Ridley Scott’s crowd pleaser, The Martian, has it all. Besides the legendary director’s assured hand, the film has a pitch perfect script by Drew Goddard (adapted from the bestselling novel by Andy Weir), a technical crew working on all cylinders, including director of photography Darius Wolski, editor Pietro Scalia, and the visual effects team lead by the team of Richard Stammers, Anders Langlands, Chris Lawrence and Steven Warner. In front of the camera is an ensemble cast that turns in flawless performances. And of course The Martian has a true Hollywood star in Matt Damon, who keeps us riveted for the film’s brisk two hours and twenty minutes.
Damon stars as Mark Watney, an astronaut left behind on Mars after a freak storm causes his crew to abort their mission on the red planet. His fellow astronauts (portrayed by Jessica Chastain, Sebastian Stan, Kate Mara, Askel Hennie and scene stealer Michael Pena) believe that Watney was killed during the storm and they reluctantly blast off into space before their ship, the Ares III, tips over and they’re doomed, as well. Back on Earth, the world mourns the death of Watney, with Jeff Daniels bringing the right amount of gravitas and professional detachment as the director of NASA.
The earthbound cast completes the perfect ensemble. Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sean Bean and Eddy Ko portray key members of NASA, Mackenzie Davis and Donald Glover shine in small, pivotal roles, and Kristen Wiig gives a thoughtful turn as NASA’s director of media relations.
We quickly learn that Watney didn’t die. He awakens buried and wounded in the Mars soil and stumbles back to the Ares III living quarters, still stocked with food and oxygen after the hasty departure. Watney situation is dire: he’s short on sustenance and must figure out a way to survive until the next Mars mission arrives… in four years. Luckily, Watney is a botanist and he puts his scientific brain to use to create water and grow potatoes. Moreover, he uses his limited resources to make contact with NASA and notify them that he’s alive.
There are long periods in the film in which we simply watch Damon contemplate his actions. It’s the rare actor who can make the process of thinking look engrossing and Damon belongs on that list. The film also employs a great technique to reveal Watney’s thoughts. He records his daily activities for prosperity and research purposes, as any trained scientist would do, in this case using GoPro cameras for video journal entries. This allows Damon to speak directly to the camera and carry on a conversation with the audience.
Although The Martian is an ensemble movie, with the action cutting from Mars to Earth to the Ares III crew traveling home, the movie wouldn’t work if you weren’t fully invested in Watney and his plight. In Damon, Ridley Scott not only scored one of this generation’s finest performers and he makes you care about Watney every second he’s on screen. Damon was rightly nominated for the Academy Award for his performance.
As for Ridley Scott, this may be his most entertaining film since the underrated Matchstick Men. I’ve found his more recent epics and personal films to be flawed, despite his visionary direction. The Martian, on the other hand, is near flawless. It’s exciting, full of dram, and quite simply fun. Even the obvious use of David Bowie’s “Starman” works. That Scott was overlooked for an Oscars this year is a mystery.
What I loved most about the film was its optimism. Despite the obstacles Watney faces, an insouciant feeling permeates throughout the movie. You just know that things are going to work out. Like many movies of yesteryear, The Martian is a good old-fashioned adventure story that can be enjoyed by everyone. Although The Revenant may walk away with all of the awards in February, one trip through the wilderness is enough for me. Instead, I’ll be revisiting The Martian on a regular basis. Other movies may be bestowed with “best” of 2015, but The Martian will be considered by many their favorite. When you think about it, that’s the higher compliment.
The Blu-ray comes with over an hour’s worth of bonus material, including several fascinating behind the scenes featurettes. Also included are the interstitials released as a part of the online marketing campaign leading up to The Martian’s theatrical run. These short films tie into the narrative of the movie and deepen your understanding of the characters.