Ridley Scott doesn’t make fun movies. That’s not to say he doesn’t make movies that are fun to watch, but it’s highly unlikely you’re laughing, glowing, or brimming with joy while experiencing them. In fact, with the sole exception of 2006’s A Good Year, the English filmmaker’s resume, spanning nearly 50 years, reads like a dark recess into the eyes of a well-educated sadist. He’s bruised our brains with history books (1492: Conquest of Paradise, Gladiator), enlightened our souls with the Bible (Kingdom of Heaven, Exodus: Gods and Kings), strangled our necks with science fiction (Alien, Blade Runner), scorched our nerves with real-life terror (Thelma & Louise, Body of Lies), and just weirded us out (Legend, The Counselor). He’s done the caper (Matchstick Men), the biopic (American Gangster), the sequel (Hannibal), the prequel (Prometheus), and the survival film (White Squall). Yet not one of them are as friendly and gentle and as fun as his latest, The Martian.
Based on Andy Weir’s smart, humorous, and breezy novel, the story centers on the survival of NASA astronaut Mark Watney, who’s been stranded on Mars and presumed dead by his teammates following an intense dust storm and impromptu evacuation. This Watney guy happens to be one hell of a botanist and mechanical engineer, which is why he readily accepts the nightmare scenario as an agreeable hurdle. He’s also a smug bastard with an uncanny sense of humor, two chummy attributes that have rocketed millions of readers through Weir’s science-heavy novel. The 40-something novelist drew inspiration from his scientific background (his father is a particle physicist; he studied computer science) to drill his story with an exemplary wealth of research. Rather astutely, he cut the stuffy language with glimmering slices of humor, saving it from being a snooze fest and turning it into a frenzied page-turner.
That addictive read translates smoothly to screen thanks to a punchy screenplay by Drew Goddard. The veteran writer of episodic series like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Lost, and this year’s Daredevil is an ideal candidate for Weir’s story, which was mostly told through Watney’s multiple video logs that captured his days (ahem, sols) on Mars. It’s a clever medium, but proved limiting as a read as we were only able to catch glimpses of Watney’s personality and emotional psyche. Goddard retains the logs, but they’re hardly a framing device. Instead, he stays close on Watney as he works things out firsthand and/or grapples with the occasional blowback of his own miscalculations. This lends itself to a sharper character study; for instance, a sobering moment in the rover following one hellish accident bottles up more emotion than any of the hundred logs from Weir’s story. We’re witnessing his dread, we’re seeing his disappointment, and we’re feeling his frustration.
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What’s strange is how the stakes feel somewhat deflated. We’re watching a human being stranded 140 million miles away from Earth, and it hardly comes across as dangerous. Part of the reason is that Goddard nixes a number of key conflicts from Weir’s original story, including an especially daunting trek toward the end that’s accomplished here with ease, but mostly because the film’s lighthearted tone eschews the restless survival tropes of Apollo 13, Cast Away, or anything else that fits that mold and doesn’t necessarily have to star Tom Hanks. (Gravity! Let’s go with Gravity!) To Goddard’s credit, he doesn’t cloud the sunny source material and champions feelings of hope and accomplishment over the weepier sentiments of despair and fear. As such, the film never comes close to being a harrowing experience. It’s a goddamn blast, one in which we can watch Matt Damon vibe out to Donna Summer as he cruises through the canyons of Mars.
Oh, how could we forget about Damon? He’s having more fun than anyone else on screen — cracking jokes, sneaking grins, watching re-runs of Happy Days — and to think he’s supposed to be the unlucky son of a bitch. As the whimsical and optimistic Watney, Damon thoroughly entertains with a one-man show that’s as admirable for its laughs as it is for its physicality. We never really grasp what makes Watney tick as a person, but Damon’s boyish charm and wise heroics overwhelm the proceedings enough to keep us rooting from the stands. That kinetic energy also rubs off on the film’s idyllic cast, who all take their respective characters and ricochet across the scenes with snappy dialogue and feisty quirks. Donald Glover is a walking cup of coffee as Rich Purnell, Kristen Wiig sweats bullets as Annie Montrose, Jeff Daniels arrives fresh off The Newsroom set as Teddy Sanders, and Benedict Wong delivers the film’s best line as Bruce Ng. Mind you, this is only a third of the support.
So where does Scott fit into all this? Despite all the levity and giggles, the filmmaker does what he knows best, which is to create a gripping spectacle. The Martian is another gorgeous picture from Scott, brimming with colors and styles, striking with its naturalism and approximation. From the opening sandstorm, to the sprawling deserts of Mars, down to the not-too-distant NASA headquarters, and concluding with the climax’s weightless ribbon ballet, each scene shines from the clarity and wisdom of the 77-year-old auteur. In a sense, it’s his vision that adds a subtle weight to the story, grounding the comedy and action into something that is quite foreseeable. Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski also deserves some high praise, proving once again he’s a perfect match for Scott’s aesthetic and scope. For those keeping count, this marks their fourth straight collaboration together (starting with 2012’s Prometheus), and he’s undoubtedly made a difference.
What’s perhaps most stunning about The Martian is how there isn’t a single political agenda tied to it. The closest the film ever gets to the P word is earlier when Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Vincent Kapoor pleads with Daniels’ Teddy Sanders, aka the Director of NASA, to capitalize on the public’s reaction to Watney’s alleged death. He wants to use the outside support to cut through the red tape and secure funding for a rescue mission, arguing that the public eye will forget about the incident in a year. And that’s that — crazy, right? It’s sad, but in an age where anything and everything turns political, it’s reassuring (revelatory, even) to know that a science fiction film, or any film for that matter, can eek by without a picket line. Somehow, The Martian thrives simply for its humor, its heart, and its magnificence, accomplishing what Christopher Nolan yearned to do with Interstellar less than a year ago: turn our eyes to the stars and our imagination beyond.
Who knew we just needed Ridley Scott to make us smile?