Ridley Scott’s “The Martian” is a thoroughly entertaining blockbuster that values intelligence, science and teamwork over superpowers and strength. Anchored greatly by Matt Damon’s best performance in years and gilded by the kind of precise technical elements that a veteran director like Scott brings to a multi-million dollar production, “The Martian” is remarkably crowd-pleasing. It’s difficult to imagine anyone actively disliking it, and I expect when it descends from its Toronto World Premiere today to the rest of the world that they will embrace it. Like “Apollo 13,” this is a film that can be described as crowd-pleasing without coming off as diminutive or insulting. It’s a film designed to transport you to an unimaginable place that somehow stays relatable and human enough that we can see ourselves within it. That’s what we want from a great blockbuster—something both larger than us but not so distant that we can’t connect. “The Martian” is a great blockbuster.
Scott and writer Drew Goddard (“The Cabin in the Woods”), who adapts from Andy Weir’s hit novel, waste absolutely no time. NASA botanist Mark Watney is on Mars, working a mission with a loyal crew led by Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain). As a storm comes upon them more quickly than expected—and, apparently, storms on Mars look like metal flying through the air in pitch black darkness—the crew (which also includes Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, Michael Pena and Aksel Hennie) head for safety. They need to launch now or risk tragedy. Suddenly, a satellite dish tears off and strikes Mark directly in the chest. He’s thrown across the landscape, and his signal dies. They assume he does as well, taking off. The world mourns the loss of a great man, the kind willing to give years to their life for exploration that will advance the human race.
Of course, Mark’s not dead. Part of the dish pierced his biometric reader, making it look like he had died. He wakes up as the only human on Mars. He has enough rations for six people to last a month. Now, they overestimate in that department, so he maybe has a year. It takes four for a manned mission to get to Mars. He’ll have to grow his own crops. Thank God, he’s the botanist. Watney wastes no time on misery—and, if there’s any complaint about the film, it may be that it avoids some of the true horror of the situation in favor of Watney’s wit—getting to work planting crops in the shelter that will be his home for years…if he’s lucky.
Meanwhile, NASA plans a memorial under the leadership of Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) and Venkat Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), and the PR guidance of Annie Montrose (Kristen Wiig). That’s when a NASA employee named Mindy Park (Mackenzie Davis of “Halt and Catch Fire”) notices that the satellite pictures of Mars have changed since the crew of the Hermes started heading home. They quickly discern that Mark must be alive. What now? How can they help him? Should they send supplies? People? Should they tell the rest of Mark’s crew and distract them from their mission home?
“The Martian” is a non-stop series of questions and answers. It is a blockbuster designed around problem-solving instead of action sequences, and it’s remarkable how entertaining it is when one considers that it has no real “traditional” set-pieces. Most blockbusters work off their action sequences, spacing them out to create rising action, and knowing you’re really not there for the dialogue. “The Martian” avoids this problem by essentially never letting up on the tension after Mark’s accident. It’s a driven film, paced perfectly, and gorgeously lensed by Darius Wolski, who uses 3D technology not in flashy ways but to really place us on the surface of Mars with Mark.
Scott seems invigorated by “The Martian” in ways he hasn’t in recent years. It makes sense. It plays with themes by which he’s long been fascinated—not just space exploration but the human drive to survive, and the human need to never leave a man behind. Also, whatever one may say about some of Scott’s inconsistencies in the last two decades, he always attracts an incredibly proficient technical crew, and that shows here. “The Martian” just looks great. It’s visually engaging while also working on a human level.
That latter compliment really belongs to Damon (with a nice assist by Goddard, a great writer who has always found a way to merge the human and the unimaginable, all the way back to his work on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”). Damon is careful not to overplay the emotional fragility inherent in a role like this, shining in multiple scenes in which he has no one to play off but the cameraman. The whole cast really works, all the way down to small roles played by Davis, Donald Glover, Daniels and Ejiofor, who seems incapable of giving a lazy performance.
That’s the key to the success of “The Martian.” Too often we see blockbusters that take the lazy route to success. Nothing about this film feels cynical or over-produced. It’s passionate and powerful, and it preaches something that we don’t often see in a genre typically derided as mindless: sometimes being smart and trying something that’s never been done before will save your life. As cheesy as it sounds, it will leave young people considering things like space exploration, botany and science instead of just companion video games or action figures. Maybe the lack of cynicism in the film has softened me, but I think that matters.