Welcome Back, Ridley.
When you really get down to it, movies are escapism in its purist form. Of course, the best films are the ones that actually engage your mind on an active level, but for many people, watching a movie is a great way to escape from whatever may be happening in their own life for a few hours. Like any great film, The Martian is an intellectually-stimulating piece of escapism and the fact that these two attributes are inextricably linked is perhaps its most striking feature. The Martian‘s brand of escapism takes the form of asking its viewers to not only imagine a world where one man can survive alone on an alien world, but one in which people put aside their egos and prejudices to unite around a common goal. In this way, The Martian is a film that champions the human spirit and its capacity for overcoming adversity without cynicism or irony, which is refreshing for a science fiction film in 2015. With that kind of resonance, it really shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that it also happens to be one of the year’s best films.
The Martian is set in the near-future, where NASA has successfully started sending manned missions to Mars. During one such mission, astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is hit by debris during a massive storm and is assumed dead by his crew, who are forced to abandon the mission and head back to Earth. Watney manages to survive and after a brief period of dejected acceptance regarding his situaiton, decides to survive on a planet that is hostile to all life. With his crew travelling further away by the day and limited hope of receiving timely help from NASA, most of the film focuses on Watney’s incredible feats of ingenuity (this is the ultimate ‘lifehack’ movie), including growing potato crops and re-purposing a set of solar panels to increase the duration of his trusty rover’s battery life.
An adaptation of Mark Weir’s acclaimed novel of the same name, The Martian excels in almost every category. For starters, this is probably director Ridley Scott’s best film since Kingdom of Heaven (the director’s cut). Scott has always been an exceptional director from a visual standpoint, but without the right script his films often devolve into incoherent messes (Prometheus). Thankfully, Scott is helped out admirably in the writing department thanks to Drew Goddard’s script. Goddard has proven himself to be an adept writer with his work on films like Cabin in the Woods, and most recently in bringing the exceptional Daredevil TV series to Netflix, but The Martian might be the crowning achievement of his career so far. With at least a dozen significant characters and a large ensemble cast, the script could have easily gotten out of hand. Somehow, Goddard balances all of it and no character, however minor, feels superfluous or underdeveloped.
Make no mistake though; this is still Matt Damon’s film. While it’s difficult to gauge how it compares to some of his other major roles, considering the kind of career he’s had, it will come as a major surprise if Damon doesn’t receive an acting nomination come awards season. Damon is his ever-charming self as “greatest botanist on Mars” Watney, convincingly delivering the range of emotions that you would expect a man in his position would experience. The actor scores the biggest laughs of the film thanks to his frequently witty video journal asides, but he absolutely shines in the quieter moments, evoking all sorts of feeling, often just from a simple look on his face. A character with as winning a can-do attitude as Watney probably would have been likable in anyone’s hands, but in Damon’s, you care about his fate and well-being from the opening frame to the closing credits. That’s a rare talent.
As already mentioned, The Martian has a large ensemble cast and yet no characters feel extraneous, which is a testament not only to the strength of Goddard’s script, but the talent pool of the actors on display. The cast is, to put it bluntly, ridiculous; featuring the likes of Jessica Chastain, Michael Pena, Kate Mara, Jeff Daniels, Sean Bean, and Chiwetel Ejiofor. At times, the breadth of Hollywood talent can be a bit distracting, but everyone turns in great, low-key performances, which is even more impressive given that, with the exception Damon and Ejiofor’s characters, most of these roles are relatively minor. The Martian clearly subscribes to the idea that if you’re going to fill your movie with characters, you might as well hire the best talent to fill their shoes.
In addition to the film’s stacked cast and wonderful script, it’s worth pointing out that The Martian is not just a serious survival drama; it definitely is that, but it’s also wonderfully funny and introspective, which helps balance the more harrowing moments in Watney’s story. The Martian is the best kind of optimistic science fiction, as Watney’s depression and desperation is often tempered by moments where he just stares out at the vistas of Mars in amazement and reverence. While this is definitely the kind of movie that makes you fearful of the realities of space exploration, it also might make you wish you were a kid again so you could grow up to be an astronaut. Thankfully, there are likely plenty of children out there right now that will see this movie and develop a love for science; it’s that good!
Does The Martian have some issues? Sure, but they’re all pretty minor. As much as the film is free of ham-fisted dialogue and inauthentic sentiment, some of the jokes don’t land quite as well as others (although the Lord of the Rings gag is worth the price of admission alone). There’s also a series of on-screen text introductions for each member of NASA which feel inoffensive the first few times, but becomes distracting when every new character gets one. The soundtrack is also a bit of a mixed bag; David Bowie’s “Starman” is used to wonderful effect, but why anyone in their right mind would throw ABBA’s “Waterloo” into the mix is a question even science cannot answer.
While it’s presumptuous to think that The Martian could make any sort of sizable impact on our world’s policy debates surrounding global issues such as climate change, if nothing else, it offers a step in the right direction. Cynicism is still the default viewpoint for most of what we as a species put out into the world these days, especially when it comes to our entertainment, but The Martian is proof that inspirational stories — when done right — are more important than ever. The Martian champions science and the human capacity for problem-solving above all else and makes it clear that these are the tools that will see us through any issue. Like the film’s title character though, we just need to have the will to see it through.
The Martian is one of the year's best films and will stand as an important work of science fiction for years to come.