Spoilers ahead for The Martian!
When one hears the name Ridley Scott, the first things that comes to mind are big budget movies and intriguing, taxing stories. If you want to press onward, his films also usually involve colorful, full-framed photography, a cacophony of different audio effects, and a screenplay that can hang with the best of them.
Over the decades, Scott has become a household name, working in two genres that have suited his most obvious interests — historical fiction and sci-fi. His latest film, The Martian, is based on the 2011 best-selling novel by Andy Weir (originally published as a free serial on his personal website), and is another important film sure to enter the sci-fi canon. In it, Matt Damon’s character, Mark Watney, goes on to describe how he’s the “first to do” almost everything on Mars. It could also be said, then, that Ridley Scott is the first director, auteur even, to make a truly compelling Mars movie.
The most important facets of The Martian are the close coupling of fact and fiction, a realistic scenario that does not appear to be too far ahead of our current capabilities, and overall, a plot (involving characters, emotion, etc.) that is not too nonsensical.
Last year it became known that NASA believes there is a cache of water on the red planet, and Ridley Scott, not surprisingly, knew about the breakthrough some months before it was revealed. He is said to have spent a lot of time with NASA, and it’s evident. According to Terri Schwartz of IGN, “The Martian has been praised by many, including IGN, for its basis in science. It should come as no surprise that Scott, screenwriter Drew Goddard and the rest of the creative team spent time with NASA to ground the movie in facts.”
Although the groundbreaking discovery did not make it into the film in time, the setback does not take away from the film’s poignancy. Matt Damon (Interstellar), delivers a riotously pleasing performance, keeping the isolated Watney character humorous even in the darkest of times. Further, the rest of the ensemble cast — including Jeff Daniels (Dumb and Dumber To), Jessica Chastain (Interstellar), Kristen Wiig (The Skeleton Twins), Chiwetel Ojiofor (12 Years a Slave), Michael Pena (Ant Man), and Kate Mara (House of Cards) — leaves its mark quite agreeably. There is not really a “sour” performance in the lot; and that has a lot to do with the pared down, efficient screenplay from Drew Goddard.
The film begins during the 18th “sol” of the Ares III mission on Mars led by Commander Melissa Lewis (Chastain). The crew — played by Damon, Pena, Mara, Sebastian Stan, and Aksel Hennie — then comes face to face with a destructive storm and is forced to leave the planet on their MAV vessel. In the process, botanist Mark Watney (Damon) is struck and impaled by a communications satellite and lost in the roiled sands. The crew leaves the planet without him.
When the storm clears, Watney wakes partially submerged in Martian sand. He cuts himself free of the satellite and returns to the base that the crew had lived in and which was set up by previous Ares missions. After stapling himself up, Watney comes to terms with his predicament. He has rations enough for six people for the whole 31-sol mission and realizes he needs to grow food to survive. His solution? A little Martian farming. Also, he needs to water his “crops” and sustain himself. Can he rig together an oxidizer?
Meanwhile back at home, “Houston” holds a state funeral for the fallen astronaut, but because of the quick thinking of Mindy Park (Mackenzie Davis), who punches in coordinates, “life” on Mars is (technically) discovered. That life: Watney. Park uses coordinates sent from the departing Ares vessel to view the Martian landscape and sees a few differences in the layout at the base camp. Then, figuring he’s still alive, NASA communicates with Watney through a revived rover and both sides begin to talk retrieval.
Leading NASA minds, including Vincent Kapoor (Ojiofor), Mitch Henderson (Sean Bean), and Bruce Ng (Benedict Wong) concoct an intricate plan to recover Watney, while NASA Director Teddy Sanders and media strategist Annie Montrose (Wiig) encounter and cope with the relentless press. But will it really come down to his former crew?
The Martian was filmed in Budapest, Hungary and Wadi Rum, Jordan, and the backdrop is, by all accounts, quite impressive. Not only do Scott and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski immerse viewers far into the Martian plains, but they take a turn toward the psychological, too, often casting Damon in gray frames and tight, constricted areas to represent the claustrophobia he must have felt.
Aside from the foreboding climate, Scott, Wolski, and editor Pietro Scalia mix in complimentary and inundating audio that creates a pleasant interplay between Damon and his “co-lead,” the planet’s surface.
In terms of “mise-en-scene,” or the arrangement of surroundings, The Martian is Oscar worthy. Watching this film can only be compared to entering the dream state of Interstellar after passing out during a roller coaster’s steep descent. (But be forewarned: It is not too over the top, or confrontational, for the elements slowly reveal themselves as viewers get a firm grasp of what to expect on this planet. It is a pleasant rapport that is formed between viewer and planet.)
Basically, this is a film to see, whether you’re a true sci-fi fan or not. This is simply a movie “of the planet Mars, by the planet, for the planet.”
The Martian is now poised to take home up to seven Oscars! The sci-fi film received Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Actor in a Leading Role (Matt Damon), Production Design, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, Visual Effects, and Adapted Screenplay. [Update, 1/15/16: Oscar nomination results added.]
Check out Entertainment Cheat Sheet on Facebook!
Follow Dan Gunderman on Twitter @dangun127