If Ridley’s Scott’s investing new film, ‘The Martian,’ based on the popular, intricately researched novel by Andy Weir, was not about an astronaut left stranded on Mars, you’d think it was based on an incredible true story of determined survival and remote teamwork. The film has the feel of a modern-day ‘Apollo 13’, complete with steady, professional direction and engaging everyman acting courtesy of director Scott and star Matt Damon, just as Ron Howard and Tom Hanks brought to that other space-based Oscar-nominated film 20 years ago.
Ridley Scott relies less on his stylistic flourishes and more on a workman style of filmmaking for this story. It’s surprising that the director responsible for game-changing visual science-fiction flair in movies like ‘Alien,’ ‘Blade Runner,’ and ‘Prometheus,’ takes a more restrained, straight-forward story-telling approach, although make no mistake, there are some breathtaking Mars vistas and scenes of heart-stopping tension along with the slower, deliberate takes that help advance the sharp, smart screenplay by Drew Goddard.
The cast is put together note-perfectly, with bigger stars taking on smaller roles, infusing their characters with a sense of three dimension. Jessica Chastain, Michael Pena, Sebastian Shaw, Kate Mara, and Aksel Hennie make up the rest of the crew on Mars, each actor selling their parts as a tight-knit crew, distraught that they accidently left one of their own behind. Back on the ground in Houston, Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kristen Wiig, and Sean Bean effectively play high-ranking NASA representatives, determined to figure out a way to keep Damon’s Mark Watney alive as well as save face in a shaky environment where the public has only just started to support America’s space program again. All of these great actors are in service to Matt Damon and his singular portrayal at the center of the film.
Mark Watney is a fully-formed character thrust into a pressurized scenario that a lesser man would crumble under. His botanist-astronaut must come up with innovative ways to keep himself alive, realizing very quickly that he is going to be stranded for a long while as the only man on an unforgiving planet. He is able to do this through ‘science-ing the shit out of it,’ a paraphrasing of his own words in the movie, a good example of his unique voice. By bringing levity to a dire situation, along with his incredible problem-solving skills, he is able to keep going in the face of mounting adversity. Damon is refreshing in this role, and the message of this film is that it takes an army of minds to do the impossible. It all comes together to send a message of hope, for renewed interest in a defunct space program, for the ability of humanity to come together for a common cause, for the ability of film to effectively transport an audience starved for smart, effects-enhanced entertainment at the multiplex . . .
Directed By: Ridley Scott
Written By: Drew Goddard
Running Time: 141 min.
* * * 1/2 (out of 4 stars) -OR- A-