The Martian – 2015

Director Ridley Scott
Screenplay Drew Goddard based on the book by Andy Weir
Starring Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Sean Bean, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Wong

In a time in which one person taking the lives of many others gets so much attention, it is nice to see a work of art that shows the opposite concept. That concept is many people putting their collective genius together and others also putting their lives on the line in the effort of saving just one. It’s in the effort to save that one life that the viewer gets to see the vast potential in humanity at its best.

Damon is Mark Watney, a botanist and general all-purpose MaCgyver for the Ares III Mars research team. After a storm forces the rest of his team to leave him for dead, we discover that he survived. His continued survival is dependent on his training and problem solving skills. There will be plenty of problems to solve.

Some time after his having been declared dead on Earth and well before his crew arrives home, examination of satellite photos show Mark’s situation to the head of the Mars team, Vincent Kapoor (Ejiofor). This immediately sets in motion plans to send him support. Eventually Mark and Houston figure out how to communicate, and sometime after this, his team is informed that he still lives.

There is an inherent optimism to The Martian which is somewhat contagious. When we see so much potential, first in the form of one person and then expanded to a team, one cannot help but feel optimism for the human race. This concept makes beating even remarkable odds seem possible, even probable.

Casting Matt Damon as Watney is a nice touch. He is given a daunting task of educating the viewer not only on the danger of each new situation, but also showing us in basic terms how he is going to work each problem. We get a multitude of expressions: hope, fear, pain, confusion and wonder. Most of all, though, we get the infectious optimism that makes Watney such an intriguing character. That none of this feels forced is a credit to Damon and the effortless direction of Ridley Scott.

Ridley Scott is one of the hardest working but most easygoing directors alive. He’s had his share of moody films, but this one is as engaging as anything he’s done. It would seem difficult to envision so many low-key performances from a cast of so many big names. One might assume there would be a lot of scenery chewing. That there is not gives credence to Scott’s less is more approach to acting. The move to big drama only happens once, when the ending of the book is altered to allow someone of higher billing to jump in and make the big catch.

The best thing about Scott and screenwriter Goddard’s work is the way they economize the events of the book into something more streamlined, and ultimately more effective. Where the book has a work the problem / here’s a new problem aspect that makes it feel like the author’s attempt to wow the reader with the sheer number of situations he can create, the movie has much more of a flow. When one considers the piecemeal way in which the book was originally published (on a free website, one chapter at a time) it is understandable. Kudos to the production for including the essential parts of the film, including some remarkably deft humor while jettisoning the problem of the chapter motif.

The Martian likely won’t win any awards this year, even if it is one of the better films. It’s not political, it’s not unnecessarily dramatic and it doesn’t rely on a gimmick that will wow Academy voters for a few months (The Artist, Birdman, Gravity) and be quickly forgotten the next spring. That Scott was given an Oscar for a film that wasn’t his best (Gladiator) is an irony that will play out for the rest of his career. While he’s made a couple of bad films since then (Robin Hood, Kingdom of Heaven), he has a remarkable track record for the sheer amount of work he’s done. He’ll be an afterthought as he continues to make good to great films, two per year, for the rest of our lives.

(****1/2 out of *****)


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