The Martian finds Matt Damon in his second space-genre film role in twelve months after Interstellar, which was Christopher Nolan’s disappointing 2014 follow-up to the conclusion of his Dark Knight trilogy. This time things are different: Damon’s playing the lead role, and things are the same: he’s found himself again under the direction of Nolan’s fellow hit-or-miss director, Ridley Scott.
But unlike Interstellar, the key thing to know about The Martian is this: it’s good. Really good. What Scott achieves here is a tense film that probably, overall, is the best film yet in the recent 2010s trend of one-high-budget-space-film-a-year. Sure, both Interstellar and Gravity were more gorgeous films, and I would still hold that Gravity’s first 40 minutes is the best space film to come out this decade—but overall, taking into account the blunder of Gravity’s second half, The Martian comes out on top.
From the cataclysmic sandstorm that kicks the whole thing off, to the self-administered medical procedure that lasts a gruelling five minutes of screen time, to the disorienting and furious finale, The Martian manages to maintain a momentum that both the films I mentioned earlier lost around their respective midpoints.
But this comes with a sacrifice. Without the perceivably grand ambitions of Gravity, The Martian will likely miss the Oscars recognition its counterpart received. Sure, the film has Ridley Scott’s name attached, but it feels far from the work of an auteur, and far from ambitious. The film is functional, really. A jack of all trades. There aren’t any real notable cinematographic moments, nor any real character dimensionality. Mark himself, Matt Damon’s protagonist, has very little complexity, really—but he still manages to be fun to go along with for a two hour ride. On Earth Sean Bean, Jeff Daniels, and Chiwetal Ejiofor play a trio of NASA executives who were clearly written as each other’s perfect foils. Donald Glover and Mackenzie Davies both play bit characters who exist for half the film each, more or less swapping roles as plot-driving forces at the midpoint of the film’s runtime.
There’s a trend here. A trend towards people serving as functions meant to feed into the overarching intensity of the plot, rather than into the meaningfulness of any single moment of the film. And normally I’d critique that. I’d call it lazy, call it poor writing, rant for a while about some deficiency—but I’m not gonna do that here, because I don’t necessarily think The Martian deserves the critique. Although the original book is smart, it does ultimately fall in the category of ‘airplane fiction’; it’s a thriller, through and through, and as a film it manages to do what neither Gravity nor Interstellar did—remain compelling throughout its runtime. Is it because it’s drawing on literature, and therefore is an iterative effort of a film, instead of the product of a writer-director not known for their writing prowess? Is it because The Martian, as a film, has drawn on something pre-existing that they’ve been able to craft something which actually works? I dunno. I don’t have the answers.
That all said, The Martian is a solid return to form for Ridley Scott after his most recent couple efforts. Sure, a lot of the dialogue here is corny and laughable (‘I’m gonna science the shit outta it’ / ‘That’s nine hundred days of space’ / ‘Fear my botany powers’ [slow-mo montage, dramatic music plays] / ‘He told them to go have sex with themselves’), and it was at these moments I found myself most removed from the film—but maybe I needed those misplaced laugh cause the film was so intense. Even though the film didn’t necessarily want me laughing at all the points I did, maybe I had to. I mean, I found myself completely on-edge even when Matt Damon was counting potatoes, and nothing bad even ended up happening in that scene. So yeah. I probably needed those laughs.
In the end, though, is The Martian gonna be my favourite film of 2015? Probably not. Did I have a good time while I watched it? Hell yes. It’s tense, it’s well-paced, and it’s yet another space film that exults this ideal of ‘humankind’s perseverance’—and it’s one that manages to string itself out to successfully hold my attention for over two hours, which is great, because it means the genre is learning.