Thursday, October 1, 2015
News this week that liquid water has been discovered on Mars and that actor Matt Damon has repeatedly lodged his foot in his mouth (discussing whether gay actors should come out of the closet or not) almost begs for some kind of bad joke about outfitting a spacecraft and exiling the actor to the red planet ASAP. At worst, the news kinda overshadows promotional efforts for Damon's latest, The Martian, based on the novel by Andy Weir. At best, the two soundbites—one overwhelmingly positive, the other decidedly not—cancel each other out and give way to more discussion about this unlikely crowd-pleaser. I'm hoping for the latter, because The Martian fully deserves to be appreciated as a front-runner among the top films of the year.
In this latter-day Robinson Crusoe on Mars, Damon plays astronaut Mark Watney, a botanist left behind on Mars after his crew believes he is impaled by an antenna during a terrifying dust storm. This early setpiece is about the closest The Martian comes to pandering to the audience's desire for the conventional thrills offered by a typical suspense film. From there, director Ridley Scott (Blade Runner) pulls back to a more cerebral vantage point to observe how Watney uses his skills and engineering expertise to "science the shit" out of his predicament, as he puts it.
Rather than cut the viewer off from the rest of humanity as, say, Cast Away did, The Martian rigorously leads us through all of the micro-communities involved in bringing Watney back home, from the administrators and tech-heads at NASA (represented by Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kristen Wiig, Sean Bean, Mackenzie Davis and Donald Glover) to the dispirited crew that inadvertently stranded Watney (Jessica Chastain, Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan and Aksel Hennie). While adhering almost obsessively to scientific accuracy, Scott cuts back and forth between Watney and his remote support systems to show the cooperative effort needed to get the astronaut back home and ends up delivering what may be his most humanist film yet.
For many reasons, this is no small feat. Given how little our culture seems to respect the facts of science, and given that Scott is a director with a dispassionate eye, one of the biggest surprises The Martian holds is just how emotionally stirring it is. One is struck by how much information one learns while watching the movie, from plausible ways a talented botanist could jury-rig a makeshift garden to believable mathematical methods an interstellar castaway could use to develop a way to communicate to his far-off home planet. Scott finds a way to make it all dynamic, mixing traditional camerawork with found-footage-type POV shots to disrupt a narrative that could easily fall into a languid, droning kind of slowness.
Compare the brainteasing pleasures of The Martian to the more visceral thrills of a movie like Gravity, both films about an astronaut trying to survive alone in space, and you might be surprised which one wins. Scott can be a cold fish with the wrong material, often more interested in the doodads and gadgets layered into the frame to create a kind of verisimilitude than he is in the emotional content of a scene. But the ensemble Scott has brought together here may be his best cast since Alien, a movie which, like The Martian, benefited from having a group of strong character actors essentially competing with each other to divert your attention from one another whenever they were together onscreen. Particular standouts are scenes at NASA, where natural comedians Daniels, Glover, and Wiig seem to gain as much traction from underplaying as their dramatic cohorts Bean and Ejiofor do maintaining their usual level of serious emoting.
I can understand how some might be wary or intimidated by taking on The Martian. Is it too intellectual to someone looking for something more affecting in the way of drama? Admittedly, for much of the early part of the film, I was worried about my inability to connect with it, too. The moment The Martian turns for me is a representative one, though. Shortly after Watney discovers that the world now knows he is alive, an event that finally gives this lonely spaceman some wind in his sails, Scott launches us into a montage underneath David Bowie's pop-candy gem, "Starman." It's at this juncture—where a tiny glimmer of humor meets a grim survival scenario—that The Martian really soars and never returns back to Earth. It's a moment when The Martian announces its concerns transcend that of one spaceman to encompass all of humanity and, like the starman in Bowie's song, may "blow our minds".