The Martian is a terrific triumph of great storytelling, wonderful visuals, solid performances, and the sheer perseverance of human will. This is one of the best films of 2015, and arguably the best film that director Ridley Scott (Gladiator) has ever made, which is saying a lot.
The premise starts like a horror movie. While exploring the surface of Mars, a group of scientists is caught in a violent storm. Melissa (Jessica Chastain), Rick (Michael Pena), Beth (Kata Mara), Chris (Sebastian Stan) and Alex (Aksel Hennie) are able to escape on their shuttle, but Mark (Matt Damon) is hit with debris, presumed dead and left behind.
But Mark is not dead. He wakes the next sol (each day — which lasts 24 hours and 39 minutes — is known as a “sol” on Mars) abandoned, unable to communicate with NASA, and low on oxygen, food, and other supplies. He also knows it will be four years before the next mission to Mars reaches him. To his credit, Mark doesn’t panic. He uses his background as a botanist to grow food on a planet on which nothing grows naturally, and even creates his own water. His intelligence, ingenuity and inspiration are a joy to watch.
Meanwhile, back home at NASA, communications officer Mindy (Mackenzie Davis) discovers that Mark is still alive. NASA suits up Mitch (Sean Bean), Vincent (Chiwetel Ejiofor), Annie (Kristen Wiig) and Teddy (Jeff Daniels) to try to figure out how to get Mark back home safely as the whole world watches.
Like Sandra Bullock in Gravity, Damon is alone on screen for most of The Martian, which means if the audience doesn’t invest in his struggle, the entire film falls apart. This is a rare and gutsy risk for an actor, and Damon is superb. Mark documents his actions with the cameras inside his “hab,” which lets us in on his thoughts and feelings, all of which demonstrate how engaging, smart, frustrated, and funny he is (you’ll be surprised by how much the film makes you laugh). The rest of the considerable ensemble is solid as well, but make no mistake: The movie does not work if Damon is not at the top of his game.
What’s nice about the script, written by Drew Goddard and based on the best-selling 2011 novel of the same name by Andrew Weir, is that it doesn’t feel the need to create adversity for the sake of adversity. Meaning: Things are hard enough for Mark while he’s alone and figuring out how to survive, and we’re fascinated by his ability to survive. Adding more for him to deal with, such as actual Martians/aliens, would’ve felt forced and made it a different movie. Kudos to the filmmakers for not feeling obligated to present non-stop action throughout — it’s because we’re engaged intellectually as well as viscerally that the narrative truly shines.
Gravity,Interstellar, and now The Martian — that makes three top-notch movies about exploration in the vast reaches of outer space released in the last three years, all of which are visually spectacular. Perhaps more important, each film showcases the ability of women to not only exist but also thrive in what is traditionally a man’s world (Chastain’s character plays a prominent role here). Let’s hope this trend continues.
The struggles of Prometheus (2012) aside, there is no director we’d rather have working in science fiction than Ridley Scott. The man who gave us Alien (1979) and Blade Runner (1982) knows the genre well and, when in top form, is capable of creating true classics. Whether The Martian joins the echelon of “classic” status remains to be seen, but it’s an exceptional piece of filmmaking.