At this point in his career Ridley Scott is similar to NASA. For years almost everything he did was groundbreaking and innovative, the types of things that people could only imagine one day seeing. Then for a long time both Ridley and NASA settled into familiar patterns of decent but seldom groundbreaking work, with occasional flashes of that old brilliance. With The Martian, both Scott and NASA throw themselves back into the spotlight in a big way, reminding us of the time when we were awed and inspired by the work they do and that genius, in whichever form, is unpredictable. Be it filmmaking or space travel, the likelihood of banality is just as high as that of brilliance.
Last year I had a conversation with my father after he was deeply disappointed by Exodus: Gods and Kings. My dad is a huge fan of Scott’s work, dating all the way back to when Alien first premiered in 1979. Combined with the abysmal The Counselor, the divisive Prometheus (I liked it, my father did not) and the forgettable Robin Hood, we agreed that perhaps it was time for the director to take a break, allow his creative energy to recharge, and wait for the right project to come before finally turn everything he has left toward that. Fortunately for my dad and other Scott fans, that break didn’t need to last long as The Martian is exactly the type of movie Ridley Scott should throw himself into.
The best parts of The Martian are well introduced in the film’s opening sequence. The crew of Ares III share an fun banter as each of them go about their jobs among the beautifully realized Martian landscape with its massive, red mountains downplaying the desolate land where nothing grows. From this we immediately get an idea of who these people are, particularly in the case of protagonist Mark Whatney (Matt Damon), who is symbolically cut off from the conversation, as well as the living conditions on the planet itself. It’s in these opening minutes that we are also introduced to the idea that NASA, although remarkably reliable in relation to the vastness of space and sheer number of unknowns and uncertainties, is not infallible and must rely on the intelligence of the individuals in its employ to adjust as needed. What follows is possibly the most intense sequence in a film loaded with intense sequences. As the dust storm bears down onto them, with visible chunks of rock smacking off their spacesuits and glass helmets, the crew’s simple stroll from station to ship becomes as agonizing as a walk between houses in any World War II movie. Best of all, The Martian doesn’t spend half its running time building up to what the trailers tell us is going to happen. The ship takes off, Whatney is left buried, and there’s still two hours left to see how it all plays out. Of course, it’s hard for any film to maintain its energy over two and a half hours, but we’ll talk about that later.
The last three years has seen a trio of similar serious science fiction films with Gravity, Interstellar, and now The Martian. Comparisons to Interstellar are inevitable since both feature Matt Damon as a stranded astronaut but in truth The Martian has more in common with Cuaron’s masterpiece of science not-quite-fiction than Nolan’s speculative epic (for the record, I absolutely loved both of these). Much like Gravity, all enjoyment of The Martian depends upon the audience relating to and sympathizing with its lead character. If there was any previous doubt about Matt Damon’s growth as an actor, it should end here. His turn as Captain Blondbeard is intelligent, comedic, and resilient. We cheer his moments of triumph and lament his moments of loss. Whereas some films stress characters as vital without providing any reason (looking at you girl from Maze Runner), this is not the case here. In fact Damon’s presence on screen is so dynamic, shifting from gallows humor to thoughtful defiance, that he’s missed when off. The rest of the cast is of course fine, especially Chiwetel Ejiofor, but they understandably aren’t given the weight nor the development that Whatney is. There are very few things we actually know about any of these characters other than their jobs, emphasizing that their performers show us who they since we are told very little.
It’s no coincidence then that the lowest parts of the film are those which rely much less on Damon’s performance than on others. The lag comes in about three-quarters of the way through when an entirely predictable disaster occurs (in fact another criticism is that the film far too obviously telegraphs its obstacles rather than allowing them to build slowly or happen suddenly) and the NASA team has to react. This is where we find the cliched eccentric young scientist and such trite lines as “You’re a damn coward!” I’m a huge fan of Donald Glover, and he’s fine in his role, but honestly his character is unnecessary in that his idea isn’t exactly revolutionary. The same could in fact be said for Sean Bean who, surprisingly, doesn’t die (ummm… spoiler I guess, although not really). The sequence at this point feels more like a requisite obstacle combined with a chance to widen the international interest of both the plot and the film itself than an organic escalation of the narrative. Fortunately the lull doesn’t last long, nor does it distract much from the many, many things The Martian does so right.
It should be stated here that yes, The Martian does at times feel like a long and very expensive commercial for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (and duct tape), in the same way that NASA’s announcement of water on Mars felt like an advertisement for The Martian, but that doesn’t mean that NASA is presented as absolutely perfect, nor does it belittle the very legitimate points the film makes about the obstacles and importance of the agency itself. Although not a major conflict, NASA funding is addressed in conversations between Director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) and engineer Vincent Kapoor (Ejiofor), hinting at the real world concerns of the space program. There is also a very astute observation on how NASA never receives any attention unless it’s after a disaster.
Still, in the days when something which 97% of the scientific community agrees on can be considered “controversial” or “a hoax” and things written in a two-thousand-year-old novel are considered indisputable fact, we need a film like The Martian to remind us how far we’ve come as a species and how vital it is to trust experts, scientists, and people who have dedicated their lives to such fields. We need to remember that the greatest power and/or gift in the known universe is the human brain. And for anyone who remarks that the world would be better if only people this smart were in charge: they are, they just aren’t being listened to by the dumb people who are also in charge. In a time where “leaders” will scratch their heads in bewilderment over yet another school shooting (today, October 1, 2015), we need a film like The Martian to remind us that we know the answers. We do. Even if we don’t, we can easily find them through history, reason, observation, and working together to improve. The hard part, and what happens more often in fiction than in real life, is acting on these answers. The Martian shows us what happens when we trust in human intelligence and not belittle or decry it simply because we don’t agree or don’t understand.
Okay, so there are a few glaring mistakes in The Martian‘s science (there is no sound without atmosphere, c’mon!) but the things that the film gets right in terms of filmmaking vastly overwhelm its occasional scientific errors – regardless of what Neil Degrasse Tyson: Buzzkill of Science will say (we love him nonetheless). It’s intense, funny, intriguing, emotional, inspiring, it looks good (mostly), it sounds good (again, mostly), it continues the trend of yearly strong hard-science movies, and it’s likely Ridley Scott’s best film since Gladiator. It works as entertainment and art, as a statement about science and space exploration, a treatise on the human spirit. It just works.
Personally, I love human intelligence. I love it in all its forms, be it in art or science, Ridley Scott or NASA. I’m awed and inspired, moved almost to tears. For me, the most emotional moments in The Martian weren’t in hearing Whatney talk about his family, or seeing the crew react to his being stranded, they were in watching the characters figure out how to make impossible things possible. The Martian has many such moments.