Tuesday, October 13, 2015

"The Martian": Review


This is a late review, as Ridley Scott's "The Martian" has been in theaters for two weeks now (and is setting the Box Office on fire), but I wanted to take this opportunity to offer my two cents on what is the best film I've seen so far this year. 

A lot has been said about how surprisingly great "The Martian" is given Scott's recent trend of misfires ("Exodus: Gods and Kings", "The Counselor"), and I think a lot of the credit for that ought to be given to Drew Goddard for his impeccable script. It was never that Scott, first and foremost a visual stylist, lost his touch, but there'd only so much even the most sophisticated technician can do when working with lousy material. 

Beyond the overall quality of the screenplay, what also helps to separate "The Martian" from other recent Scott films, as well as similar entries into the sci-fi genre like "Interstellar", is the undeniably light and surprisingly witty approach to what is essentially a survival story. At it's best, science fiction tends to be a pretty grim and cerebral genre (something Scott has demonstrated on his own two genre masterpieces, "Alien" and "Blade Runner"). In that sense, the tone of "The Martian" has less in common with Scott's previous sci-fi films, but is instead closer to something like Ron Howard's "Apollo 13". The film rides a fine line between sincerity and corniness, but it remarkably maintains that balance and never dips over into the later. 

While I've already sung the praises of the script in selling the humanism of "The Martian", a lot of credit is also due to Matt Damon, who gives one of the best performances of his career in a role that requires some dramatic heavy lifting while acting opposite only himself. He is tasked with playing a character with an almost absurd level of optimism in the face of dire circumstances, but he sells that aspect of his character every step of the way through both his intelligence and charisma. The rest of the large, diverse supporting cast are also uniformly solid in the moments where the film shifts away from Damon's one man show and onto what's happening back on earth. "The Martian" is a perfect example of how casting big names in what amount to smaller roles can help give us a sense of the characters as fully formed people and not just plot points. Every actor here is playing to type; Jeff Daniels is stern and authoritative, Jessica Chastain is determined with a maternal side, Kate Mara is bright-eyed and inquisitive, Chiwetel Ejiofor (perhaps the closest thing to a stand-out) projects empathy and intelligence and Donald Glover provides some springy physical comedy. That being said, nobody feels underutilized in these roles, marking this as a true ensemble cast, with every role working towards the larger story. 

If I had any reservations while watching "The Martian" it would be that it has such a light touch that I felt a lack of tension at times in what should be a tense premise. That being said, the optimistic, uplifting tone of the film felt authentic to me in so far as anybody in the position that Damon's character finds himself in would likely need that type of determination of spirit to survive that situation in the first place. The film also throws just enough curveballs our way in key moments to remind us of the true peril our protagonist finds himself in without ever becoming grim. "The Martian" is a survival story where the main tool our character has to survive is his own intellectual resourcefulness. As cheesy as that description sounds, "The Martian" sells it through a refreshing mixture of humor and humanism. 

Grade: A

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