Not many Ridley Scott movies can be described with words like “light” or “fluffy,” but ‘The Martian’ comfortably fits those terms in the best possible way. Undoubtedly, screenwriter Drew Goddard (‘Cabin in the Woods’) and the source novel by Andy Weir helped, but it’s still a little surreal to see the 77-year-old knighted director helming a movie filled with quips and even poop jokes.
Oddly, it suits him well as this is one of the most purely enjoyable films of his career. Plus, Scott being Scott, you know the glossy sci-fi visuals are second to none.
Things kick off on Mars (see title) where a crew led by Commander Lewis (Jessica Chastain) are forced into an emergency evacuation when a violent storm kicks up a fuss. Everybody climbs aboard the launch pod, with the exception of team botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon), who gets left behind and is presumed dead. However, the plucky astronaut survives and has no intention of dying alone on another planet. He plants a harvest of potatoes using the crew’s departed bio-waste (draw your own conclusions) to stretch out his supplies, and for the benefit of the audience starts recording an elaborate video diary chronicling his survival. He also digs up an old probe to contact Earth and soon has all of NASA working to get him back.
The first 40 minutes or so of the movie essentially sticks with Damon as a one-man show and works really damn well. Damon hasn’t been allowed to be this goofy on screen in quite a few years. It’s nice to see him get a chance to work his underused comedy chops in a survival setting. Scott and the visual effects team deliver a quite stunning vision of the red planet as well, mixing and matching techniques to create a vivid world that is both serenely beautiful and eerily threatening. Science lessons come along with delightfully quippy and fouled-mouthed dialogue to keep things bouncing along, and Scott’s handsomely mounted blockbuster style helps lend a deadpan tone to the proceedings that makes all the humor go down smoothly. It’s fun stuff and a fairly fresh spin on an old genre.
Once Watney finally makes contact with Earth, the canvas of the film expands considerably. NASA turns out to be run by a sarcastic Jeff Daniels, who feels like he walked across the street from the set of ‘The Newsroom’ (mostly in good ways) and seems to be about as concerned with maintaining NASA PR as he is in saving a lost astronaut. Chiwetel Ejiofor gets to represent the idealist perspective for NASA. Along with a team of eccentric scientists (played by Donald Glover, Mackenzie Davis and others), they get to work on a solution immediately.
The crew who accidentally left Watney behind also defy orders to help with his rescue, but even though they’re played by some big names like Chastain, Michael Pena and Kate Mara, they don’t get much screen time to develop satisfying characters. That’s the trouble with a movie that needs this many characters to function and spends the first half trapped with a single protagonist. Everyone else is going to feel a little underdeveloped. Goddard ups the quirks and quips to give them fun presences, and Scott has filled the cast with major talents who can at least provide the illusion of depth when they don’t have enough material for the real thing. So, it’s not as if all the faces on screen aren’t amusing. There’s just a point when the movie becomes a plot, visual effects and thrills delivery system. That’s all fine. This is a popcorn movie, after all. It’s just a bit of a shame that only Damon gets a fully formed character to play, but at least he plays the shit out of it.
The film has some other nagging issues too, such as a perhaps overly optimistic finale to force fuzzies on viewers and a subplot that feels like a Michael Bay-ian attempt to pander to the booming Chinese theatrical audience, but thankfully nothing comes close to being a movie killer. The bottom line is that ‘The Martian’ is a hell of a lot of fun.
Despite the deceptive prestige fall movie release slot, this is a straight-up popcorn-selling, crowd-pleasing blockbuster. The premise is simple, executed with style and welcome humor. The visual effects are stunning (often even giving ‘Gravity’ a run for its money) and the set-pieces can be bone-rattlingly intense (though ‘Gravity’ still reigns supreme there). The cast are all enjoyably quirky, no matter how underwritten the roles. The science lessons are unapologetically nerdy, yet easy to swallow. (There’s a big missed ‘Star Trek’ joke to be made about the final rescue operation and it’s a shock that Goddard didn’t see it.) The whole thing delivers big smiles and a sense of wonder about space exploration in a way that’s completely earned.
‘The Martian’ isn’t quite a new sci-fi masterpiece. It’s a bit too pulpy for that. However, it is one of the most purely enjoyable entries in the genre to come along in quite some time. It does so much so right that you might even think it hits masterpiece status before adding all the pieces up in your head on the ride home. The film is definitely worth seeing for its pure popcorn glee, just don’t expect too much more than that.