Ridley Scott returns in top form with The Martian, his latest foray into fantastic science-fiction cinema. Only this time the risks have never been more real – or plausible – in his adaptation of the book by Andy Weir, with screenplay duties handled by Drew Goddard (Cabin in the Woods, Daredevil). Let’s get the obvious out of the way: while not a masterpiece, The Martian marks a triumphant return by the prolific director in a film that is entertaining – even if a lingering potential for greatness looms in the vacuum of space.
During a monumental mission to Mars, a group of astronauts – played by Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Michael Peña, and Kate Mara – are assaulted by a vicious and powerful sandstorm. After being struck by debris, and with low visibility, Mark Watney (Damon) is naturally presumed dead. Distraught, his fellow crew members return home on a long journey back to Earth, giving them a lot of time to reflect on their fallen crew member.
But lo and behold! Watney is actually alive. But his survival and mere existence on a desolate planet millions of miles from his own won’t be an easy task. Low on supplies and against all odds on a dangerously turbulent planet, Watney must do whatever it takes to survive. Luckily, Watney is a botanist, and soon finds a way to grow plants on a dead world, hopefully enough to keep him alive until the next manned mission to Mars in four years. And that’s only, of course, if nothing else goes wrong.
Back on Earth, meanwhile, the world’s best and brightest attempt to bring Watney home – a group which includes NASA director Ted Sanders (Jeff Daniels), Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), as well as others played capably by Kristen Wiig, Sean Bean, and Donald Glover. While they await Watney’s crewmates return home, unbeknownst to the astronauts that Watney is somehow still alive.
Naturally, there’s plenty of bureaucratic hurdles and red tape Sanders and Kapoor must cut through in order to bring Watney back safely. But every problem has a solution, it seems, and when one solution fails someone is always ready to offer an alternative. Ironically, in a film that attempts to realistically portray survival on an extraterrestrial world, the stakes never feel as high or as believable as they probably should.
It’s really the characters that make the film watchable, and it’s okay for this audience fodder film as long as it’s enjoyable. Which it is. Still, the seeds for greatness are here, but, unlike Watney’s Martian plants, they never really reach their full potential. Scott’s direction is fine, but Goddard’s spotty script may be the real culprit here. Nearly half the film is about the bureaucracy involved in overspending and the personal sacrifices over saving a single life which, ultimately, comes off as unrealistic.
There’s no devilish conniving bureaucrat trying to prevent Watney’s return, nor some evil capitalist or political poacher trying to exploit the crisis; all things we’ve seen in many of Scott’s better films. Instead, here is a world united in a universal plea for Watney’s safe return. How sad that such a scenario in a film about survival on Mars is the least realistic thing.
Although it walks a thin line between charismatic entertainment and sentimental mush, he’s crafted a world where anything can and often does go wrong – and not just on Mars, but Earth as well, as a series of setbacks both technological and human seems determined to hinder Watney’s return.
Scott brings a good balance to the proceedings along with nifty visual effects and sympathetic performances in a film that’s surprisingly fun and playful. Damon is clearly having a good time as well, though the film can feel like the Matt Damon Charm Hour with him smiling and joking at the camera at every opportunity (for the record, Watney records video diaries throughout his stay on the Red Planet). But that’s OK because Damon pulls it off and is fun to watch.
Although, Murphy’s Law applies to the film’s narrative, Watney never really feels in as much danger as his circumstances might suggest. If he can hold out for four years, and it seems like he is smart enough to do so, then he’ll be fine; lonely, but fine. By the two-hour mark a sense of urgency begins to overcome pleading for some kind of resolution and that nothing else go wrong for the sake of time.
The Martian isn’t a great movie, but it’s too damn likable not to enjoy. It’s also the rare smart adventure film that actually celebrates science and technology, presenting an unbelievable scenario in a believable way that’s accessible to science novices and experts alike. The latter half does drag down the fun, unfortunately, but great performances and effects help make this a celebratory return for Ridley Scott, who hasn’t had the best track record as of late.