Now Playing: Matt Damon says “F**k you, Mars” in Ridley Scott’s The Martian

Nick Blank

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[youtube]In making one of the best science fiction movies in years, Director Ridley Scott doesn’t bother with the complex philosophical meanderings of Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity. Nor does he toy with Christopher Nolan’s nonlinear structure and intricate explanations of wormholes and relativity in Interstellar. The Martian is direct, simple and light-hearted, and even with these two recent science fiction films in mind, it’s much fresher.

Graphic by Caitlyn Broyles

Graphic by Caitlyn Broyles

Where Cuarón wanted to preach and Nolan aimed to perplex, director Ridley Scott goes for entertainment value, letting his adaption of Andy Weir’s best-selling 2011 novel play out on its own. Even so, Scott’s stylistic fingerprints are all over The Martian: the exquisite set design, the slow plot pacing, a memorable score by Harry Gregson-Williams and superb camerawork from Polish cinematographer Dariusz Wolski. The Martian has the ambitious feel of an Alien or a Blade Runner, but within a more grounded universe.

Six Martian days into a mission to the red planet, we find the crew of NASA’s Aries III encountering a devastating sandstorm. They nearly make it from their base to the shuttle until a large piece of debris incapacitates botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon). The crew led by Captain Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) leaves behind a presumed-dead Watney to avoid the storm. And then he wakes up.

Watney isn’t bitter about being left behind – he’s motivated. The astronaut has over four years until the Aries IV reaches Mars, unless NASA can cook something up in the meantime. He has enough food for a single year. To survive, he must grow his own food, make his own water, and find a way to communicate with NASA. To keep him company in his solitude, Watney watches generic 70s TV shows and listens to Captain Lewis’ terrible Disco music, a point which the movie beats to death. A solitary Watney wryly expresses his scientific exploits and frustration via audio logs and cameras throughout the base. “I’m not going to die here,” he says defiantly.

Can we applaud Scott for casting Matt Damon here instead of the funny action star of the moment, Chris Pratt? Damon makes the role work. His Watney is rugged, mobile, confident and a bit of a smartass, a perfect formula for a likeable character. Damon’s physical exertions and non-verbal expressions convey Watney’s isolation. Of course, heavy drama this is not. Scott isn’t necessarily asking the world of Damon here, so his star doesn’t have to carry The Martian in Cast Away fashion.

Assisting Watney in his efforts to return home is a truly phenomenal supporting cast. On the ground, NASA director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) and lead scientist Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) think of solutions to save their stranded astronaut while Annie Montrose (Kristen Wiig) handles the press. Donald Glover plays a bright, caffeine-addled astrodynamics expert with a theory that’s crazy enough to work. Mackenzie Davis and Sean Bean throw their weight around in small roles as well.

In space, crewmembers Martinez (Michael Pena), Johansen (Kate Mara), Vogel (Aksel Hennie) and Beck (Sebastian Stan) comprise the rest of the Ares III crew in solid, unimposing performances. Chastain’s Captain Lewis gives off a maternal vibe in her desires to save Watney, and her character is yet another strong outing from one of Hollywood’s best actresses. There isn’t enough screen time to fit all of them in, even for a 141 minute movie. It’s tedious keeping track of so many players, but they add energy and variety when the spotlight isn’t on Watney.

Time sensitive, optimistic and grounded in science, The Martian avoids worn space-movie cliches, sparing us a bloated Armageddon-style blockbuster. Whether it’s the NASA employees, the crew of the Aries III mission, or stranded astronaut Mark Watney himself, these characters are regular folks— trash-talking and empathetic. Fortunately, Drew Goddard’s screenplay injects Weir’s humorous tone, and it doesn’t scatter any of the suspense. You can’t say The Martian isn’t family-friendly, but thanks to Goddard (The Cabin in the Woods), it has an edge.

Last week, NASA announced the discovery of liquid on mars, and many thought it was a publicity stunt in league with the film. If that’s the case, it certainly worked to their benefit, because The Martian is a truly fantastic film.

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