Smart, Suspenseful, and Fun, Ridley Scott Returns to Form with ‘The Martian’

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The filmography of Ridley Scott isn’t exactly filled with stories that could viewed as innately human. The filmmaker’s work is typically somewhat alien in its portrayal of people and their varied conflicts. This sometimes, as with Alien, Blade Runner, or The Counselor, can work to the filmmaker’s advantage. Most of the time, especially recently, it winds up leaving the films of Ridley Scott as these uneven portraits that are visually lush and lacking in heart – Prometheus and Exodus: Gods and Kings are just a few recent examples. Based on the bestselling book by Andy Weir, Scott along with screenwriter Drew Goddard have crafted what might be Ridley Scott’s most human film as The Martian is a resoundingly entertaining science fiction film that boasts an expansive ensemble of A-list talent, and contains far more humor than anything ever done by the director.

On the surface of Mars, the crew of the Ares 3 – Lewis (Jessica Chastain), Johanssen (Kate Mara), Beck (Sebastian Stan), Martinez (Michael Peña), Vogel (Aksel Hennie), and Mark Watney (Matt Damon). When the crew of the Ares 3 is hit with an unexpected storm, they’re forced to flee the planet ahead of schedule. In the midst of trying to escape, Watney is hit with a piece of flying debris. The computers monitoring his vital signs inoperable, the crew of the Ares 3 embark on their journey home, leaving the presumed dead Watney behind. But Watney wasn’t killed on the surface of Mars, and has to figure out how to live on the inhospitable planet for an extended period, possibly years. Back on Earth, NASA director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) along with various officials, including head of Mars operations Venkat Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), must figure out a way to get provisions and a rescue operation together for Watney. Time is on nobody’s side and the unpredictable elements of a foreign planet may derail whatever plans have been made on Earth and Mars.

The Martian is neither the raw spectacle of Gravity nor the attempted high-mindedness of Interstellar. Instead, the film is well-crafted piece of pop entertainment with a smart streak of science deeply embedded in everything that occurs on the screen. The screenplay by Drew Goddard keeps the action grounded in an emotional element that is so rare for a Ridley Scott film yet still retaining a number of minor science lessons through the action. Throughout The Martian there’s a steady balance in exploring the personal and emotional aspects of the story contrasted to the scientific and political aspects of the situation. It all culminates in a suspenseful journey into the vast loneliness of an unknown planet, all of which is accentuated by Scott’s efficient direction and the crisp cinematography of Dariusz Wolski.

While the film is certainly Matt Damon’s show, and he does a remarkable job as the stranded astronaut, injecting the character of Watney with both humor and pathos, it the robust and diverse supporting cast that keep The Martian from drifting away into the ether. Along with Mara and Chastain, Kristen Wiig and Mackenzie Davis are the other smart and capable female characters that never shirk in the face of a harrowing challenge. Chiwetel Ejiofor is reliable as always, and Donald Glover shines in a limited role as an expert in astrodynamics. Of course, Michael Peña shines as usual, adding an extra layer of comedic timing to the already vastly entertaining film. Other supporting players, including Benedict Wong and Sean Bean, excel in keeping The Martian as film that continually barrels forward.

As is the case with most movies released, The Martian isn’t worth seeking out in 3D. The effect of the extra dimension adds little depth to the film and basically just mutes the colors – I sincerely wish the press screening was in 2D just for the color reasons alone. Though it runs a little long at nearly two and a half hours, The Martian is still a captivating science fiction story from start to finish. Undoubtedly, the biggest surprise about The Martian is just how humorous it is; I can’t think of a Ridley Scott film with such a purposeful comedic streak. The Martian is one of Ridley Scott’s most crowd-pleasing film in years – I like The Counselor, but it is certainly not crowd-pleasing. Overall, The Martian is a smart sci-fi film with a heart. It runs contrary to what is expected from a Ridley Scott sci-fi film and is all the better for it.

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