Sometimes, all you need is Matt Damon and disco music to make starving to death on Mars hilarious. The “comedy” status of Ridley Scott’s The Martian is certainly questionable, but that debate is a tribute to the perfectly balanced tone that is maintained throughout my early choice for Best Picture. This movie had everything: strong acting across the board, gripping suspense, emotion, a great message, and a higher laugh count than any other movie I saw this year (including your more traditional “comedies.”) I have plenty left to see before I cast the official votes I don’t have for this year’s Academy Awards, but I’ll gladly use this review as a platform to state The Martian’s case as the film that is most deserving of the Academy’s most coveted prize.
Firstly, I missed Matt Damon. He gave us the Departed and Bourne Ultimatum back to back in 2006-07, placing him more or less on top of the world. After that he had been around and active but, at least in my personal opinion, the movies he ended up in became a handful of decent with some disappointments. Invictus wasn’t bad, We Bought a Zoo was cute, and Elysium wasn’t quite as cool as it could’ve been. Some projects with potential just never caught on or became huge hits like Adjustment Bureau or Contagion. I may be downplaying his last seven or so years, but I don’t think it’s crazy to expect better luck for one of Hollywood’s best leading men. One could make a similar argument for director Ridley Scott, after Prometheus failed to leave a lasting impression. If either of these two men were in fact in any sort of slump, we can consider that stretch over.
As far as the film itself is concerned, The Martian is all about striking a filmmaking balance. One, as mentioned earlier, is the balance of a dramatic comedy, or a comedic drama. If you, unlike me, saw a movie that made you laugh more this year, I’m sure it didn’t make you think or feel this much. And if you felt more during a different 2015 movie, which you may very well have, I can guarantee it didn’t make you laugh this much. But that isn’t the only balance struck by The Martian. The plot, by nature, suggests this is going to be a one-man show. Call it Castaway on Mars, and that would’ve been a great movie. But The Martian also excels as an ensemble piece by making the developments at NASA equally fascinating. I expected a series of boring meetings, antsy as I wait for us to get back to Mark Watney. Scott depicted Mars beautifully (to no one’s surprise) as an incredibly calm setting that also presents a very clear and apparent danger. Naturally, that is the main draw of the film. But the other perspectives did more than just hold their own weight. They filled in the blanks and made this a complete, three dimensional movie. Even the lesser balances were done to perfection: science vs. action, dialogue vs. silence, and cooperation vs. the inevitable contention that comes along with trying to safely bring a man home from Mars.
During his acceptance speech, Leonardo DiCaprio described The Revenant as a tribute to the human spirit. In many ways, that’s absolutely true. We follow one man’s will to survive against immeasurable odds. I believe that The Martian takes this same principle and adds layers to it. We do follow one man’s struggle, but we also follow the collaborative effort that orbits (shameless pun intended) around his isolated journey. I’m not suggesting The Revenant needed this element. Quite frankly, it would’ve been weird if everyone DiCaprio’s character encountered extended a helping hand or gave him a hug. But in terms of paying tribute to the human spirit, or at least what it ought to be, I think The Martian has everything. One man can survive with nothing but some knowledge (ok, maybe a lot of knowledge) and sheer willpower, but it is also essential that people make sacrifices and help each other along the way. Some movies make a statement on humanity’s darkness, and those projects can be exceptionally appealing from a critic’s point of view. It is beyond refreshing to see something other than a simple family movie make a statement on what makes us amazing. Ridley Scott’s latest masterpiece single handedly makes the Oscars just a little less depressing.
All sunshine and rainbows aside, The Martian does more than send a message. The writing is excellent. Matt Damon as Mark Watney personifies everything I’ve been saying about the movie as a whole. His presence and charisma drive the film forward, but he never goes off the deep end and becomes a comedian. On a moment’s notice, he’ll have a breakdown that’ll just devastate you. Viewers let their hopes get up alongside those of the character, and both are crushed from time to time. I imagine his mood swings very accurately portray what this situation would do to someone, even someone so positive. The top to bottom cast has great chemistry and actually convinces you that they were a team long before we were watching them. Jessica Chastain leads them with incredible nobility in one of the more understated and, for me, enjoyable roles of her career. The cinematography and clear sense of direction behind the visuals is breathtaking. The film feels about as real as this premise can possibly be. I can’t tell you how many fans either in the theater or online were under the impression that this was a true story. It even nails the little things. There is a Lord of the Rings reference with Sean Bean’s character in the room. Sebastian Stan at one point laughs at an Iron Man reference. This is next level stuff, people. I am very happy to say that my opinion has not changed since The Martian’s theatrical release, and that I would confidently cast my imaginary vote for Best Picture in its direction. I do have plenty left to see. But unless something surpasses a near-perfect movie, my vote isn’t going anywhere.