By now it’s been well-established that Ridley Scott, however inconsistent he may be in other genres, has a true gift for science fiction. Alien (1979) and Blade Runner (1982) are unimpeachable classics of modern sci-fi, and it certainly seems like Prometheus (2012) has earned its fair share of supporters over the past few years. (Even if I am not one of them.) And now, after a brief diversion into biblical epic territory, Mr. Scott is back within his comfort zone with The Martian, a vibrant, energetic, funny, fascinating, and altogether fantastic piece of science-based speculative fiction. (I’d go as far as calling The Martian the man’s best film since Blade Runner, although I do hate to employ superlatives of that nature.) (But I just did anyway.)
Based on the equally excellent novel by Andy Weir, The Martian is about an American astronaut who finds himself stranded, alone, on Mars, for an inestimable period of time, with dwindling supplies and very little in the “bare essentials” department. But our hero Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is nothing if not highly resourceful, and that’s part of what makes The Martian so calmly, slyly compelling; not that Mark finds a way to survive, but that he simply never gives up. Every mistake is met with brutal repercussions — Mars is not exactly a human-friendly environment — but no matter how bleak things get, our plucky, wise-assed astro-botanist keeps finding new ways to avoid death… for at least a few more days.
Meanwhile down on Earth we have a wide array of highly intelligent, deeply committed people doing all they can to hasten Watney’s return voyage — they’re just not exactly sure how to go about it yet. Options include A) sending Mark some food via unmanned rocket (although it might not get there in time), B) enlisting the aid of the crew who left Mark behind (although they still believe he’s dead), and C) accepting interstellar favors from nations we generally don’t get along all that well with, technologically speaking. Let’s just say that, while Mark is indeed the only man on Mars, thousands of people on (and above) Earth are exhausting every possible option in an effort to keep the guy alive until a rescue team can find him.
It’s a remarkably simple story (Robinson Crusoe/Cast Away by way of Apollo 13, basically) but screenwriter Drew Goddard does a brilliant job of crafting a believable premise, focusing on character over cliché, and building a palpable sense of suspense and tension with each passing scene. And the good stuff just keeps on coming: Harry Gregson-Wagner’s pitch-perfect score; Dariusz Wolski’s stunning cool cinematography; Pietro Scalia’s smooth, fluid editing — The Martian runs 141 minutes but if flies by like a dream — and we haven’t even touched on the ensemble cast yet. Mr. Damon delivers a great lead performance (Mark is actually a pretty fun guy!) but between a ground crew that employs Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Kristin Wiig, and a potential rescue team led by Jessica Chastain, Kate Mara, and Michael Pena, The Martian offers one of the most capable and colorful ensembles in quite some time.
The Martian is also loaded with great intangibles that other sci-fi/adventure movies don’t even bother with. How Watney is a hero not because of super strength, but thanks to his training, ingenuity, and intelligence; how, deep down, most human beings have a strong desire to help one another out when things get rough; and how science can be a huge ally if you know how to speak its language. This is a very big movie about very big ideas, but it succeeds so resoundingly well because it focuses on character first. If you don’t actually give a crap about Watney and his loyal colleagues, then no amount of visual splendor will make much of a difference. The cast and the screenplay combine to create a rock-solid foundation for this eye-popping space adventure, and the result is one the smartest, sweetest, and most satisfyingly suspenseful sci-fi films in years.
5 self-fertilized burritos out of 5