviting the visual artists and cinematographer make Mars look. Watney even mentions how he enjoys waking up every day to simply stare at the landscapes.
Aside from Matt Damon, the rest of the outstanding ensemble cast, including Sean Bean, Michael Pena, Jessica Chastain, Kate Mara, Jeff Daniels and Chiwetel Ejiofor, all heighten the stakes by rallying towards the common goal of getting Watney off Mars alive. Even Donald Glover and Kristen Wiig got in on the action, and it felt like every new scene was accompanied with a new top-tier actor. Isolated from all of humanity in context of the film and all other actors in context of the film’s production, Damon impressively carries the film throughout. As Watney grows weaker from starvation, he remains charismatic, vulnerable, and, more than anything, human.
With such a large cast and with so many pieces in motion, Ridley’s Scott’s ability to seamlessly cut back and forth from each scenario is where he especially separates himself from other directors. From Mars to a spacecraft to NASA’s headquarters, each piece of the puzzle fits in just where it should. There is one instance in which we are away from Watney for perhaps a few minutes too long, but otherwise the pacing never faults. Once we finally reach the rescue mission, I was overcome with a feeling that every scene of the film has led us to this conclusion. There is no empty space.
Has water actually been discovered on Mars or is it just a genius marketing tactic from “The Martian”? Either way, this is easily one the year’s best films so far and one that everyone can enjoy. It’s not a particularly thought provoking or innovative film, but we go to the movies to be entertained and to feel, and this is exactly where “The Martian” delivers. Despite my skepticism, I can confidently say that Ridley Scott has soared back to the top faster than the speed of light.
Written by Harrison Jeffs