There are certain times of the year that mean a little extra for the film world. Whether it is the doldrums of September and February or the blockbuster releases of Independence Day weekend, the studios have created expectations for what to expect from visiting the local cinema. Recently, early October has carved out its own little niche in the calendar, becoming the premier location for high profile genre films with Academy Award aspirations. This year’s entrant, following on the heels of 2012’s Argo, 2013’s Gravity and 2014’s Gone Girl, is Ridley Scott’s adaptation of the smash hit novel The Martian. And it just may be the best of the bunch.
This is a film that wastes no time diving into its premise, opening with the crew of the Ares 3 mission to Mars scouring the planet for soil samples and various other space-y science-y things. Halfway through their expected time on the planet, a particularly catastrophic storm causes NASA to call for an early end to their mission, and in the treacherous surface walk from their base to their ascent vehicle, astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is struck by debris and presumed dead. The rest of the crew (led by Jessica Chastain and also featuring Michael Pena, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan and Aksel Hennie) are forced to leave him behind. When Watney wakes up the next day, alone on a desolate planet with no way out and no way to contact home, he has to find a way to survive while the NASA employees back home (a cavalcade of stars including Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sean Bean, Kristen Wiig, Donald Glover and many more) deal with the fallout of losing one of their men. When Watney finds a way to contact Earth, it becomes a mad scramble to keep him alive long enough for a rescue mission to reach him.
Arguably the most controversial aspect of The Martian lies in how the script handles these scenes of Watney alone on this planet with no one to talk to or interact with (He doesn’t even get one of those sarcastic robots from Interstellar). The device used to solve this, one presumably taken from the book, is to have Watney document everything he does using the various and sundry camera equipment in and around the base, turning him into a sort of vlogger from space. The Mars scenes essentially turn into long bouts of exposition as Watney narrates his methodology for staying alive including using his skills as a botanist to find a way to actually grow crops on an alien planet. It is a risky gambit, one that could easily prove tiring over the film’s expansive 141 minute run time, but Ridley Scott has two tricks up his sleeve. The first is Damon, who pours on the charm with uncanny ease, imbuing Watney with a quippy, nerdy and sarcastic personality large enough to fill the vast expanses of emptiness surrounding him. The second is screenwriter Drew Goddard (he of Cabin in the Woods, Cloverfield and the Netflix Daredevil series) who appears to achieve the impossible by making the exposition fun and engaging, driven by Watney’s personality and not afraid to shy away from the science without getting bogged down in the nitty gritty of the details.
Scott and Goddard do an excellent job of ramping the momentum of the piece, taking the time to establish the rules of the world and the problems that need to be solved, perfectly timing the setbacks to fire off just as hope truly begins to take hold. A film like this needs that push/pull of hope and despair in order to push its characters to the limit, and the cast is more than game to wear the dance of elation and anguish across their sleep deprived faces. The cast is so massive that it can be tough to get a sense of who many of the characters beyond Watney truly are, forcing the script and the actors to predominantly rely on some familiar archetypes (the hard-nosed President focused on the best odds instead of emotional decision-making, the harried overworked engineer, the eccentric math whiz who cracks the problem in a way no one would expect, the grizzled veteran looking out for his people first and foremost, etc etc) but the emotion of it all rings true. The climax is especially thrilling, the sort of wild, chaotic space-faring finale akin to the Gravitys and the Interstellars and the Apollo 13s of the world, but The Martian retains its particularly quirky personality even when the stakes become deathly serious, helping it to stand out from the crowd.
Indeed, The Martian only truly goes wrong when it introduces China as a deus ex machina, a move that feels like a transparently cynical grab at international box office receipts. Beyond that, shepherded by Ridley Scott’s competent, confident direction, Dariusz Wolski’s sumptuous vistas of the red planet and Drew Goddard’s whip smart scripting, this is a film that seems to create pitfalls for itself if only to delight in leaping over them. It does not quite connect all the dots (Watney could have used a little more existential dread to help the stakes along in its second act, though the decision to keep him light and charming is understandable), but it more than succeeds in forming the picture it set out to draw. Ridley Scott may not have a perfect batting average, but The Martian serves as a reminder that with the right script and the right cast, he is still more than capable of putting something special on the big screen.