The last time I outright enjoyed a Ridley Scott movie, no reservations, no qualifications or conditions, was American Gangster in 2007. Since then he’s given us Grimdark Robin Hood, the space-magic bullsh*t of Prometheus, and the super messy but ambitious The Counselor, plus some other stuff no one cares about (AHEM EXODUS). So The Martian, a start-to-finish crowd-pleaser that is both technically accomplished and emotionally satisfying, feels like getting back to the old Ridley, the one who is both master storyteller and meticulous craftsman. The Martian isn’t perfect—it’s a little long and not entirely balanced—but it’s by far the best/least messy movie Scott has made in years.
Starring Matt Damon as Mark Watney, an astronaut and botanist, The Martian takes place in a near-ish future in which manned missions to Mars are both possible and happening. The Martian is not overly concerned with life on Earth, but there are some solid pieces of world-building incorporated early on that establish that NASA and space exploration have been reinvigorated, and NASA has embarked on the “Ares” program, reminiscent of the Mercury and Apollo programs that eventually got us to the moon. The film wastes no time—within minutes of the opening the mission on Mars is aborted when a severe storm threatens the astronauts’ shelter. While making their way to their escape pod, Watney is struck by debris and presumed dead by his crewmates.
The film bounces between Watney stranded on Mars and the people on Earth trying to save him, and for the most part, the balance works. The other astronauts disappear completely for a chunk in the middle and it’s kind of jarring when they show back up—there’s not a ton of urgency in the space shuttle scenes, but it’s not nearly as out of whack as the plot imbalance in Interstellar. One thing The Martian does phenomenally well is dispense with the humanizing bullsh*t like dumb weiner kids. Unlike Gravity, which gave Sandra Bullock a dead dumb weiner kid—the worst/cheapest kind—to make her relatable, all we know about Watney’s personal life is that he has parents. And yet he’s incredibly likeable, thanks entirely to Damon at his Everymanniest, which is proof that all you need to make a character relatable is to make them the underdog, that’s it, the end. We ALWAYS root for the underdog. Show us someone combating extreme circumstances and we’re in that person’s corner immediately.
Though it doesn’t hurt that The Martian is also really funny. Screenwriter Drew Goddard cut his teeth in writing rooms run by Joss Whedon and you can REALLY feel Whedon’s influence in Goddard’s dialogue, which is glib almost to the point of eye-rolling. Damon sells the sh*t out of it, but not every actor fares as well—Kate Mara falls completely flat, and Jeff Daniels basically just plays Will McAvoy again. The actors who make the most hay are the ones with a knack for comedy, like Donald Glover, Michael Pena, and surprisingly, Sebastian Stan*, who has a small part but got a huge laugh off one perfectly delivered line. The Martian is not self-serious, and is a reminder that you can make a movie with real stakes, depth, and tension and still include humor—it does not have to be one or the other (I’m looking at you, Christopher Nolan).
The movie is very science-oriented, so there are a number of “people explaining things they would not have to explain in the real world” expository scenes to help audiences keep up with it, but The Martian doesn’t feel dumbed down. It walks the line between science and accessibility better than Gravity and Interstellar, both of which had some really stupid expository conversations. At least in The Martian Goddard grounds that stuff in character interaction. It runs a touch too long, and there’s zero need to see it in 3D, but even with all the science and lack of typical relatability bullsh*t, given the satisfying story and Damon’s terrific performance, it’s probably going to be a big hit.
*I ran into Sebastian Stan during The Martian’s press day at TIFF and he’s so handsome and tall and his eyes are SO BLUE. He’s also very sweet—just a really nice guy. He’s aces.