The Martian (2015)
Rated PG-13 for some strong language, injury images, and brief nudity
The Martian stands as an excellent comparison to last year's Interstellar. Both are ambitious sci-fi films about space exploration. both come from acclaimed directors (Ridley Scott and Christopher Nolan, respectively), and they even share some core cast members in Matt Damon and Jessica Chastain. The difference, however, is in the execution. Interstellar reached for some heavy-duty subject matter and exploded on liftoff, drowning under the weight of its technobabble with only its stunning visuals to redeem it from being a truly bad film. The result tarnished Nolan's career and may have broken his reputation, turning him in the public eye from "the thinking man's action director" to a pretentious bore who can't write compelling characters that aren't Marty Stu paragons of "real men" doing "serious" things. The Martian, meanwhile, corrects the single greatest mistake that Interstellar made, and in doing so, it elevates everything else around it, from the visuals to the science. Director Ridley Scott (making what's undoubtedly his best movie in almost a decade) and writer Drew Goddard succeeded where Nolan's epic failed by virtue of remembering the most important rule of science fiction (and fiction in general): if the characters ain't interesting, nothing is. Bottom line: The Martian is great.
The film takes place at an unspecified point in the near future, where the United States is finally undertaking manned missions to Mars. During the Ares III mission, a nasty dust storm hits and mission commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) is forced to evacuate early, with the crew's botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) presumed dead after his space suit ruptures. However, Watney somehow survived thanks to both the shrapnel and his blood sealing the hole in his suit long enough for him to return to the habitation module -- and now, he must make a living as the only man on Mars. Back on Earth, mission directors Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Mitch Henderson (Sean Bean), along with satellite planner Mindy Park (Mackenzie Davis) realize, through observation of the Ares III landing site while looking for Watney's body, that Watney is still alive. And so they, their fellow scientists and engineers at NASA, the Ares III crew still on their way home, and even the Chinese space agency work together to concoct a desperate plan to bring Watney back from Mars, going over the head of NASA head Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) in the process.
It's straightforward. There aren't any plot twists, like one of the people having ulterior motives or seeking to sabotage the rescue mission. The "villains" are the harsh Martian environment, the technical problems encountered while preparing and carrying out the mission, and the amount of time they have to get Watney off Mars before he runs out of food, water, and other necessary supplies. It's a film about a group of smart people working to overcome extraordinary problems that they aren't necessarily prepared for, some of which they never saw coming. And that's enough. The film understands that, sometimes, seemingly mundane issues can make for compelling action in its own right, especially when those issues are goosed up by a million little things that can go wrong in outer space or on an alien planet. It definitely helps when the people doing the problem-solving are interesting in their own right. This film boasts an all-star cast both on Earth and in outer space, and they are excellent to a man. You'd expect Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jessica Chastain, Sean Bean, and Jeff Daniels to be great, of course, but even the people you'd never imagine seeing in a "serious" film like this, such as Kristen Wiig as a PR spokeswoman and Donald Glover as an astronomer who finds a key part of the solution, knocked it out of the park. Drew Goddard (a fitting name, incidentally, for a man writing a sci-fi film about NASA) should really try his hand at writing a disaster film one day, because going by his work here, he is astounding at writing ensemble casts fighting to overcome monumental odds in the face of disaster.
The keystone in the cast, however, is Matt Damon as Mark Watney. He had perhaps the hardest job out of any of the actors, essentially working alone for 95% of the film as an astronaut who's forced to go full Crusoe on Mars, while at the same time explaining the science of his survival to the audience. He brought an incredible liveliness to the role that did a great job of making him someone to root for. He's sarcastic and a bit of an ass, but he never becomes insufferable, and when he's talking scientific concepts to himself and, later, those back on Earth at mission control, it's less obtuse technobabble and more Bill Nye. When he uses the bodily wastes of his crewmates as manure for his potato farm, he jokes about how terrible their poop smells in between dry-heaving in disgust, and his experiments in manufacturing fresh water from hydrogen-based chemicals take some trial-and-error to get right, with hilarious results. On a more serious level, when he's figuring out a simple code he can use to communicate with Earth more efficiently, he shows us how a base-16 hexadecimal numerical system works in under a minute instead of taking precious time to deliver an infodump that would've brought the movie to a halt; I don't know the exact, painstaking details of what a hexadecimal system is, but I know just enough that it works. And of course, the film pays attention to the funnier details of space travel that most people don't really think of, like when Watney (at a certain point in the film) concludes that, according to a literal reading of international maritime law, he's the first space pirate. It was like Goddard had read my complaints (and those of others) about all the over-explaining of scientific concepts in Interstellar and sought to find a way to make a film that's scientifically accurate without sacrificing fun and excitement. The result was that I was basically having a 141-minute nerdgasm for much of this film, courtesy of both Damon's wise-ass demeanor and Goddard's writing.
In the end, though, it comes down to the director, Ridley Scott, to bring the whole thing together, and he did masterful work here. The Mars scenes may have been filmed in the Jordanian desert, and I instinctively just knew that it had to have been an Earth-based set (it didn't look like CGI, for one thing), but never once did the scenes themselves feel like they were happening anywhere other than Mars. The desolation of Watney's environment is captured beautifully, and makes for a magnificent contrast to both the hectic scenes on Earth and the tranquility of the Hermes, the spaceship bringing the Ares III crew home. The special effects are sparingly-used, but downright gorgeous. And again, even though I instinctively knew that the film would have a happy ending, the way Scott handles the darkest hours of both Watney and NASA made me feel like maybe he was going to die out there. Even with its length, this film felt epic rather than merely long, and as it built up to its final, pivotal rescue scene, I was on the edge of my seat.
Score: 5 out of 5
A truly amazing film on just about every level, The Martian is one of the best movies of the year, and definitely the best movie of the fall. After some real stinkers lately, it feels good to unapologetically love a Ridley Scott movie again.