Remembering that in space, no one can hear you scream, Ridley Scott, 77, shows us yet again a lonely human in the silence of the void. A riveting opener establishes how and why a near-future team of astronaut/scientists is forced to evacuate the planet Mars as a raging storm hits, leaving behind Mark Watney (Matt Damon), who was knocked off-course by flying debris. They think he’s dead.
As the crew led by Commander Lewis (a believably tough Jessica Chastain) return home, NASA starts to figure out that things are moving around at that space base, and that the man they thought dead is very much alive. Facing certain starvation if he doesn’t find some food, the astronaut –who happens to be one of the best botanists in the world–puts poop and dirt and H20 together and starts growing potatoes.
Thus starts a long journey to get our boy home, taking advantage of many smart brains and a collective need to do the right thing. Based on the scientifically precise Andy Weir bestseller, this is a movie that even Michael Crichton could love. It’s smart, makes sense emotionally, and satisfies as it gets where it needs to go. Writer Drew Goddard (“World War Z”) deserves praise for sticking to the book but also for giving Scott a script worthy of his immense skill set. “I am going to science the shit out of this,” says Watney, with determined confidence. Like “Argo,” this is one of those movies that celebrates American ingenuity.
Coming back from workaday efforts on “Exodus” and “Prometheus,” this is Scott at his best. “The Martian” (October 2) should please both audiences and Oscar voters, and the Actors branch should recognize Damon, while Scott, Goddard and tech categories also deserve praise.
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Of course, Scott’s best work involves stories with immediate hooks, and “The Martian” certainly offers plenty. Its strongest moments find Watney journeying through his barren surroundings while his colleagues watch helplessly from afar. The scope of these scenes, shot by regular Scott collaborator Dariusz Wolski, convey massive scale and isolation in a single elegant frame. Watney, meanwhile, remains the best-realized character, with his smarmy one-liners elevating the otherwise constant uncertainty surrounding his fate. For every complex assessment of his next plan comes another throwaway gag about the awful disco music left behind by his captain.
With ideas like cryogenic sleep and warp speed, the movies have a tendency to make space travel look easy. Not Ridley Scott’s “The Martian,” an enthralling and rigorously realistic outer-space survival story in which Matt Damon plays a NASA botanist stranded on the Red Planet after a sandstorm forces his crewmates to abort mission. Like Robinson Crusoe on Mars, Damon’s “right stuff” hero has to get by on his own wits and “science the sh–” out of his predicament. It won’t be easy, but it is possible — and that’s the exhilarating thrill of both Andy Weir’s speculative-fiction novel and screenwriter Drew Goddard’s “science fact” adaptation.
With Alien, Scott went to space and found horror. With Prometheus he came back having caught something horrible (although, interestingly, the space suits in that wonky misadventure and this new film are very similar). The Martian floats between them. It is not fantastic, in either sense, but it does show-off a sense of play. For a survival flick it’s actually pretty light on peril (you never really believe that the Jordanian desert, where the film was shot, is Mars), but it’s not short of thrills.
The result is an uncustomarily cheery and upbeat film from Scott, a number of whose works range from the despairing (Thelma and Louise, Black Hawk Down) to the nihilistic (Hannibal, The Counselor). There is also a sense that the meticulous sense of resourcefulness, the upbeat get-the-job-done attitude exemplified by Mark is very much akin to the director’s own, to the point that the optimistic lining common to both the novel and the film seems at one with the story itself and not an artificial, Hollywood-induced spin.
Elsewhere, Jessica Chastain is all steely grace as Watney’s commander, Chiwetel Ejiofor is an effective dispenser of scientific exposition as a NASA brainiac, and Jeff Daniels is appropriately slick and smarmy, but sympathetic, as the NASA chief. There’s also Kate Mara, Michael Peña, Sebastian Stan, and Aksel Hennie all giving smart support as Watney’s fellow crew members, and Kristen Wiig, Sean Bean, Donald Glover, and Mackenzie Davis giving zest to the scenes on the ground. It’s a lively, perfectly curated company that takes the movie’s spirit of teamwork and bonhomie to good heart. I want to watch them all in another movie together.