Recently I reviewed M. Night Shyamalan's 'The Visit' and considered it to be the beginning of a comeback for his career. With that film he managed to put himself in a good position considering his lack of consistency and incredibly disappointing plummet into bad filmmaking. Ironically, the same can be said for Ridley Scott's The Martian. Ridley Scott was the man who brought us Gladiator, the first Alien and Blade Runner but yet he's the same director who gave us The Counselor, Exodus: Of Gods and Kings and Prometheus (which I rather enjoyed but definitely saw its flaws). Fortunately, not only is The Martian a comeback for Ridley Scott and his best film in years, it's one of the best films of the year.
The Martian is written by Drew Goddard (The Cabin in the Woods) and is based on the novel authored by Andy Weir under the same title. The story follows astronaut Mark Watney and his Hermes crew who are on an expedition in Mars. As Watney states in the film, "one day everything is going to go South on you and you're going to say this is it. This is how I end." These words are put to test when a deadly sandstorm ensues on Mars atmosphere causing the Hermes crew to abort their mission and leave the planet before their ship is destroyed by the powerful winds. As they trek through the ravaging storm, Watney is violently thrown off-course by a loose piece of equipment that pierces his suit. With the storm only causing more havoc, his team is forced to leave the planet assuming he is dead. What follows is a hybrid of Apollo 13 and Cast Away. While it's a great combination, The Martian fails to be as good as each mentioned films. It takes some of the best qualities from them but also fails to contain the scientific endeavor of Apollo 13 and the emotional heartstrings of Cast Away. That being said, it is still a great film on its own merits.
Films like these, the one-man-lead, obviously depend on the leading man [or in other instances, the leading woman (i.e. Gravity with Sandra Bullock)]. The Martian is a survival story about someone who is abandoned and has to rely on his own intellect and a very condensed amount of resources to manage staying alive. Matt Damon has the ultimate task of keeping us interested in the story and his character while being the only person on screen for more than 90% of the film. His work here is impeccable and proves yet again that he is one of the best actors working today. There is a scene within the first fifteen minutes where Matt Damon shows us that he is capable of carrying the weight of this film on his shoulders; it's raw and showcases him at his finest. Having not read the book myself, I can't make a fair comparison of the film to its source material. However, what I found troublesome was that in the movie Watney has no backstory. Regardless of whether or not it's in the novel, we know little to nothing about Watney other than the fact that he is insanely intelligent and has the persistence level of Tom Hanks in Cast Away. There's no emotional factor behind Watney's drive to get back to Earth other than the simple fact that he wants to leave Mars. There's no family pull, no children back at home, nothing. Yet, Matt Damon is so powerful and emotionally investing through his simple drive to leave this planet that you cannot help but get sucked into this man's story of survival. His ideas and spontaneous light-bulbs sometimes seem unrealistic since we know nothing about him but Damon's charisma and delivery are so spot on that he convinces us every time.
However, Matt Damon isn't the only actor in this film and The Martian might be Scott's largest and most impressive ensemble since the first Alien. The supporting cast is chock-full of immense talent. The Hermes crew consists of Captain Lewis (Jessica Chastain), Beth Johanssen (Kate Mara), Chris Beck (Sebastian Stan), Rick Martinez (Michael Pena) and Alex Vogel (Aksel Hennie). Back on Earth, there's NASA and playing NASA's President is the legendary Jeff Daniels. Alongside him are Kristen Wiig, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sean Bean and Donald 'Childish Gambino' Glover. Everyone here is bringing their A-game, there isn't a weak note. The Hermes crew falls into the same problem as Mark Watney, they don't have much of an established history in the film but everyone's chemistry and pure talent makes their comradery believable. On top of that, Goddard's script and adaptation is light-hearted and natural. Their dialogue and banter is exactly that and makes for a very compelling team where everyone's skills are necessary and put to the test. We get some great ribbing between Bean and Daniels as well as Ejiofor back on Earth who make the story on our planet just as interesting as the one on Mars. It's easy to tell everyone's passion for this film and Scott directs this group of thespians and world-class talent with ease. While Matt Damon is easily the star and strongest aspect of the film, the scenes that lack Mark Watney are interesting and well-acted.
Running at nearly two and a half hours, The Martian never slows down or feels dragged out. The pacing here is sharp and succinct, never wasting a single second. The obstacles present themselves on a well formatted timeline and allow for great little monologues from Damon. However, what The Martian lacks is a sense of scientific endeavor. We understand that Watney is an incredibly gifted scientist but his IQ and ability to come up with ideas and use equipment for purposes they are not intended comes off as convenient rather than genuine. In Apollo 13, the Apollo crew led by Tom Hanks had to solve their problems with trial and error situations and through exposition that didn't feel too on-the-nose; it proved to be a film that felt legitimately smart but not for the sake of propelling the story. In The Martian, since we don't get any background on Watney, a great amount of his brilliant endeavors seem all-too-convenient and unrealistic. Again, this is all counterbalanced by Damon's performance and ability to convince us that he is this radical genius who can get his way out of everything.
Another slight downfall of The Martian is a lack of emotional substance. The film is incredibly light-hearted considering that it's dealing with a man who is stranded on another planet while people on Earth are scrambling whether or not they should rescue him. This doesn't mean that there aren't any dramatic moments or scenes of pure dread and tension but when evaluating the tone overall, it is incredibly vivacious. The lack of a familial background or any ties on Earth make Watney's drive to return home less grounded. In Cast Away, Tom Hanks has a wife and in Apollo 13, the first thirty minutes of the film establish each crew members' relationship to a family of some kind that he will be abandoning. Even everyone on the Hermes crew in The Martian has moments where they are communicating with family back on Earth. Watney has no one and this provides a major problem. While we do sympathize for him and sincerely want to see our protagonist succeed, the drive's backbone relies completely on the fact that "Earth is home" but doesn't answer the question of "who is home?" We're forced to relate to a character we know little to nothing about and once again, it's Damon's phenomenal work in this film that manages to suck us in.
As the film progresses, we start to leave Mars and focus more on Earth and NASA's obstacles. The pacing and switching between NASA and Watney as well as the Hermes crew who is within interstellar travel en route to Earth is very tightly-packed. No time is wasted in propelling the story. While there is an enormous amount of simultaneous activity occurring in three different locations, the switching between NASA on Earth, Hermes crew in space travel and Watney on Mars is crisp and unaffected. Nothing feels jarring or out of place. The only downside is that everytime we are taken back to Earth or the Hermes crew, we are anticipating what Watney is up to and the lack of Damon in some scenes feels slightly underwhelming, but not a large detriment whatsoever.
Ridley Scott's recent score collaborator Harry Gregson Williams (Gone Baby Gone, The Town, Man on Fire) provides an interesting musical score to the film. The more upbeat and optimistic scenes have a compelling techno vibe whereas the more dramatic and action-tense scenes have a contrasting atmospheric and ambient vibe. There's nothing necessarily memorable about his work in this film, but Williams' score definitely adds a unique layer to the film and easily gives it life. The sound design and sound mixing are more noteworthy, especially during the storm sequence as well as a scene in the third act where Scott decides to use the clanking of miscellaneous metal objects to fill in the white noise. It's an intriguing decision but easily an effective one.
Scott has proven film after film that he has a keen eye for visuals. Regardless of what you think of Prometheus, it'd be hard to disagree that that film is visually and aesthetically mind-blowing. His images and Dariusz Wolski's cinematography are absolutely mesmerizing. The sense of scope and scale on Mars contrasted with the compacted Earth is vastly pleasing to watch and the images of space are even more so. Their depiction of zero-gravity is very intriguing and without a doubt visually pleasing. Additionally, the CGI and practical special effects used to pull of these shots adds a sense of realism to the entire film.
Regardless of how many set backs there were in The Martian, this is a prime situation where the pros heavily outweigh the cons. Like Hanks in Cast Away, Tom Hardy in Locke, Ryan Reynolds in Buried and Jake Gyllenhaal in Enemy, Matt Damon is a one-man-show in this film and he carries it along effortlessly. The entire ensemble is fantastic and Scott's directing has never been better. Goddard's screenplay is witty, humorous and tense with great character development and story arcs. This is a movie where everything came together near-perfectly and when the credits role you'll be willing to buy the ticket again.