The Martian is that rare feel good flick possessing a ponderous side that drills down into a character’s thoughts to make you understand what they are feeling, thinking and wanting. It opens for early screenings Thursday (Oct. 1) and wide on Friday.
That it comes from director Ridley Scott is no significant surprise. Scott has always been a director who not only produces entertaining films, but important, intelligent ones. Blade Runner, the definitive sci-fi movie that explored the nature of humanity in a futuristic setting, remains the standard bearer in the genre and a classic piece of filmmaking regardless of categorization.
Even when he wanders just a little bit, he gives his audience plenty to chew on. Prometheus, a prequel to Alien, the film that made his name, was a touch off center, yet it still delivered an enjoyable story that asked some serious questions about who we are and where we’re going as a people.
The Martian, which is based on Andy Weir’s book and is adapted for the screen by Drew Goddard, delves into the subject once again only on a more personal level – with emphasis on the personal. It stars Matt Damon as astronaut Mark Watney.
Watney, a botanist, is part of a manned expedition to Mars where the crew, which includes Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) and Rick Martinez (Michael Pena) among others, that’s studying the Red Planet. They’re working when tragedy strikes.
A superstorm forces them to evacuate, only an accident leads the crew to believe that Watney has been killed. Not so fast. The freak accident which saw him get pierced by a piece of metal turned out to not be so serious. His compatriots gone, he’s forced to begin a life on Mars alone.
He’s got no communication. He’s got a limited supply of food and he’s got only one option for survival. He has to, as he says, “science the s—t out of the situation.
He figures out a way to grow potatoes to replenish his food supply. He has the necessary equipment to produce water and he waits. Observers at NASA eventually notice that he’s alive, leading to jubilation, celebration and the realization that there’s no way to get him home before he starves. Sending a probe with enough food as a stop gap, however, is a possibility, however, while they science the s—t out of the situation.
And what about his crewmates? They’re sailing homeward bound believing Watney dead, until he forces the powers that be to tell them that he’s alive and their guilt is assuaged by the fact NASA’s eggheads, led by Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels), Vincent Kapoor (Chewitel Ejiofor) and a host of co-workers turn the space agency into one with a singular mission – get Watney home.
What’s to like most about The Martian? The fact that Scott doesn’t turn it into a rah-rah, jingoistic fantasy. It possesses a realistic tone with the performances to match. Scott passes on what could have been a dour setting in favor of one that’s realistic and, yes, serious.
But Scott also knows how to have fun with The Martian when appropriate and Damon does a lot to bring that aspect of the film to life. The dire nature of his situation doesn’t escape him, but he also sees the irony, the humor in it and that comes out in Damon’s enjoyable and nuanced performance, which ranks as one of the best of his career.
A lot of humor also comes from his NASA co-horts and crew as they all deal with varying degrees of emotion overall. Chastain, for instance, isn’t given a lot to do, but she does a lot with it, balancing her character’s guilt and sense of duty.
Scott, who’s been making films for five decades now, shows few signs of letting up. The Martian may be one of his best and he continues to excel when working in the sci-fi. This trip to Mars is worth taking and relishing.
Movie: The Martian
Director: Ridley Scott
Cast: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Chewitel Ejiofor, Jeff Daniels, Michael Pena, Sean Bean
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Rated: PG-13 for some strong language, injury images, and brief nudity.
Running time: 141 minutes
George’s rating: 4-of-5 stars
Check for theaters and showtimes at Atlas Cinemas, Cleveland Cinemas, Fandango.com and MovieTickets.com