THE MARTIAN (2015)
HOLY FUCKING SHIT does it feel good to love a Ridley Scott movie again!
Alright, alright, look. I know people have been asking me about dialing back the profanity on these things, but, I’m sorry – it’s been a long time since one of our undisputed greatest filmmakers actually MADE a great film, and I’m excited about it! This hasn’t happened since the Director’s Cut of KINGDOM OF HEAVEN, and that was in 2005… and since he’s already announced that he’s going to follow this one up with another FUCKING “Prometheus” movie, it probably isn’t gonna happen again for awhile. So how about you get off my ass and enjoy a rare unabashedly positive review, huh?
THE MARTIAN is the best movie I’ve seen so far this year – and since it’s now October, pronouncements like that start to actually mean something. After a solid decade producing movies that looked great but often broke down on the narrative level, Sir Ridley has once again landed on solid base-material and turned in the kind of filmmaking that’s so good you want to call it a miracle… except that’d actually be doing it a disservice: There’s nothing mystical or ephemeral about why THE MARTIAN is great, the answers are all right up there onscreen. The cast is great, the acting is great, the script is tight as hell, the direction is nigh-flawless, the FX work is gorgeous – hell, even the song choices are good.
Everyone is on the same damn page and everyone is doing their damn job. THAT’S why it’s good… which is amusing, considering that that’s also a fairly concise breakdown of the film’s plot, theme and overarching ideals – but I’m getting ahead of myself.
The basic premise here is that in the near future NASA has finally managed to launch a manned mission to Mars. But there’s a storm on the planet’s surface bad enough that the crew has to abort the mission and take off early, and amid the chaos one of them – specifically Matt Damon as team botanist Mark Watney – gets swept up in the storm and thrown to certain death. BUT! By sheer random chance, Watney is NOT actually dead: He’s just stranded, alone, on the Red Planet.
Fortunately for him, Watney happens to not only be a brilliant and capable enough scientist to literally life-hack his way into creating a sustainable longer-term existence on Mars; he’s also one of those Movie Scientists whose ALSO kind of a “bro” and loves to quip sardonically about everything he’s doing for the audience. We’ve had a TON of these “It’s okay for me to be this smug all the time because my confidence comes from my admirable intelligence” heroes lately, and to be honest Watney would probably be insufferable if we had to spend the whole fucking movie with him – but we don’t.
And that's where THE MARTIAN goes from being merely a solid film to a genuinely excellent one, transcending it's starting point as a rock-solid genre exercise to become something like a masterwork.
See, while it'd be all well and good to just stick around on the red planet following Watney – especially since this is absolutely the finest “Movie Star” turn of Damon’s entire career to this point - the film instead cuts back down to Earth where NASA soon discovers what's happening and mobilizes what soon becomes a global effort to bring him home; an effort through which THE MARTIAN slyly reveals it's true colors: this isn't some hackneyed cautionary tale about the dangers of exploring the unknown - it's a high-stakes procedural about the AWESOME power of knowledge, which has placed Mark Watney in one of the most impossible situations imaginable MAINLY so that it can thrill us with detailed depictions of smart, dedicated people figuring out how to get him out of it.
This is, in effect, a love-letter to science, space-exploration and NASA in particular – both in terms of it’s history and also it’s ideals: There’s no “villain” in THE MARTIAN other than shitty luck and Mars itself – none of the human characters turns out to be an asshole or cartoonishly unreasonable in order to generate false drama, there’s no bullshit love-triangles or personal pettiness employed to make us like or dislike certain characters, none of the sappy tacked-on “personal growth” narrative that kept pulling me out of GRAVITY and (thank GAWD!) none of the pseudo-spiritual bullshit that ruined INTERSTELLAR.
Hell, the movie doesn’t even try to impose a “character arc” on Mark – and he’s the MAIN character! He doesn’t “change” or “grow” or “learn” anything through his ordeal, he and everyone else just face down the problems they’re presented with and solve them one after the other. That’s easier said than done – the whole reason cheap drama and forced-arcs exist in drama is because procedural storytelling isn’t always the most riveting thing in the world – that’s why you fill your cast up with people like Jessica Chastain, Michael Pena, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kate Mara, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Sean Bean, Donald Glover… AND why you hire a director like Ridley Scott. And that’s why, if everyone shows up and does their job, you’ll get a great film out of it.
Now folks… I’ll admit I’m the easiest lay in the world for stuff like this. I’m “that guy” who never stopped being in love with outer space. I’m “that guy” who thinks we oughta be dumping as much funding as we POSSIBLY can into NASA come hell or high water because I do NOT want to die without at least seeing humanity be on it’s way to something like Starfleet in my lifetime – and I’m that guy who if you hear this and come at me with some short-sighted “but people are still… and we need money for… but it’s not as important as…” my response is always going to be SPACESHIP. FUCK YOU. That’s why it’s been hard for me to write this review, because I wanted to be sure I loved this movie MAINLY as a movie, and not just because it’s a fellow “let’s get our asses back to space!” booster – but yeah, this one is REALLY that fucking good!
I cannot think of a single thing I dislike about this movie. I love Scott’s direction, I love the cast, I love watching Matt Damon remind us how GOOD he can be when he’s not making an idiot of himself of that fucking reality show, I love how tight Drew Goddard’s screenplay is, I love how well-executed the denser scientific stuff is handled so that it’s still 100% compelling even though I understood MAYBE 20% of what they were actually talking about, I love seeing Sir Ridley bust out a couple of those music-montage sequences he ALWAYS kills at but doesn’t do enough of, I love the way it celebrates and lionizes the idea of science and mathematics skills as essential tools of survival WITHOUT any shitty STEMLord “Nyah! We run the world now!” pandering “Revenge of The Nerds” bullshit, I love the way it celebrates a GLOBAL future of cooperation via a key subplot involving the CHINESE Space Agency without feeling like it’s unnecessarily getting into OR avoiding politics.
There just isn’t a SINGLE place where THE MARTIAN goes wrong – it is, quite simply, an absolutely perfect realization of exactly what it wants to be. And I haven’t enjoyed a single movie more this year. Don’t miss it.
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