Spacecraft need to be flawless in their design and execution. The disasters of the Apollo 1, the Challenger, and the Columbia were not brought about by glaring errors of engineering, nor were they haphazardly constructed, nor were they crewed by foolhardy thrillseekers filled with hubris and bravado. It was infinitesimally fine details, like the maximum range of operating temperatures for o-ring seals, that even experts acting in due diligence overlooked. Given such, it is a testament to those same scientists and engineers and shuttle crews that so many of mankind’s endeavors into the heavens have proven perfect in their execution.
The Martian, directed by Ridley Scott and adapted from the novel by Andy Weir, was likewise made to transport man from the bonds of earth to the boundless frontier of space. And just as with the real spacecraft and shuttles, this cinematic starship is likewise flawless in design and perfect in its execution.
After a string of intriguing films that never quite deliver (Exodus, Prometheus, Robin Hood, Kingdom of Heaven), The Martian is more than a return to form for the legendary director of Alien and Blade Runner; it is arguably Scott’s best film to date. Not since Gladiator sat audiences in the Roman Colosseum has one of his films had such a profound sense of place. While in reflection it obvious that The Martian was filmed in terran desert and on hollywood sound stages, there exists such profound verisimilitude in his depiction of the red planet that, while the film projector rolls, for all the viewer knows it really was filmed on location.
Scott made a number of directorial decisions that ran contrary to conventional thinking, every one of which he makes work. In lieu of synthetic electronica or an operatic score, The Martian bounces its head to ironically-timed ’70s era disco, including of course “Starman” and “I will Survive.” A set of expositional video logs, which could easily have proved clunky, are never anything short of perfectly natural.
Most significantly, there was no attempt to add any antagonist. A less confident filmmaker would have shoehorned in a penny pinching politician or cowardly crew member. Every secondary character is fully committed to saving stranded astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon), never hesitating to risk their own lives or sacrifice their own careers to do so. Not since Star Trek has science-fiction on the screen been this unabashedly optimistic in its humanism. Earlier this summer Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland was rightly criticized for being a dystopian film merely nostalgic for optimism, but this delivers the genuine article.
There’s still conflict of course, but the drama is between individuals acting in good faith who bear deep disagreements on how best to rescue their friend and colleague. Beyond the human players, however, the real conflict in the film is between Watney’s struggle to survive versus the hostile indifference of the Martian environment, a nature which is altogether unnatural to human life.
This fight is brought to life by Matt Damon in the performance of his career. The character of Mark Watney could easily have been fraught with melodrama and more silent brooding than Batman, given his utter solitude and the near certainty of his impending doom. Of course the character embodies fortitude and ingenuity, as any spiritual successor of Robinson Crusoe invariably must, given the very nature of the survival genre. But Damon adds an affability heretofore unseen. Hanks in Castaway leaned upon an anthropomorphized volleyball to stick his soliloquies; Damon here requires no such crutch, his charm and wit evident all on their own.
Notable highlights include boasting about being “the greatest botanist on the planet,” an easy feat considering the lack of competition, but all the more poignant in the context of his horticultural success. Better yet, after a lengthy explanation of maritime law, Watney quite legitimately bequeaths upon himself the title of “space pirate” (naming himself, of course, Blondebeard).
But Damon by no means carries the film alone. Jeff Daniels and Sean Bean’s interplay is immaculate. Mackenzie Davis took full advantage of her first big breakout role. Michael Pena successfully followed up on a memorable roll from one of the summer’s superhero flicks while Kate Mara worked well to erase the memories of her performance in another. The performance that truly stole every scene he had, however, was Donald Glover’s; another few films like this and he may yet achieve penance for his untimely departure from Community.
The obvious comparison is to the last movie in which Matt Damon portrayed an astronaut stranded alone on some distant rock: Interstellar. His deceptive, cowardly, and ultimately homicidal role in Nolan’s film is not merely a stark contrast to his Mark Watney. Both roles in tandem work to demonstrate his range as an actor. When comparing him with Interstellar’s other Matthew, the lead actor McConaughey, Damon’s’ Watney proves not only more charismatic but more relatable as well. Whereas Interstellar was fixated on the very particular relationship of a father to his children, The Martian dealt with the more universally human relationship to oneself and inner will to survive.
More over, The Martian benefited from a near future setting, removed only by about a generation instead of a century or more as with Interstellar. This is among several factors which keep The Martian feeling the more grounded of the two hard science fiction space thrillers, both of which touted their scientific credentials and expert approval. Overall, Interstellar might have been more factually accurate on more points, but The Martian never suffers from a sharp left turn into obvious pseudoscience as per the climax to Nolan’s epic.
The Martian is a brilliantly written, brilliantly directed, and brilliantly acted film. It is an outstanding achievement in the genres of hard science fiction, space odyssey, and survival. It is the highlight of Ridley Scott’s career as a director and Matt Damon’s career as a leading man. Needless to say, it’s one of the best films of the year.