Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, Sigourney Weaver, Ben Kingsley, Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem, Penélope Cruz, Charlize Theron, Guy Pearce, Russell Crowe, Cate Blanchett, William Hurt, Leonardo DiCaprio, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Josh Brolin, and Denzel frickin' Washingston. What do all of these Hollywood stars have in common? They each starred in a Ridley Scott flop... and all within the last decade. The director of such classics as Alien, Blade Runner, and Gladiator has fallen on hard times, and we're not talking about a two or three movie slump here. With the exception of the aforementioned Swords and Sandals epic, the auteur has hardly made anything of note since the turn of the century, and yet his latest feature sees the stars aligning once again, as The Martian can boast of a cast featuring Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, and a slew of other faces familiar to the big screen. It's probably not random that only two of the thespians listed in this paragraph's opening have gone on to appear in additional films from Mr. Scott, but hey, the Cubs might win the world series, so why can't Ridley get back on the horse?
Damon stars as Mark Watney, the botanist of a six-man crew conducting scientific experiments on the surface of Mars. A devastating storm forces the crew to leave the planet, but the red sphere isn't the only thing in their wake; left for dead amidst the chaos and carnage, Watney awakes to find himself all alone, 54.6 million kilometers away from the orb he calls home. NASA director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) announces the tragic, misinformed news of Watney's death to the press, only to have his information refuted by a series of curious satellite transmissions. With the public clamoring to bring the ill-fated astronaut home, Watney sets to the business of surviving, relying almost exclusively on his knowledge, irrefutable can-do attitude, and a few scraps left behind by the crew.
The first and most obvious observation one could make about Ridley Scott's latest is that it feels absolutely nothing like a Ridley Scott movie. Sharp, snappy, and containing nary a wasted moment in its 144 minute runtime, The Martian almost argues against some of Scott's most impactful filmmaking, which tended to favor slow-bore movements and imagery that almost hypnotized his audience. His latest would rather keep your pulse running, and, in an even bigger surprise, your knees slapped, and your sides in stitches. It's not that The Martian is gut-bustingly hilarious or anything, but it's consistently jovial and snicker-worthy, which is worlds removed from not just Scott's filmmaking canon, but the 'isolated individual' genre in general. Movies like Cast Away, Buried, 127 Hours, and Gravity allot hefty portions of their runtime to showing both the panic or mental deterioration of their protagonist. The closest The Martian gets to that sort of existential crisis is forcing Watney to endure entirely too much ABBA. Positivity and intellect are this character's driving forces, and those two pillars of stability leave precious little room for doubt or despair. This is, of course, unrealistic for a man marooned on a foreign planet, but wholly in keeping with the film's larger argument.
There is a moment, when Daniels' character is first confronted with the news of his error, in which you fear some nefarious intent on the part of those on the ground, and in power. It comes, and then it goes, replaced by sweaty-palmed, all-hands-on-deck approach to saving our protagonist from the depths of space. My single favorite aspect of last year's Big Hero 6 was the film's setting of San Fransokyo, of futuristic melding pot of a city that abided by any gender, color, or creed, and celebrated, above all else, the beautiful possibilities man is afforded by their dazzling intellect. The notion was a breath of fresh air in a movie landscape choked-out by a misery-mongering view of the future, and while this summer's Tomorrowland continued Disney's side of the argument, it's The Martian that posits this notion most effectively. When Watney's old crew hears that they may be able to help, everyone agrees to take action almost immediately. When the U.S. questions how such an elaborate feat could be accomplished, China is there to help. A young female intern has her profile boosted because of her outstanding output at the NASA control center, and a young black physicist, for all intents and purposes, offers the single best solution to the narrative's problem. It's a gorgeous, hopeful take on the future, one that will doubtlessly attract naysayers who decry the film's lack of realism, but I for one was completely taken by the movie's dedication to portraying the very best in people, and doing so in an all-inclusive manner.
Yes, having Matt Damon, one of cinema's foremost depictions of white privilege, star in a film about how the whole world should just get along already, seems problematic on paper. Thing is, this very well might be the role he was born to play. Charming, self-aggrandizing, and self-depreciating in nearly equal measure, Damon doesn't embody a real person (or Watney, for that matter) so much as he conveys Matt Damon: Movie Star. If the film at large plays like a Frank Capra film, believing in the best side of people and affording them autonomy at every turn, then Damon is its own personal Jimmy Stewart, an 'ah-shucks' good guy whose real-life star power influences nearly every frame. You've seen him as 'the kid' swimming with the Big Boy con sharks, an endlessly lethal and wounded super agent, and a smarmy double-agent to boot; The Martian is fully aware of Damon's pre-existing filmography, and embraces audience awareness at all times. The allure of his star-power and sure-handedness are too much to resist, even his barrage of eye-rolling 'dad jokes' working in the movie's favor. As strange as this is, I would wholly welcome a Best Actor nomination for Damon despite believing that you could hardly call this acting. Plenty of folks can bring characters to life in convincing fashion; it takes a special talent to 'perform' so little, and yet accomplish so much.
There are other accolades to hand out, ranging from Drew Goddard's lively script, to Pietro Scalia absolutely electric editing. But in thinking about the film, I keep coming back to Scott, a director who I personally had completely given up on, crafting one of the very finest films of his illustrious career, and reinventing himself along the way. A few f-bombs keep this film from being rated PG-13, but the truth of the matter is that this is a family film at its core, inviting at every turn, and with its heart always in the right place. In as far as pure entertainment is concerned, you could hardly do better than The Martian, one of 2015's best films to date.