Legendary director Ridley Scott has been through a weaker patch lately. Once the craftsman behind a whole string of relentless and innovative hits and cult classics including Blade Runner and Gladiator, his recent slew of films have degenerated, becoming plagued with the same Hollywood banality which encumbers too many modern blockbusters; both Prometheus and Exodus: Gods and Kings disappointed critics and audiences alike. Fortunately, the same cannot be said for The Martian, which is a triumph in blockbuster film making. Here, a simple disaster movie plot is armoured up with technical scientific detail making it more intelligent and thought provoking then the average mainstream movie.
An adaptation of Andy Weir’s acclaimed 2011 novel, the story (set in the near future) follows astronaut-botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) as a member of one of the now-regular manned missions to Mars. However during the chaos of a catastrophic storm, Watney is injured and separated from his team. Believing him dead, the crew is forced to flee back to Earth to save their own lives. Abandoned, alone, and low on food, Watney refuses to submit and instead works tirelessly in order to survive and formulate a plan to communicate with NASA in order to return home.
As much of the screen time revolves around Damon’s character it gives him the perfect opportunity to stretch his acting capabilities, and the star gives his strongest performance since The Departed as the humorous, trash-talking astronaut Watney. Damon is perfectly paired with Drew Goddard’s whip-smart script, and his character’s likability helps to create some moments of genuine heartfelt tension. Goddard (The Cabin in the Woods) makes the wise choice of following a close adaption to Weir’s original novel, refusing to dumb down the science for the big screen. While this gets pretty technical at points, it never trips the film over in the same way it did Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, partly due to Goddard’s cohesive screenplay.
The film is less successful with its supporting characters, with strong actors such as Sean Bean, Jessica Chastain and Michael Peña handed very limited characterization and seemingly added into the film for the sake of creating a cast of huge status. That said, each actor manages to work well with the limited material they are given and attempts to add something personal to each character. Most noteworthy are Chiwetel Ejiofor as a ranking NASA engineer and Community’s Donald Glover in a scene stealing role as a crazed astrodynamicist.
All-in-all, while it doesn’t completely measure up to Scott’s classics (very little will), the Martian is his best achievement in years. The film is a huge, vast spectacle which is as intelligent as it is thrilling, and also surprisingly personal thanks in no small part to the cast’s committed performances. All in all, the film succeeds at almost every level. It’s a refreshingly upbeat look at the future of mankind.
Image: 20th Century Fox