With The Martian, director Ridley Scott has finally found a story worthy of his filmmaking talent. Matt Damon stars as Mark Watney, Mars’s most optimistic botanist, who is abandoned on the planet by his fellow astronauts, believing him dead. Isolated, wounded, rapidly depleting his supplies, and unable to contact Earth, Watney is faced with an impossible task: he has to MacGyver together a plan for survival on a planet with no food or oxygen–all in a way that doesn’t feel hopelessly contrived. And boy, does he rise to the occasion! Damon’s superb performance and Scott’s expert handling of the subject material make The Martian not just one of the best films of 2015, but the most fun movie-going experience I’ve had all year.
Much of The Martian’s success boils down to a stellar script by Drew Goddard (Cabin in the Woods), which favors levity and wit over the self-serious trappings of other sci-fi films (looking at you, Interstellar). The Martian actually has more jokes in it than most comedies, including a fantastic, ongoing meta-joke about how many times they can fit the F-word into the film while skirting around the notorious “one ‘fuck’ per PG-13 movie” rule. Watney’s humor and optimistic attitude isn’t all the film has to offer, however. This being a Ridley Scott picture, the serious moments are extremely tense, including a downright bloodcurdling scene in which Watney performs impromptu surgery on himself that’s strongly reminiscent of one of the better horror moments in Prometheus.
Even with the immense amount of talent behind it, The Martian lives or dies by Watney’s ability to captivate audiences as the sole on-screen presence for the majority of the film. In this way, it’s not just a return to greatness for Ridley Scott, but also for Matt Damon, who’s charming as hell in the lead role. He’s the true backbone the story, and manages to hold focus throughout the nearly two-and-a-half hour runtime while simultaneously bringing enough weight to the performance to support the more desperate moments in Watney’s story.
The only potential gripe I’ve heard about The Martian is an over-emphasis on what’s happening back on Earth when we could be back on Mars listening to Damon quip into the camera or brave the Martian desert. Sure, Mars is where the action is, but NASA is home to an eclectic all-star cast which carries the necessary, more bureaucratic (and expository) scenes with ease. It’s not just a bunch of pointless pseudo-science blathering in a board room, either; these are personable, passionate people who actually have something significant to say to one another. Even during the time spent on Earth, The Martian never drags and, at the end of the day, is the most engrossing science fiction film I’ve seen in years.
Rating: 5 out of 5