All the technical cinematographic brilliance in the world can’t save a movie with a bad script. Director Ridley Scott has learned this the hard way over the years, since his films following 2007’s American Gangster haven’t exactly been doing stellar numbers critically or commercially. With The Martian, Ridley Scott’s truly breathtaking imagery (minus the inert flatness and uncomfortably whitewashed cast of Exodus: Gods and Kings) is coupled with writing that brings humor, heart, and genuine intrigue to the story of a man stranded on Mars.
Based on the bestselling 2011 novel of the same name, The Martian’s story is of Mark Watney (Matt Damon), a botanist part of a 5-person expedition to Mars. When Watney is hit with debris and swept away during a freak storm moments from the team’s extraction, he’s presumed dead by team captain Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) and left behind. To the team and NASA’s surprise, Watney actually survived the encounter and is now forced to farm, build, and “science” his way across the surface of Mars. Once Watney finds an old NASA probe and uses it to communicate with NASA proper, the film cuts between Mars, the returning crew’s shuttle, and Earth as NASA director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels), and department head Vincent Kapoor (Chewitel Ejiofor) attempt to figure out exactly how they’ll get a supply drop to him in time.
And for a film hopping back and forth between three different settings, the story, penned by ‘Cabin In The Woods’ scribe Drew Goddard, moves at an engaging pace; the film exists in a netherworld where we deftly switch from laughing at Watney blowing himself up with water one minute to dreading news about a kink in the rescue mission the next. I was surprised just how cohesive moving from Mars to NASA’s offices to their remote probe-building team felt, given that this is a movie that’s over two hours long, yet not a second of it goes to waste.
It’s also as beautiful a sci-fi offering to grace theaters since ‘Interstellar’, but without the emotional dissonance. Above all, Scott has been a technical formalist above everything else, and it’s great to see him sink his teeth into the depths of space in a way that’ll almost make you forget about ‘Prometheus’. Almost.
There has been a glut of horribly undercooked sci-fi offerings in the last few years, movies that were either too convoluted (Prometheus), too cold (Interstellar) or too asinine (Transcendence) to grip your heart, but ‘The Martian’ is the first I’ve seen in a while that really feels like the whole package. The all-star cast, from Damon’s smart-ass botanist Watney, to Chastain’s assured captain, and Ejiofor’s good-hearted middle man of a department head to Donald Glover’s ball of neurotic math geek energy, the cast is firing on all cylinders.
Saying that ‘The Martian’ is Ridley Scott’s best movie in years doesn’t do it justice. This is a sci-fi dramedy that confirms what Dave Chappelle predicted all the way back in 2004: that we’re headed to Mars and we’re in no way, shape, or form ready for it.
The film hits theaters on Oct. 2.