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Bringing back the science in science fiction, The Martian is a joyous plea into the pit of space and a celebration of the glowing power of human ingenuity. More or less a love letter to nerds everywhere, science and math play co-lead as the heroes, a very pleasant sentiment for any Hollywood blockbuster to have. Following a long line of similar “you can do it” movies from The Right Stuff to Apollo 13, this is the optimist’s guide to the galaxy. Serving as a triple hit of mainlined serotonin, famed director Ridley Scott’s latest movie hits all the notes of big screen, breezy, credibly cheer-worthy entertainment. While not rich in themes—the titular character doesn’t contemplate his existential place in the universe—as one of the most likable, easy to recommend movies of the year, The Martian is quality mid-brow fun demanding to be seen on the biggest screen possible.
Comparisons to Cast Away and Gravity are both inevitable and appropriate. Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is part of a diverse crew, made up of actors Jessica Chastain, Michael Peña, Sebastian Stan, and Aksel Hennie, and in a scene that recalls a storm in Prometheus, they’re consumed by a deadly Martian storm that seemingly manifested out of nowhere. Effective but unnecessary 3D effects sing in this early storm sequence—rock and debris consume the frame with scattering chaos like a million swarming bees, and in the confusion Watney is lost and quickly presumed dead. The crew leaves and sets travel back to Earth. What follows is scene after scene of a very alive Watney problem solving everything from food to oxygen to transport; in his words he has to “science the shit out of this.” Playing into the film’s natural likability is how the plot sidesteps the usual the pitfalls. Suspense is never bought cheaply: when obstacles are encountered, and of course they are, it’s never, I repeat never because they did something stupid like pull the wrong lever or nod off at the wrong time. This is an intelligent story with intelligent characters who work out their problems, well, intelligently, and it’s a breath of fresh air in a movie culture overwhelmed with stupid.
The stacked cast ranging from Sean Bean to Donald Glover does fine work in their respective roles, although the scenes of the space crew have a peculiar sterility—they never convince as a group of close friends so much as coworkers who get along. How they all come to play a part in the deceptively complex story is key to this journey, and seeing all the puzzle pieces start to fit is incredibly satisfying.
Matt Damon was born to play botanist astronaut Mark Watney. After an early career rise in attention-grabbing roles in Good Will Hunting, Rounders, and The Talented Mr. Ripley, Damon’s career has been something an enigma. He has no typecast, since he's not really a type. Exuding intelligence but not the nerd kind, athletic but not macho (and put to great use in Bourne), an everyman that’s slightly boyish—this is not the stuff of the typical Hollywood lead. After a career of slight miscasts saved by his always vivid talent, The Martian delivers the role of his career. Watney plays to every strength he has as a performer, :smart, human and—as I’m sure will add to The Martian’s inevitably gigantic box office take—he’s funny. Really funny.
Damon plays a super high IQ without seeming like a superhuman, and finding a beautiful line between vulnerable and heroic is a sweet spot that propels the movie’s emotional core. Nothing could be more essential for a movie largely fixated on one man in one location; a likable lead that every single audience member could root for like a lifelong best friend they never knew they had. Damon delivers one of his greatest performances as a space oddity marooned on Mars, and an Oscar nomination is inevitable.
Equally a paradox is the career of Sir Ridley Scott, who after directing a couple masterpieces a decade—Alien, Blade Runner, Kingdom of Heaven: Director’s Cut—is stuck in a pattern of peaks and (mostly) valleys. Luckily everything wrong, wrong, wrong with Exodus: Gods and Kings or (the fascinating failure) The Counselor is refreshingly absent. Overwrought direction and outright bizarre creative decisions, like giving Christian Bale a Wall Street style ‘do as Moses, have been traded. The exchange rate is favorable.The Martian is a robust back-to-basics for the 77-year-old filmmaker, who amazingly shows no signs of slowing down. Simple camera setups capture a gorgeous Mars in a rainbow of different shades of orange, while the addition of ‘gopro’ style POV footage adds just enough visual mayhem to contrast the otherwise fluid and clear visuals. People have said for years Scott’s always the best part of his movies, and now that he finally has a terrific script by Drew Goddard to ground the typically beautiful directorial choices, Scott’s mighty powers behind the camera flourish.
There’s a mastered elegance to how easy Scott makes it all seem too, although it must be said he can’t conjure the same type of textured reality Christopher Nolan did on last year’s superior space adventure Interstellar. A sense of touch would have given much needed physical stakes. Aside from an early scene involving a med procedure, a sense of the physical is all but absent. Imagining life on mars is only slightly less alien post-The Martian than before it, and Scott’s excellent direction nevertheless stays clinical and cold. Moreover, if stories fall into categories of man vs. man, man vs. nature, and man vs. himself, The Martian is mostly man vs. cynicism, since a crucial flaw here is how mightily each obstacle is breezed on by even if the ultimate effect is slightly superficial exaltation.
A quick finger might point as Damon for rarely playing Watney as panicked or even a touch depressed, but it’s all in Andy Weir’s best selling novel from which The Martian is adapted. Eventually, being so bright and amazing at all times actually makes him less human and therefore harder to care about. He’s an All-American hero where perseverance, fortitude, and an undying will to succeed in all things is brightly warm and positive but equally inauthentic to any kind of real human experience. For as science fiction as The Martian tries to be, it’s ultimately as much an escapist fantasy as another movie coming out later this year that takes place a long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. Anything close to psychological realism is traded for Watney’s intellectual invincibility and can-do attitude. Optimistic escapism is a fine thing, but when my mom struggles more to open a jar of pickles than Matt Damon struggles to survive on Mars, it becomes clear why The Martian never quite blasts into space.
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