Image courtesy Twentieth Century Fox.
Directed by Ridley Scott. An astronaut (Matt Damon) is presumed dead and abandoned on the Red Planet. With Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Chiwitel Ejiofor, and others. Trailer.
I won't go on about The Martian for as long as I did below with Sicario, I promise. It's not that kind of movie. You walk out of Sicario simultaneously drained and fulfilled, in the way the great, heavy works of art can do (remember that last paragraph in A Farewell to Arms?). The Martian is a bona fide crowd-pleaser, but it's made with formidable craft.
This won't be a proper review, but I'd like to make a note of how it compares to Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity (my review here) and Chris Nolan's Interstellar (thoughts here). All three share in an outer space setting, of course, and in that they expect their audiences to pay attention. But where Gravity is largely about the self and works as a metaphor for loneliness, and Interstellar concerned with matters of the heart, The Martian is preoccupied with engaging by way of the mind. Film tends to be an appeal to our creative, intuitive, and emotional leanings– it engages the intellect, sure, but moreso it can reach our soul, if you'll allow the word. It succeeds as the great art form of our period because it combines all the other arts and, at its best, arrives at that special place shared by music, where language is transcended.
The Martian is not so lofty in its aims, but it accomplishes something perhaps equally impressive: it's a significant pop cultural entity that is also a celebration of intelligence. Wait a minute. When was the last time that happened? The screenplay trusts that we're going to be excited by complicated scientific solutions, dialogue scenes where knowledge and creative intellectualism is what carries the day. I, for one, was thoroughly compelled. The picture ends on a note reinforcing the power of rational thought as the great and ever-available problem-solver for our lives. When disasters face us, we crack our knuckles and get down to business, the film says, figuring out one side of the issue at a time before moving on to the next.
Ridley's confident filmmaking aplomb all but conceals how unusual of a message this is. Those of you who know his work (Gladiator, Black Hawk Down, or what I consider his masterpiece, Kingdom of Heaven: Director's Cut) don't need to hear me expound on how rich his painterly visuals are. He breaks from usual form a bit by imbuing the picture with a tone that doesn't take itself seriously, and Drew Goddard's on-point screenplay combines wit with science in a way that seems like no other approach was possible, as if to say, you know, being bright can be fun too. Damon, in the titular role, clearly having a great time, reels off the one-liners with pleasure. His charisma adds significantly to an already engaging film.
In fourth-quarter dramas, stateside foreign releases and indies we as audiences expect to be treated with intelligence, and we generally are. It's nice when a filmmaker has the ability and opportunity to do the same on a studio tentpole. Ridley's other work, Nolan's, or pieces like Fincher's Dragon Tattoo come to mind. As a French-Chinese hostel-mate once told me when I was traveling abroad: "America makes the some of the absolute dumbest, most horrible movies… and also some of the absolutely most complex, intelligent, amazing ones too!"