Having given us movies such as Alien and Gladiator, there is a certain amount of excitement and expectation that typically surrounds a Ridley Scott production. With a recent output that consists of Exodus: Gods and Kings, The Counsellor, and Prometheus, those expectations have not been merited or met. Thankfully the director is back on form with The Martian, a fun and smart sci-fi which will have you laughing more than most comedies.
Adapted from Andy Weir’s best-selling novel of the same name – with a script penned by Drew Goddard – we are immediately introduced to Mark Watney (Matt Damon), a botanist on a NASA Mars mission who is accidentally left stranded on the red planet when his crew evacuates during a freak storm. While the big brains back on Earth try and figure out how to retrieve him, Watney must use his not inconsiderable intellect to stay alive just long enough to be rescued. In other words, he’s got to “science the shit out of this”.
Indeed, The Martian is likely the nerdiest space movie you’ll ever see, and it’s a small wonder that the copious amounts of expository science never becomes overwhelming. On paper it must have seemed a daunting prospect, but the combination of Goddard’s smart, funny script and Damon’s charismatic delivery makes it all easily digestible, ensuring that we’re laughing as we’re learning.
Watney’s infectious optimism is the film’s biggest strength and makes the astronaut easy to root for, but it never comes at a sacrifice to his dire circumstances. The stakes and tension are still very high, and it’s all accomplished without a villain in sight. Refreshingly, The Martian is instead propelled by good, smart people working together to achieve a common goal. Furthermore, even though Scott’s more recent filmography has been uneven, his skills as a visual storyteller have never faltered, and Dariusz Wolski’s beautiful cinematography brings the filmmaker’s vision to stunning life.
Aside from Damon, the other standout in the envious ensemble is Jeff Daniels as NASA head honcho Terry Sanders. In another film the character might have been written as an out-and-out villain in a suit, but Daniels gets to add some likability to the character whilst remaining stern. And the rest of the cast aren’t exactly slouches either; Jessica Chastain, Donald Glover, Sebastian Stan, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kate Mara, Aksel Hennie, Kristen Wiig, Benedict Wong, Mackenzie Davis, Sean Bean, and Michael Peña all seize their moments to shine. Credit should also be given to the score by Harry Gregson-Williams; for the vast majority of the run time it’s employed subtly, but in scenes where it needs to do more of the heavy lifting it is suitably powerful. In addition, the astute choices in the soundtrack gives last year’s Guardians of the Galaxy a run for its money.
Recent interviews with the cast have revealed that there were three different versions of The Martian; one which was too serious, another which was too funny, and the film which is now gracing cinema screens. A perfectly balanced combination of wit, heart and tension, the final cut of The Martian makes for one of the most purely entertaining cinematic experiences of 2015. Welcome back Ridley.