by Justin MadoreProlific director, Ridley Scott, has returned to theaters this fall with his newest sci-fi film, The Martian. While his recent directorial efforts have certainly been lackluster, The Martian is a true return to form for the man who has given us other great sci-fi films such as Alien and Blade Runner. Drawing inspiration from both recent space and survival films, Scott and screenwriter Drew Goddard have taken their shape but swapped out the specific substance to create something remarkably original. With a pleasantly surprising script, an impressive cast, and incredible cinematography, The Martian is an intelligent and stunning love letter to the grand adventure that is space exploration.
Based on the book of the same name, the plot follows astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon), who is stranded on Mars after he’s separated from his team while evacuating the planet. Left for dead, he must survive on the unforgiving surface of Mars with only the materials he has. It’s in these first 15 minutes that the film avoids its first possible movie cliché. It completely condemns the notion that Watney would harbor a grudge against his crew for leaving him. Instead of playing into this cheap trope, it gives it a minor mention and moves on, leaving that notion in the dust. It’s at that moment that I realized The Martian might have an original voice; a voice of its own.
A lesser film might retread the same waters as its peers and attempt to extract every little bit of emotionality out of Watney’s situation; however, the film is much more interested in the exploration of surviving on an uninhabited planet. Watney must figure out how to grow crops, make water, and perform other necessary tasks for survival while NASA prepares a rescue mission to bring him home. That’s not to say that there aren’t emotional moments, but The Martian avoids the emotional trappings of its counterparts in favor of presenting problems and seeing how its characters overcome them.It’s also incredibly funny, which is a weird thing to say about a movie where a man is put in a particularly precarious situation with a high probability of death. Fans can thank Drew Goddard for that one, who takes his previous work on The Cabin in the Woods and applies it here, finding comedy in the most unlikely places. Matt Damon does a great job with his portrayal of the upbeat astronaut Watney, who laughs off being stranded with little chance of help. Damon sells the jokes well, further proving he has the acting chops for not just dramatic roles, but comedic ones as well. The rest of the ensemble is a star studded group (including Jeff Daniels, Jessica Chastain and Kristen Wiig to name a few) that collectively does an admirable job of inhabiting characters, although most of the players become rather insignificant, fighting for screen time back on earth.
The landscapes of Mars are absolutely beautiful. While on-location shooting would’ve been pretty difficult for a film about Mars, the backdrop of Wadi Rum, Jordan makes for a convincing desert planet. The CGI is used to make the landscape look even more convincing, always enhancing the shots and never a detriment to them. Nothing has come close to the pristine shots and nimble camera work of Gravity since its release, but Ridley Scott does have a knack for shooting sci-fi films, really “bringing Mars to life” in a believable and elegant way.
Throwing away the metaphysical slants of Prometheus and Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar is the best decision Scott has made in years. It helps establish The Martian early as an original concept that varies from the films it draws inspiration from in a genre that’s sometimes a bit samey. Pair that with solid casting, writing and camerawork and you have a film poised not only to be a box office powerhouse, but a critical success and early contender for awards season. This is definitely the better of Matt Damon’s last two space films (the other being Interstellar), and deserves every bit of attention it’s going to receive.
5 out of 5 stars