Intelligent, well-crafted Hollywood films are supposed to be narrowly focused and possess a mid-sized budget—think All the President’s Men, The Social Network, and Moneyball. Space films are supposed to be bloated and/or full of dangerous other-worldly creatures. Then came Gravity, a smart technical triumph and gorgeous to look at, but rather thin plot-wise.
Some directors are also supposed to “lose it” a little at the end of their careers. Think Clint Eastwood, who seemed to slip from his pedestal with J. Edgar and Jersey Boys. Then came American Sniper, a deeply accomplished film looking and feeling as if were the product of a much younger man.
Ridley Scott, director of classics such as Alien, Blade Runner, and Gladiator, seemed to be slipping too with the lumpy, awkward Exodus: Gods and Kings and the overblown and unmoving Prometheus. Yet he too has bounced back with an intelligent, big-budget The Martian, making his stamp on the space film as he did with horror, dystopia and the sword-and-sandal film.
Then along comes The Martian, directly by the legendary Ridley Scott. The Martian gives us Matt Damon as astronaut Mark Watney, left behind for dead by his fellow crewmembers after a hurried escape from Mars. The film follows his attempts at survival while the returning crew and his associates back on the ground try to figure out how they could possibly effect a rescue.
It used to be that actors put in hard-to-believe situations or otherworldly scenarios tended to declaim rather than act; perhaps they or their directors felt that the intensity of the delivery made up for the unreality of the situation. But since LOTR and the most recent batch of superhero films, we now expect actors to give their all and add three-dimensional emotional reality to their scenes.
The quality of the acting here in The Martian is so assured that we never question what’s happening on screen. With Damon, Jessica Chastain, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kate Mara, Jeff Daniels, the underappreciated Michael Peña, Sean Bean and Kristen Wiig, we have a cast of mostly familiar faces, but they are some very talented faces. Chastain, who I feel normally can do no wrong, may be a bit too isolated/introverted for the crew leader, and Wiig, making an obvious take-me-seriously-as-a-dramatic-actress move here, brings nothing new or interesting to a character that just seems to stand around looking worried and distracted. Everyone else is solid if not a little predictable in terms of casting (cough—Jeff Daniels).
The lead and the strength of the film is Damon. I often ask, “Who else could have done this role as well?” Well, there are many good actors his age that could do the work, but none have the persona necessary to make us care enough to carry the film. The plot is Cast Away on Mars to some extent, and perhaps to a greater extent, Damon is this generation’s Tom Hanks. As an audience, we couldn’t possibly care more for an actor’s survival. Plus Damon brings the dramatic heft, charm and humor necessary for the part. One either connects with an audience or one doesn’t. Damon does it in spades.
The look, as to be expected from a Scott film, is nothing less than dazzling. Mars, the spacecraft with the escaped crew, and home base all have their unique looks. The Red Planet, shot in the same area in Jordan as Lawrence of Arabia, is breathtakingly beautiful and desolate at the same time. The spacecraft is white, clean and sealed, while home base is dark and densely packed.
The film is a first cousin to Apollo 13 in its love of science (now a verb thanks to the film—God help us!), its optimism and its deadline-driven engineering creativity. In another era it might be called naïve or Reaganesque. It does stand out from most of today’s films in its commitment to both here with the added element of possible rescue. Unlike Gravity, our main character is not alone, and in fact is increasingly supported by the entire world by the end of the film. It earns its unabashed positive enthusiasm and ends up being the epic feel-good film of the year.
Can a film be intimate and huge in scope at the same time? The LOTR films do that well, several of John Ford’s westerns do, as well as Lawrence of Arabia and David Lean’s other pre-Zhivago films. So do many of Scott’s past works, especially Alien and The Gladiator. The Martian is both intimate and sweeping. And unlike many sweeping movies, the narrative moves along at at good clip, giving Scott a solid and energetic script on which to hang his stunning visuals. Add his stellar cast (pun intended) and an emotionally satisfying ending, and Scott may end up with the biggest hit of his career.