Space – the final frontier (how could I not start with that immortal line?). It seems that every year, there seems to be a film that tells the story of some disaster befalling an astronaut in space. In 2013, we saw Sandra Bullock float around the universe in Gravity. In 2014, we had to endure Matthew McConaughey solve the mysteries of time travel in Interstellar. In 2015, we saw Matt Damon battle the elements in The Martian, which may very well be the best of the bunch, and proof that the space travel genre still has place for something truly wonderful and original, and also absolutely brilliant.
Now to be perfectly honest, I was not that excited for this film. I loved Gravity, but found Interstellar to be a messy, overwrought mess, and I thought this film would not be any different. However, I was wrong to doubt it, and the first clue was in the fact that it was directed by Ridley Scott, a filmmaker who helped define science fiction with his films Alien and Blade Runner, and even though some of his recent films are not quite up to standard (who can forget that memorable mess that was The Counselor?), but The Martian proved to be a remarkable return to form for Scott, who was clearly trying to not only make a great science fiction film, but do something that was within his wheelhouse, but also unlike anything he has ever done before. If you told me a year ago that Ridley Scott was going to not only direct a science fiction comedy film, but a good one, I would have most certainly laughed. There was not any reason for The Martian to have been as good as it was, but it most certainly was fantastic.
One way that The Martian can be compared to Gravity is that it is essentially a one-person show, and the entire film rests on the performance of the person in the lead role. Matt Damon had it far easier, because once George Clooney floats off into oblivion in Gravity, it is only Sandra Bullock left to carry the rest of the film. Damon at least had some of the focus taken away from him occasionally with the ensemble cast. However, The Martian is tricky, because the role of Mark Watney is a difficult one to play – he is an astronaut left for dead on Mars, who has to survive until he can be saved. There is absolutely nothing truly redeeming about him as a person – he’s just another astronaut, and perhaps quite a careless one that got himself close to death. The role requires an actor that makes us believe that he deserves to be saved, and one that we are willing to not only tolerate, but root for. An unlikable or boring actor would just make the audience want him to die a painful death, alone on Mars.
However, there are very few actors as likable and charming as Matt Damon, and he pulls off the cocky charm and rugged nerdiness of Watney perfectly. It feels like his survival is absolutely personal to us as the audience, and we sit there in muted anticipation, cringing at his failures and rejoicing at his successes. Under Damon’s assured and very dedicated performance, Watney becomes one of the most compelling protagonists of the year, and I honestly cannot think of an actor better suited to the role. If this is not Damon’s best performance yet, then I am not entirely sure what is. He is absolutely magnetic, and I do think this performance in The Martian may go down as one of the most fascinating and wonderful heroes in cinema history. A fantastic performance from a truly exquisite actor, who is able to capture both the physical and emotional aspect of the character.
As mentioned before, Damon did have a supporting cast that could sometimes detract attention from him for a few moments. Much like Interstellar, The Martian assembles a fantastic cast that plays their roles in the story very well. Jessica Chastain is such a talented actress, and she proves herself to be emotionally strong but still vulnerable as the commander of the mission that left Watney for dead. Other standouts in her crew include Kate Mara as the smart member of the crew, and Michael Peña, who serves only as a foil for Watney to wisecrack at throughout the film. Back on Earth, Chiwetel Ejiofor is wonderful as the man who makes the arrangements for Watney to be rescued. Jeff Daniels proves himself as a solidly reliable supporting player as the Director of NASA that has to balance the rescue of the stranded astronaut, while still having the public’s perception of NASA remain positive. Kristen Wiig is cast in a relatively thankless role as the public relations officer of NASA, who ensures that the institution’s reputation and image exits this crisis unscathed. Also a notable piece of casting – Sean Bean was cast in this, and he didn’t get killed, which could very well be the first for his career! The entire cast is very solid, and even the weakest parts of this cast are utilized well. It could quite possibly be the best performance by a cast this year, and they are led by a wonderfully committed performance by Matt Damon.
Now one aspect of any film that I take notice of is the soundtrack. This is not an over-exaggeration in any means – The Martian has the best soundtrack of the year. Instead of the grandiose, sweeping and majestic scores of Gravity and Interstellar, The Martian‘s soundtrack is filled with something glorious – 1970s disco hits. It is such an inspired choice, and perhaps the best part of this film. In what serious science fiction film can you hear Donna Summer, ABBA and David Bowie, while a man struggles to survive on a deserted planet? I love a filmmaker that can make effective use of existing music, and I didn’t peg Scott as a filmmaker that would choose disco hits as the score for his film, but I was gloriously wrong in this assumption. A better soundtrack this year doesn’t exist, and a huge part of my adoration for this film comes from the soundtrack (to reveal a small bit of my trade – I determine the scores of films by assessing them on certain criteria, and one of those is an assessment on the use of music – The Martian is the first film that has scored a perfect score on this specific assessment). I loved this soundtrack, and I appreciate that Scott made sure that the audience was captivated by the exciting story, but also entertained by the lighter tone set by the soundtrack.
The Martian has been marketed as a comedy. I am somewhat opposed to that notion, but The Martian is certainly not an overly serious film. It isn’t at all comical, and the story is absolutely serious, and apparently somewhat scientifically accurate. However, it does not need to be dreadfully bland, and the tone of The Martian is absolutely wonderful. I can’t remember a semi-serious science fiction film that had this kind of light, jovial tone. It was often very funny, and while other similar films can be massively melodramatic, and The Martian somewhat laughs at those films that take an exclusively serious approach to this subject matter.
It is strange to be praising the light tone about a man fighting for survival on a deserted planet where he is likely to die, but after all, this is a film that is supposed to entertain and inform. Many similar films only serve to inform, while The Martian does a great job of doing both, and is the very definition of a popcorn film – one that gives us a bit of knowledge, but also an enjoyable experience. It is the exact reason why films like Star Wars did so well – they were serious films that didn’t take themselves seriously all the time. If a filmmaker can make the audience laugh at a dire situation, while not openly mocking it, that is a great testament to their talents. Of course, much also needs to be said for the fantastic screenplay, which gives Damon some absolutely amazing moments through some wondergul monologues, which are both poigant and emotional, but also often very funny and his situation is made less tense by the fact that Watney still has a sense of humor.
The Martian is definitely one of the best films of the year. It honestly shocked me – I wasn’t expecting such a fantastic film, but it was a pleasant surprise. Matt Damon is as wonderful as he will ever be, and fantastic work from the ensemble cast elevates this film. Ridley Scott has made arguably his best film since Gladiator in 2000, and perhaps The Martian ranks as one of his best, and will hopefully ascend into the pantheon of great science fiction films. It is certainly one of the biggest surprises I’ve had this year, and I adored it. Wonderful work, and a film I will definitely be revisiting a few more times, as I hope everyone else will.