Much like Woody Allen, I have a love-hate relationship with Ridley Scott.
The problem with Scott is that he is inconsistent in his direction. One moment, he’ll make a science fiction classic that took full advantage of its space horror scenario with “Alien,” but then ruin it with “Prometheus” by wanting to be sophisticated, only to have it ruined by dumb character writing or logic gaps that make the audience question everything that has been built up.
I’ve made it no secret that I do not care for “Blade Runner,” as that film has put me to sleep on more than one occasion. I also do not like “Gladiator,” “American Gangster” or “Black Hawk Down,” and despise Scott’s version of “Robin Hood.”
Part of the problem with Scott is that he seems to take a lot of fun out of going to the movies. His films are often visually stunning and go by the epic style of classic directors like Cecil B. DeMille and D.W. Griffith, but there is a general disconcern in his films. That everything is set up for one gigantic action piece, but never bother to ask how all these people got to this place and what their stake is in all of this.
In other words, Scott’s films are all style, and no substance.
Which is why I adore Scott’s newest film, “The Martian.” While Scott does not diverge from his roots of making impossible landscapes feel so close to home, he does something that I have never seen out of Scott before – Telling an optimistic tale without any sort of violence or action set piece.
At times, “The Martian” feels like a fusion of “Gravity” and the worthwhile scenes of “Interstellar,” where space is unforgiving and we are fools for trying to explore it. But then there are moments in “The Martian” that remind us why we explore space and the lengths we will reach to survive. That even in the face of overwhelming adversities, we will fight to see the sun rise one more day over that horizon. Even if that horizon is another planet.
On the space mission Ares III, one of the first missions to put astronauts on Mars, the crew encounters a large dust storm which forces them to abort the mission and leave the planet. Unfortunately, Mark Whatney (Matt Damon) is struck by debris on the way back to the ship and is declared dead by the crew, as they leave Mars without him.
As Earth and the crew of Ares III mourns the loss of Whatney, he awakens to find a piece of debris lodged in his chest and alive. After some surgery, Mark begins to realize his situation – Stranded on a deserted planet, with the closest rescue team being four years away, no way to contact NASA, and only has enough oxygen and food to last him a few months.
What I love about “The Martian” may seem rather simple, but is what makes going to movies so much fun. Mark, and not giving in to the inevitable and assuming that death will happen to him on Mars, decides to go against every odd and obstacle so that he will not die here. He is aware of the fact that everything seems against him, especially since no food grows on Mars and his rover can only go 30 minutes from base before needing a recharge. But that does not stop him from finding a solution to suit his needs.
All while, and this is the biggest reason this film works, Mark never once stops being positive about his struggle. He has his share of setbacks and fumbles along the way, but every day he finds a reason to smile and keep on finding a way home.
One of my favorite examples of this is after digging up a radioactive isotope, so that he can run the rover longer at night without using up the heater, Mark has found a song left by his commanding officer (Jessica Chastain) that is “the least disco,” which is “Hot Stuff” by Donna Summers. He complains about how the only music he gets stuck with is crappy disco songs and still looks disapproving when the best song is still from the 1970s.
And yet, Mark grooves to the song anyway.
To be perfectly honest, “The Martian” is not a complex movie about loneliness or the inevitability of death, though those are reoccurring points in the film. This is a survival film, about how we will not take something lying down and fight to survive anything that comes our way. It just so happens that Mark needs to survive on a planet that will kill you the moment your back is turned.
Matt Damon’s performance as Mark Whatney is pitch perfect, as he captures both the highs and lows of a man being left for dead and refusing to take no for an answer. From cherishing the first time his potato crops grow in, to screaming at the top of his lungs when his bio-lab is destroyed by a breach in the tent, to posing for a picture like Fonzie from “Happy Days.” Damon keeps this film grounded in reality, without ever going overboard on melodrama or psycho-analysis.
Mark is having a blast on Mars, because he loves the challenge of surviving something no one else has ever done before. He cracks his biggest smiles when he realizes that he colonized Mars and can add the title of “Space Pirate” to his list of accolades.
“The Martian” is one of those reasons why cinema is so much fun. It reminds us that the little moments of happiness can go a long way. That sometimes all you need is to be heart-warming, funny and strong-willed in order to be a beautiful film. Ridley Scott certainly surprised me with this film, but I am not complaining at all with the results.
Final Grade: A