“Houston, we have a problem.”
-Jim Lovell (Apollo 13)
Ridley Scott hasn’t made a good film, let alone a great one, in a long time. Scott’s career has become mediocre, and most cinephiles have come to dread his movies because we’re tired of being let down. There was a time when a movie that had Scott’s name attached meant it would be a critical and box office success. That time has long since passed, but he is still clearly talented. The biggest question about The Martian was, “Can Ridley Scott still make a quality film?”
Matt Damon stars as Mark Watney, a botanist who is part of the crew of Ares III, a manned-mission to Mars. After an intense storm, Watney is lost and presumed dead. The Ares III is forced to abandon their mission and leave Watney behind. Watney wakes up stranded without a way to contact Earth or Ares III. He quickly realizes that in order to survive, he must use his abilities to make enough food to last until the next manned-mission arrives in four years.
Much can be said for the choice of Matt Damon to play Mark Watney. Damon’s sense of humor and charisma were a perfect fit for this role. Even though The Martian is more of an ensemble film than a film like Castaway, a majority of the movie rests on the shoulders of Damon. The likability of Damon is the most important factor in making The Martian work. Mark Watney has to be smart and funny, but must also come across as someone worth saving. Matt Damon does all of this with ease. As an actor, he doesn’t often get the credit he deserves; this is the role that will change that. He carries this film on his shoulders and does it perfectly.
The supporting cast of The Martian is also terrific. It is huge, but very effective. The two performances that stick out the most to me are by Sean Bean and Chiwetel Ejiofor. Bean normally plays a strong masculine lead, but in The Martian his performance is subtle and quiet. He is the main advocate for Watney on Earth. There is also an amazing scene with Bean that references The Lord of the Rings. Ejiofor is always consistently good. He has such a range, and in The Martian he appears in some of the more emotional scenes. Ejiofor has a softness that helps the audience feel the tension of Watney’s situation.
The script for The Martian was written by Lost and Buffy alum Drew Goddard. This is important because I think the script is what makes this movie so fantastic. Goddard has a great sense of humor, and the script conveys that. Goddard’s past success is important as well because it forced Ridley Scott to shoot this movie the way it was written. Some of Scott’s recent failures have been because of his own meddling. Scott is not a writer but always seems to make weird, on-the-fly decisions. Here Scott is forced to follow the script because of Goddard’s own clout. The result is an expertly crafted film that is soulfully shot. Scott is excellent at building tension with his camera.
The Martian is a fun and uplifting story about the resourcefulness of mankind. Even though the film at times feels overly saccharine, it is a story about overcoming the odds. The story is true to its characters, and Scott elicits the appropriate amount of wit, tension, and shot selection to make The Martian an awards contender. It’s not often that a film leaves you feeling entertained and emotionally satisfied. The Martian will fulfill almost every moviegoer’s needs.