While watching The Martian last night I was thinking not about Alien, although those moments popped up here and there, but rather Thelma and Louise. The same way Scott’s camera glides over the dry vast Arizona/New Mexico terrain in that film is a lot like how we see the red planet — all dusty plains and orange peaks. The shots of Matt Damon clad in his astronaut suit trudging over that terrain — one man all alone on an entire planet with no other visible life forms — is part of what makes The Martian one of the best films of the year so far. There is something about a Ridley Scott movie when it’s perfectly contained that just knocks it out of the park. This is obviously true of his two masterpieces, Alien and Bladerunner, but true of Gladiator, Thelma and Louise and Black Hawk Down.
The Martian is a breezy space epic that does not terrify like Alien nor plunge you into emotional despair like Gravity. Instead, it keeps the subject matter squarely focused on one thing and one thing only: the wonder of science and the importance of the space program. You could also say it’s about survival but it’s really more than survival. It’s a group of people who get off on solving problems. This is what, if you’re asking me, humans beings do best. With our massive brains and our ability to think and invent things we soar to magnificent heights when put to this kind of test. Need to manufacture water? Okay, done. Need to grow food to survive? There is a way to do it if you think hard enough. Count how much food you will need to survive if stuck on Mars for X amount of days? Here you go. Spend any time around scientists and you’ll see how they “poke at it” until they achieve a result. This requires risk-taking and failure. You have to start somewhere. You have to never stop trying.
The Martian is what my friend David Carr would call a “movie movie,” meaning it’s designed for massive box office both domestic and international. It is an accessible film for “Joe Popcorn” but smart enough to skim the surface of the the prestige film race. It is one of those entertaining, satisfying movies really only Hollywood can make. It is what American film really does best.
It is a well oiled ensemble with supporting turns by Jeff Daniels (whose awards get this year is really in Steve Jobs), Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kate Mara, etc. But the two standouts are Jessica Chastain as the commander of the ship that first must abandon Damon’s character but then reverse course to retrieve him. And Matt Damon, it must be said, holds this whole thing together in a singular performance that gives Damon a chance to do what he really does best: be funny. On occasion, the dialogue plays as a little glib and a tad unrealistic given the circumstances but again, if you know how scientists talk, this is kind of how they talk. Everything is glib. Nothing is taken all that seriously because they operate in the realm of absurdities and implausibilities.
The Martian has a similar tone to Argo, more so than any other film that’s been compared to it this year. This one really is funny, dipping occasionally into seriousness. Scott keeps it on the level of excitement rather than bordering on tragedy. The Oscar race needs more movies like this — movies that are actually fun to watch over the limited holiday break voters get to pick their nominees. Does that mean they will pick The Martian? Hard to say. Will it get PGA? Yeah, probably. DGA? Maybe — they love them some Ridley Scott. SAG? It’s not outside the realm of possibility but probably less likely. If you build Best Picture branch by branch you have many branches represented here: sound, editing, production design, visual effects, writing, directing, acting. It’s liked well enough by the critics but it isn’t going to win any of their major awards. This is most definitely a film for the people, not the critics.
The film’s bigger and more subtle message is that if our human indulgences got us into the mess of ruining our own habitat, perhaps it is our human ingenuity and our intelligence — and most importantly our faith in science and scientists — that could get us out of it. If there is a will there could be a way.
I loved The Martian enough that I will watch it many times. As it is I watch Ridley Scott’s Alien at least once a month. I think it is a perfect film top to bottom and is my favorite Ridley Scott movie. It’s great to see him back in space where no one can hear you scream.