Ridley Scott travels some familiar ground, returning to a genre that he has perfected in The Martian. The film stars Matt Damon as Mark Watney, a astronaut that is left behind on a Mars mission. A storm kicks up out of nowhere and in an effort to get back to the pod with the rest of the crew, he is hit by a piece of the debris and thought to be dead. Wounded and left behind with not much of anything to survive on, he now has to grow enough food to survive until another mission can rescue him. Mars is a desert wasteland and has no vegetation or water, but fortunately he is a botanist and sets to growing his own crops and creating his own water. On Earth, NASA is reeling on the news that one of their own was left behind and spring into action to try and figure out a mission that can save Watney and not get any others killed.
Scott does a terrific job at telling the two stories in The Martian. The story on Mars with Watney is cleverly edited and tells the story without getting bogged down with too much of the technical jargon. Scott has enough respect for the audience to know we understand what Watney has to do to survive. Scott never talks down to the audience and keeps the film fast paced and interesting. Scott might have made some duds in the past, but The Martian is Scott at his best. Credit Drew Goddards’s smartly written script (based on Andy Weir’s very popular novel) that knows how to connect with these characters and treat them as people doing extraordinary things even when everything seems lost. Likewise, on Earth at NASA, Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels), Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), Annie Montrose (Kristen Wiig), Mitch Henderson (Sean Bean) and Mindy Park (Mackenzie Davis) along with a few others set about mounting a rescue mission. The casting of this film is excellent and I especially was impressed with Jeff Daniels. His character is not the bad guy and this is not a film where there is an evil person that everyone must overcome. He is pragmatist; a numbers guy who sees and weighs the odds of success and failure. He does not want any needless loss of life but questions the mission. “This mission is more than just one person”, he tells Henderson. Daniels performance is toughly commanding but he we still get a sense of his own fear and lament if the rescue mission fails. He is the director of NASA, but he is still human. Daniels does some great supporting work here and I loved every second he was on screen.
The rest of the cast is terrific, as well, and as a huge fan of Chiwetel Ejiofor, he provides some great insight and details into the mission and he does it with a naturalness that is genuine. Again, credit Drew Goddard’s script for being smart enough to keep the story accessible to the audience so we relate to the characters and the story. But credit Ejiofor, Daniels and the rest of the cast on Earth who really sell the drama well without getting lost on too much exposition. Which brings me to Matt Damon as Watney. There is talk of Damon up for an Oscar nod and he is most definitely earned it. This is some of the finest work Damon has done and he has done great things, so that is saying something. Damon plays Watney as a guy who sees this as an adventure and although things look bleak, he regards his survival as a challenge. He is a glass-half-full kind of guy who sets to problem solving, one problem at a time. He is scared but smart, resourceful and has a great sense of humor. There is a good bit of humor that has been sprinkled throughout The Martian and it, too comes across as genuine and not forced. Also, pay special attention to Harry Gregson-Williams’ score which is also Oscar worthy. Williams who has worked with Scott before adds a little two or three note motif in a respectful nod to Clint Mansell’s score for the film MOON. Williams provides another half electronic and half symphonic score that enhances this film immensely. Jessica Chastain, Kate Mara, Michael Pena, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie, Donald Glover and Benedict Wong round out an ensemble cast and each of them are excellent providing some great emotion and give The Martian some added depth. Spectacular cinematography by Dariusz Wolski (who has worked with Scott many times before, as well) and impeccable editing by Pietro Scalia makes the visuals radiate and pulsate with vitality and energy. The Mars scenes were shot in Jordan and they are simply stunning.
This is a special film from start to finish and although it has a running time of 140 minutes, the time will fly by. The last thirty minutes or so will have have you on pins and needles, too. The fall film season has kicked off with a tremendous achievement in The Martian. Solidly entertaining, smart, funny, exceedingly well acted by everyone and Scott’s steady handed direction make The Martian one of the very best films of the year. You will see this one at Oscar time.
The Martian- ***** out of 5
The Martian- Rated PG-13 for language, partial nudity and some mild violence
The Martian- Run Time 140 minutes