'The Martian' - October 2015

I realize it’s slightly late for a piece on director Ridley Scott’s “The Martian.” Unfortunately, however, I don’t get invited to swanky movie premieres, so I had to go out and see the movie in a slightly depressing Neukölln shopping mall a few weeks after release. (I know, the hardships of independent web-writing are excruciating.) Anyhow, especially since I addressed the movie in my “Black Rain” piece a while back, I didn’t want to let this one go by unnoticed.

In a nutshell, “The Martian” tells the story of an astronaut (Matt Damon) who is left behind on Mars, and has to survive until his NASA colleagues figure out a way to get him back. It is another return to space for the director, but also one of the more compassionate and humble films if seen from him or anyone else recently.

With the double team of “Alien” and “Blade Runner,” Ridley Scott will always be the man who defined modern Science Fiction cinema. Even though his recent, long-awaited return to space with 2012’s “Prometheus” was not entirely successful, there was absolutely no way I was not at least going to be slightly excited for another trip into the cosmos with this man.

But I was a bit worried.

“Prometheus” was no masterpiece. While I thought it was not nearly as bad as some reviews claimed, it did seem to crumble under its own ambitions. This might not be entirely Scott’s fault. The audience was expecting an “Alien” origin story. Instead they got philosophical musings on the existence of a “creator,” and an almost Lovecraft-ian vision on the purpose (and irrelevance) of mankind. These are ideas worth exploring, especially by a director who successfully managed to tackle bigger philosophical concepts with Science Fiction in “Blade Runner.” “Prometheus,” however, became so top-heavy with ideas it got in the way of the story.

Scott’s recent non-SF movies were also not entirely reassuring. I liked “The Counselor,” mostly for the strong performances and beautiful cinematography, but besides that, it was a little messy. (A hot mess, but still.) His version of the biblical story of Moses, “Exodus, Gods and Kings,” was just plain awful. Visions of pharaoh John Torturro with mall-goth eyeliner still haunt my dreams.

All my doubts going in to “The Martian” were completely unwarranted. It is an interplanetary home run. Every second of the movie breathes supreme craftsmanship in storytelling and a command of the medium. Top that with a stellar cast that turns in an overall great performance, and you have a winner.

It’s Scott’s most narratively focused film since, I don’t know, “Black Hawk Down.” You could even argue since “Thelma and Louise” for all I care. Regardless, for a film that’s well over two hours long there is a surprising – and refreshing – lack of clutter. The science behind this mission, for example, is explained, but isn’t dwelt on. Rather, the movie establishes a group of characters with a believable level of knowledge and intelligence to deal with the problems they encounter. You believe these people can – as Matt Damon’s character states at one point – “Science the shit out of it.”

There could be many pitfalls in a story of a man trying to survive alone in any remote location, but the movie avoids them gracefully. It does not bother with an overwrought backstory of a family left behind to give the main character’s struggle a deeper meaning. It’s a testament to Damon’s performance that he manages to emotionally involve the viewer, while the movie trusts him enough to accomplish this without relying on cheap feelings. The use of a video diary is not the most imaginative plot device, but it works very well with his relatable dorkiness. Obviously, a man stranded all by himself, on a planet where nothing grows, and with limited supplies, will feel a sense of despair. Damon shows it subtly, and at no point does the story linger on it. It’s on with the business of survival, so it’s on with the story.

While “The Martian” is far from a superficial movie, its underlying ideas seem a lot lighter than the thematical heaviness of some of Ridley Scott’s earlier films. The first words out of my mouth after the movie were, “Science is so awesome,” and that seems to be a very crude way of nailing the heart of the story. It feels like a love letter to what humanity is capable of doing with the power of scientific and creative thinking, as well as to the overwhelming beauty and vastness of space.

While there are hints of it at times, in general it’s not human sacrifice, heroism, or any other emotional trope that pushes the story. Damon’s cosmic Robinson Crusoe states, albeit slightly overdramatic, that he would have no problem dying for something that is “bigger than himself.” In most stories this “bigger” would refer to upholding and protecting the parameters of society. Here, it is the human drive to explore, to understand, and to expand our world and knowledge that is worth the sacrifice. His human eyes being one of the first to see the red rock formations on Mars, his hands going through dust on a planet 141 million miles away from where he was born – the whole reason this is possible is because of the imagination, intelligence, and dedication of thousands of people since the space program began. If that’s not “bigger” than himself, what is?

Maybe I should retract my use of the word “lighter” – it’s hopeful, compassionate, and wondrous. In a perfect world, this movie will make thousands of boys and girls dream about exploring the universe, while using their rational powers to do so. In a less than ideal world, the movie is still an inspiring, entertaining, and thoroughly enjoyable two-hour escape.

Originally appeared on Man Got Style