The Martian - Best Science Fiction Film in a Decade
I love the early works of Ridley Scott. BLADE RUNNER is one of my favorite movies, and films like ALIEN are masterpieces. It’s because of BLADE RUNNER and ALIEN that some of his recent films have been so disappointing. THE COUNSELOR was decent, but far from an essential Scott film, ROBIN HOOD and EXODUS stunk to me from a mile away, the reception of both films proved my assumptions right. THE MARTIAN is the first essential Ridley Scott film in lord knows how long. Its loyalty to science is buoyed by the fact that its characters are lovable and the film is filled with life.
Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is left on Mars when a storm hits his base and his crew all think he’s dead. He is forced to find ways to grow food and survive on Mars until he can make contact with NASA and they send an expedition. Meanwhile, once NASA figures out he’s alive, the guy in charge (Jeff Daniels) has to work the politics of the situation and figure out how to get Mark back. A dumber movie would cast him as the villain but THE MARTIAN wisely shows him as a smart man who has to make some tough decisions.
I am not a Science nerd, I didn’t do well in my high school classes, I’m struggling in my college ones, but I found the science in THE MARTIAN to be an absolute blast. This is because the film doesn’t show that as its only selling point. A film with accurate science is fine, but a film that makes it fun is essential. The film makes it accessible without ever truly dumbing it down.
Something that I normally find forced in movies but I thought really worked in THE MARTIAN was the humor. Throughout the film Mark is recording a journal on his computer, and this allows for several enjoyable monologues where the film sticks a lot of jokes in. They’re all enjoyable; Mark complaining about Jessica Chastain’s (who plays the commander of his crew) taste in music is funny (even though I actually don’t dislike disco), his explaining that he technically is a pirate is funny, and the interactions with his crew are consistently amusing.
Something else that I like about the film is how it could have been split into two different movies, and either one would have still worked. It could have been a survival movie following Matt Damon’s quest to get home and it would have still been excellent. It could have been a movie about Jeff Daniels trying to navigate the politics of NASA and rescue an abandoned astronaut and it would have still been great. They’re terrific together of course, but it’s thrilling to watch all of these pieces of a whole work with such synergy.
The film’s optimism is also refreshing. I’m not necessarily saying that a film has to be overly optimistic to work, but the way THE MARTIAN executes it, it’s a boon that’s not to be ignored. It’s a film that has faith in where humanity is going, and is proud of how well we’ve done.
The script by Drew Goddard manipulates the dialogue with the ease of a master. The banter is never out of place or irritating, and you never once question the intelligence of these characters, because Goddard takes the time to write them smart. That is so refreshing in a cinemaverse where it seems like dumb movies are all over the place.
The production design was also remarkable. Ridley Scott movies tend to be very dark, and I remember watching PROMETHEUS in 3D during its midnight showing and thinking that it was impossible to make heads or tails of the thing. There is a scene like that initially, when Mark is being left on Mars, but it’s easy to make out where the characters are and what they’re doing. I didn’t see THE MARTIAN in 3D, but I feel as though I could have and it would have been fine. The production design is remarkable, because it does feel like you are on Mars. It’s delightful in its deceptiveness in a way that the movies don’t provide often enough.
THE MARTIAN is handily one of the best films of the year. It’s smart; it’s layered, it’s funny, it’s likable, and it’s thrilling. It is the best science fiction film I’ve seen in the past five years, maybe ten. I could probably think of a few problems, but they’d mainly be script choices. Definitely an event film, not to be missed.