When a movie works, it’s a thing of beauty—a masterful experience that ties together stunning images, engaging performances and perfect music. It creates a series of moments that feel effortless. When a film works, logistics matter none. We forget about the hundreds of people who gave thousands of hours of work to create two hours of incredible entertainment. We can see the well-known Hollywood actor as a real, three-dimensional character, and even though we know it’s fake, we still feel the highs and lows they experience. That is a rare feat, and one that Sir Ridley Scott has accomplished with his latest (and possibly greatest) film, “The Martian.”
Making a movie as good as “The Martian” isn’t easy. Just look at the last few movies Ridley Scott made: “Exodus: Gods and Kings” was a painful slog. “The Counselor” was mediocre. “Prometheus” was an atrocity—a movie so bad I had a hard time believing Ridley Scott actually was involved. When the cylinders are firing, as they are with “The Martian,” he’s on par with the likes of Spielberg as the master of mainstream entertainment.
“The Martian” is a movie that felt familiar. At the start I immediately drew comparisons to other lost-in-space movies that have been popping up every fall for the last three years, featuring A-list actors. Last year it was “Interstellar” with Matthew McConaughey. The year before it was “Gravity” with Sandra Bullock and George Clooney.
Someone famous is lost in space and has to find his way home. In this case it’s Matt Damon, who coincidentally was lost in space in “Interstellar.” Damon plays scientific everyman Mark Watney, a NASA botanist on Mars with a team of other astronauts exploring the red planet. Things go awry as the team attempts to leave, and Mark ends up in a storm of debris and assumed dead. The rest of the team leaves Mars. This is bad news for Mark.
Mark has to forage to survive, and raids the various supplies on his Martian base camp. At first he is completely cut off, unable to communicate with anyone to let them know he’s still alive. With precious few options, he begins to put together a plan to travel to the next landing site to be rescued. Mark chronicles his efforts through a series of video blogs for posterity, and to keep the audience looped into his efforts. If this were all “The Martian” had to offer, it would have been a good movie. However, this film has a lot of moving parts which elevates it from good to freaking fantastic.
Scott also tells the story from the perspective of those trying to save Mark, i.e. the NASA scientists and bureaucrats, who petition the government for the hundreds of millions of dollars needed to rescue one man. The fascinating thing about “The Martian” is that its most interesting moments happen on Earth. I was enthralled with the Aaron Sorkin-like drama unfolding at home, forced to face the grim realities of being a publicly funded organization and dealing with the press. Jeff Daniels is brilliant as the caring but calculating boss, perfectly buoyed by Chiwetel Ejiofor’s emotionally invested overseer.
The actors in this movie are an amazing collection of recognizable faces; all do a great job. It may be Matt Damon’s face on the poster, but there’s a remarkably impressive cast who elevate this to epic levels. As far as performance, this movie belongs to Damon, Daniels and Ejiofor, but the cavalcade of supporting players is shocking in its depth and recognizability. Kate Mara from “House of Cards,” Sebastian Stan from “The Winter Soldier,” Kristen Wiig from “SNL,” Donald Glover from “Community,” Jessica Chastain from “Zero Dark Thirty”—it’s a laundry list of quality talent, all of them delivering a lot of effort into some limited screen time.
“The Martian” is gripping, thrilling, funny, exhilarating, and ridiculously entertaining. It all works. I can’t remember the last time I said that about a movie. This is top-quality cinema and a must-see for anyone who believes there is still room for growth in big-budget filmmaking. Ridley Scott has delivered a modern mainstream masterpiece that deserves attention.