In Ridley Scott’s “The Martian,” an accident leaves astronaut Mark Watney (played by Matt Damon) stranded on the Mars. While his crew (led by Jessica Chastain) is unaware of his surviving alone on the red planet, Watney maintains his desire to stay alive, even as his situation is utterly dire and his life expectancy becomes increasingly slim with every passing day.
Some of the imagery brings to mind “Alien” and “Prometheus,” especially early on, with the actors exploring Martian landscapes in bulky space suits. Yet, this is tonally unlike any film Scott has made before. In terms of going against expectations, this is every bit a change of pace as “Thelma & Louise” and “Matchstick Men.” While “The Martian” is a survival tale, much of it plays like a wry sci-fi comedy.
Damon gives a thoroughly enjoyable turn, allowing us to see how Watney’s sense of humor and constant challenges to innovate are what keep him alive. We root for Watney the whole way, as Damon’s performance conveys the stress of a brilliant scientist, cornered into thinking his way out of an impossible scenario. Watney’s humorous monologues give the film punch, as does the amusing way disco music improbably becomes a character in the story.
To the film’s credit, we doesn’t lose interest when the story cuts down to Earth and gives focus to the scientists plotting to bring Watney back home. Damon’s character is the only one fully fleshed out, though it helps that his co-stars, including Chastain, Chiwetel Ejiofer, Jeff Daniels and Donald Glover, are so good. Only Kristen Wiig, as a corporate suit, seems out of place among the ensemble.
This mash-up of “Cast Away” and “Apollo 13” is one of Scott’s funniest and most crowd pleasing. It’s also one of his safest. Like Spike Lee’s “Inside Man,” it’s a polished piece of filmmaking and deserving of its acclaim but lacks the wildness of Scott’s best films. Only during the terrific final stretch does “The Martian” become as thrilling as one would hope. Scott has always been a master at creating new worlds and making them appear vivid and tangible. Here, the Mars landscapes are both lovely and dread inducing, leading to climactic moments that are nothing less than amazing.
After early 21st century cinematic depictions of adventure on Mars, here’s the first that will likely become a classic. I have a soft spot for the knowingly goofy “John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars” but shared audience disappointment over “Mission to Mars,” “Red Planet” and “John Carter.” It’s worth noting that, with Scott as the director, the planet has never seemed more real on the big screen.
This is not Ridley Scott’s comeback. Frankly, I’m annoyed that anyone would suggest that he needed one. Audiences were divided by his grand, weird and frustratingly ambiguous “Prometheus,” avoided his risk-taking, raw and shocking “The Counselor” altogether and greeted his excellent “Robin Hood” with a shrug. Truth be told, Scott has only made two poor films: the ill-advised romantic comedy, “A Good Year,” and the mostly forgotten “White Squall.” Otherwise, his recent films, even the impressive but cold “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” will find an appreciative audience down the road and in the long run.
Scott is one of our best living filmmakers and, at 77-years old, shows no signs of slowing down. Next up for him is a sequel to “Prometheus.” While I enjoyed “The Martian” and suspect film lovers by and large will embrace it, I’m ready for Scott to get weird again…and explain how Noomi Rapace and Michael Fassbender’s severed head find that alien planet.