If you’d asked me last week whether I considered Ridley Scott to still be a visionary director, you probably wouldn’t have found me saying yes. While I enjoyed Prometheus as the flashy sci-fi flick that it was, I certainly didn’t consider it to be a good movie, and his other recent attempts (namely Robin Hood, The Counselor and Exodus) have failed to maintain my attention. Before his most recent movie, I’d begun to accept that Scott had sadly peaked long ago and that all I could expect from this point forward was wave after wave of soulless effects-driven popcorn fodder.
It seems I was wrong.
The Martian tells the story of botanist and astronaut Mark Watney, who is left behind on the Red Planet following an evacuation due to a heavy storm. Over the course of the movie, Watney has to survive with whatever materials he can find in a compelling mash-up of Castaway and Apollo 13.
The Martian is, objectively speaking, a perfect movie. It skillfully balances humor, tension and action throughout without having to separate plot points with dull filler. Every scene feels like it adds to the story and the pacing is some of the best I’ve seen in any movie this year. The script, penned by Cabin in the Woods mastermind Drew Goddard, is expertly crafted and succeeds in emphasizing the loneliness of being the only man on an entire planet while still keeping spirits high with plentiful quips and playful banter.
However, even with an excellent script, superb directing and outstanding visual effects, the film itself is nothing without Matt Damon at the helm as stranded spaceman, Mark Watney. Damon owns the role, somehow managing to convey every thought that passes through Watney’s mind despite spending the vast majority of the film alone. Watney’s primary form of communicating his thoughts to the audience is through his video log, updated every time something of importance crops up, ranging from almost blowing himself up to declaring his hatred of anything disco. During these brief talks with who is essentially no one but himself, Damon brings his acting to another level, visibly hiding Watney’s inner turmoil beneath sarcastic quips that Drew Goddard has become well known for.
But Damon’s acting isn’t all he should be commended for. Over the course of Watney’s time on Mars, he’s forced to reduce his food intake in order to keep his supplies going for long enough. At the start of the movie, Damon is shown all bulked up and muscular as you would expect for someone needing to endure ten months of space travel. However, by the final act, his body has been reduced to a spindly frame barely keeping him standing. The transformation Matt Damon had to endure for his role is astounding and puts the actor on a par with the likes of Christian Bale and Jared Leto when it comes to dedication.
However, Matt Damon isn’t the only actor that should be recognised. Jessica Chastain controls every scene she stars in as Commander Melissa Lewis, the mission’s head honcho, while Jeff Daniels takes on the role of Teddy Sanders, head of NASA, with expert finesse. Every performance feels unique and polished despite such a huge cast and every actor manages to hold their own without being overshadowed.
Aside from Damon’s performance, the film excels in keeping the fiction grounded while also making every aspect feel new and exciting. During filming, Ridley Scott kept constant correspondence with NASA and the European Space Agency in order to make sure he kept the film’s plot based in reality and it shows. While films such as Interstellar and Gravity provided us with unrelenting action and incredible visual effects, their realism was somewhat sketchy and in Interstellar’s case was based entirely on theoretical physics that many consider to be nothing but pure fiction. The Martian sacrifices the opportunity for huge explosions and gaping black holes to make way for a realistic, completely plausible approach to science fiction that hasn’t been seen on screen in a long time. In the end, the apparent lack of any real action actually helps the movie prove its worth, showing that space travel is far from the glamour found in the more imaginative movies gracing our screens.
And while the film is definitely a must-see for any fan of sci-fi, the film really stands out as a love letter to the scientists and engineers that work in the space travel industry in real life. The down-to-Earth portrayal of everyday life at NASA and the rocket manufacturing departments ring true to the conditions every employee experiences and Scott cut no corners in making sure every detail was accurate. From the laid back attitude of the rocket scientists to the unkempt demeanor of Donald Glover’s Rich Parnell, every aspect of day to day life has been meticulously researched.
In the end, The Martian is a fun, engaging movie that will leave you hanging from the edge of your seat until the very end. With an all-star cast and a plethora of memorable characters, Ridley Scott’s triumphant return to the top will leave you scrambling for every loose penny you can find to book yourself that trip into space.
Just make sure you pack enough food beforehand.