Scott F. Evans
The Martian is proof positive of how great films can be when all of the parts: writing, direction, and acting… work together.
Ridley Scott is an iconic director. Some might even call him visionary. But even at his talent level, Scott is only as good as his script. Consider Robin Hood, The Counselor, Prometheus and most recently Exodus: Gods & Kings. The truth is that with that kind of roster, Scott – iconic status and all – became box office poison. These films (although visually stunning) were misfires, specifically at the screenplay level.
Proving that you can teach an old dog new tricks, Scott reigned in his highly visual style and instead focused on human interaction. Stunning imagery of the Mars landscape is prominent throughout the film, but it’s the heart and soul of the human stranded on the Red Planet that takes center stage. Scott’s direction is effortless and unobtrusive. His camera allows us to both take in the imagery and connect with the camera. At no point does one overwhelm the other.
The Martian was written by Drew Goddard and adapted from the novel of the same name by Andy Weir. Goddard’s screenplay is smart but he never lets it go over audience’s heads. All of the main characters are scientists or administrators, and they behave like scientists and administrators. Goddard avoids including the typical clichéd versions of these archetypes, and focuses on the the humanity of each character. There’s drama, but it grows from realistic complications, not cartoon villainy. If The Martian has a villain, it’s nature and circumstances. Goddard injects healthy doses of heart and humor but neither are obviously shoehorned into the overall picture.
The stellar cast plays their respective roles with a natural relaxation that draws you into the story. You never catch them ‘acting.’ Matt Damon is probably one of the more likable actors of his generation, and he’s perfect in the lead role as astronaut Mark Watney. He’s all charm, and you immediately root for him. Jeff Daniels is NASA head Teddy Sanders. Typically, this character would be the antagonist. While Sanders has to make the tough decisions, Daniels’ gruff charisma makes you root for him. Chiwetel Ejiofor rounds out the lead cast as NASA Mission Director Vincent Kapoor. Ejiofor is effortless and excellent in what could have been the thankless role of a moderator between the suits and the astronauts.
The only real criticism I have about The Martian is that the overall nature of the film is a bit exuberant. Characters are faced with problems and they dive right in to solve them. They make mistakes, but there’s never a moment where any of them are paralyzed with fear, indecision, or regret. While it paints a refreshing picture of smart people doing thing smartly, it also gives the false impression of lower stakes.
That said, go see The Martian. It’s a great ride with strong performances and clever writing… and it just might re-instill a little faith in humanity.