Two years ago, I gave five stars to Gravity, Alfonso Cuarón’s sci-fi opus about an astronaut stranded in space. That film was largely powered by the tech behind it — the next-level 3D, the propulsive, immersive camerawork — which Cuarón used to dizzying effect. Now comes Ridley Scott’s The Martian, certainly similar in plot and theme, but totally different in execution.
The Martian features yet another astronaut stranded in space … or technically on Mars this time. Matt Damon plays Mark Watney, a trained botanist who’s left behind when a manned mission to the red plant goes bad and his shipmates, presuming that he’s dead, retreat back toward Earth. But Watney is very much alive, and if he is to remain so, he must find a way to create water, feed himself and survive the inhospitable Mars environment for the FOUR YEARS it would take before a NASA rescue team could arrive.
Whereas Cuarón’s played the short game with Gravity, using emotional shorthand (Sandra Bullock’s character’s tragic backstory) and intense, real-time sequences to convey the immense dangers of space travel gone wrong, Scott, working from a Drew Goddard script adapted from an Andy Weir novel, is more interested in the long game. The Martian‘s most thrilling sequences aren’t in real time; they’re disco-backed montages showing Watney “sciencing the shit” out of his problem by creating a working garden or adapting the available equipment to meet his needs. Gravity is all about making you feel. The Martian wants to make you think.
That’s enough to differentiate Scott’s film from Gravity, but there are other reasons it proves to be just as good (if not better). The cast, for starters. Oh what a cast. Damon anchors the whole thing flawlessly, and he’s backed on all sides by ridiculous talent: Chiwetel Ejiofor and Jessica Chastain and Jeff Daniels and Michael Pena and Sean Bean and Kristen Wiig and the list goes on and on. And the best part each is given the opportunity to fully inhabit an interesting and dynamic character, regardless of how much dialogue and screen time they get. Donald Glover shows up for about three scenes as a socially awkward aerospace engineer but proves to be an endless source of entertainment. And oh my god do I need more movies in my life where Daniels and Bean get all surly with (while still totally respecting) each other.
I’ve never been a big Ridley Scott guy. I’m one of THOSE people who likes Aliens better than Alien. I’ve always found Blade Runner to be overrated. And in the years since, Scott has always struck me as a work-for-hire lensmen with a good eye when I’ve been much more interested in writer/directors with a gift for story. But, with The Martian, his nuts-and-bolts filmmaking sensibilities prove to be a perfect complement to Goddard’s intelligent and fat-free script.
Too often these days, I feel like science is under attack by the uneducated and the easily distracted. (See the number of people who still refute the notion of global warming.) We NEEDED a great pro-science movie to come along. Thankfully, The Martian is exactly that.