Turns out the best thing for latter-day Ridley Scott’s career is to go simple. After a series of films with escalating plot loopiness—from the chowderheaded (Prometheus) to the cringeworthy (Exodus: Gods and Kings)—Scott seems to have regained his sense of narrative coherence with The Martian, a movie based on the most basic biological premise of them all: don’t die. Sure, Scott and screenwriter Drew Goddard, working from Andy Weir’s novel, throw in all sorts of episodic dilemmas and technological jibjabbery to give the aura of complexity, but The Martian ultimately boils down to your classic man-against-nature story, albeit one where the nature is exceptionally inhospitable and the man is extraordinarily good at not perishing.
It’s been a strange road for Scott the past decade or so, bouncing back and forth between having his movies reviled or revoked by audiences, working steadily but delivering only a few marginal hits and a couple box office disasters. (Remember his $200 million-budget Robin Hood? No? You’re not alone.) So it’s nice to see him settle back into his original sci-fi groove, even if his latest offering stands as the purest audience-friendly popcorn film he’s ever helmed, a blast of wide-screen escapist optimism that feels almost antithetical to Blade Runner, his headiest and most pessimistic work. And he’s picked a fairly astute time to invoke such positivity, since our culture has been overwhelmed by bleak visions of the future, bombarded by tales of zombie apocalypses or global environmental devastation. Maybe that’s the secret key to the success of The Martian—it’s not about all of us dying. It’s about one man living.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt that this one man is played by Matt Damon at his most charming. What he sacrifices in depth he makes up for in sheer winning likeability, turning Mark Watney’s struggle for survival after being left for dead on Mars into a jocular, self-aware tour of competency and proficiency in the face of hardship. It’s kind of like one of those reality TV survival shows, only hosted by someone who’s not an unbearable, overdramatic prick. Watney prefers to focus on problem solving rather than wax philosophical about his plight—always a smartass, he’s more interested in the novelty of being a “space pirate” than in the more existential crises that might arise from being 34 million miles away from the next human being—and this pragmatism keeps The Martian surprisingly upbeat, the film bouncing from problem to solution, rarely indulging in moments to stop and contemplate The Big Picture.
If anything, the movie sometimes feels almost too slight in its portrayal of Watney, having him quickly recover from a life-threatening setback just in time to offer his sardonic opinions on disco music, or the merits of using Vicodin as a condiment. But that’s how it goes with The Martian. Scott and Goddard don’t want you to fret too much over the danger, to worry over any Private Ryan-esque ethical implications of risking five lives to save one. They’ve crafted a remarkably antagonist-free adventure film, one that gets by on the buoyancy of its indefatigable protagonist and gee-whiz visual splendor. Sure, this light touch results in some frustrating narrative handholding—there are a few too many scenes where NASA technicians on Earth ponder Mark’s fate immediately followed by an event on Mars illustrating their concern—yet it also keeps a 140-minute film from ever becoming a slog.
Pretty sure The Martian will land an Oscar nomination for Damon—it’s the type of crowd-pleasing performance that the Academy latches onto to feign relevance among general audiences—and such a nod wouldn’t be entirely undeserved. Damon’s been an interesting actor to watch lately, going for generally manly man roles yet injecting them with unexpected vulnerability and humility, and he does the same here. Watney’s moments of weakness are few, but Damon plays them well, with a low moan of trepidation here or tears of relief there. His performance isn’t transfixing, but it’s compelling when it needs to be, and he never goes off the rails like Scott occasionally allows his protagonists to do.
As for the rest of the cast, they fare okay. Chiwetel Ejiofor, as Mars mission director Vincent Kapoor, pretty much reprises his role from 2012, which was probably the most convincing thing about Roland Emmerich’s 2009 disastergasm. And Jeff Daniels is solid as NASA director Teddy Sanders, providing a surprising sympathetic streak to a role that usually devolves into asshole administrator territory. Not so great this time around is Jessica Chastain, who feels rather wasted as the MARS mission commander who makes the wrenching decision to leave Watney behind to save the rest of her crew. Don’t get me wrong—Chastain’s as good as always. But she’s given woefully little to do besides look alternately depressed and driven. Her character’s integral to the plot, sure, but she’s also underdeveloped, never coming off as anything more than Strong Leader Archetype.
I’m actually surprised The Martian came out in October and not during the summer. Yeah, we’ve had the recent trend of autumn prestige sci-fi pictures running for three straight years now, but The Martian seems more like a good-time mid-June box office-slaying powerhouse than most of this summer’s key tentpoles. I’d certainly take it over the paranoid cynicism of Age of Ultron or the failed allegory of Jurassic World anyday. But, as a film released right in the heart of critic-bait awards season, it still works. No, we won’t be regarding it in the rarified air of Blade Runner, but it sure beats the navel-gazing bloat of Interstellar. Maybe that should’ve been its tagline: “The Martian: No, it’s not super-smart, but at least we don’t eventually hinge the entire plot on the power of love as a universal constant. ‘Cause that shit was dumb, Nolan.”