“The Martian” (2015): Solving Problems into the Future (Review)
This movie was made by the guy whose first breakout feature (Alien) came with the tagline: “In space, no one can hear you scream.” Ridley Scott is back at his best.
Scott is Hollywood’s most aggressive grand atmospheric visualist. He spent a three-decade career telling small stories in huge, engrossing, and textured worlds, each housing a deftly subtle moral critique. An idea director, his films occasionally subdue their personal centers for the grand thematic picture. No longer. After a spree of four consecutive flops, Scott has emerged like the phoenix with his best work since the director’s cut of Kingdom of Heaven, and the most affecting personable film of his entire career. It is also the best film of the year.
The hook is simple: our will to solve problems and realize human virtue. Not just our stranded botanist astronaut Mark Watney, but NASA’s administrators, engineering corps, and the crew; mankind is put to the test. This is Private Ryan saving himself and inspiring everyone else to follow in his example.
Indeed, having everyone make just enough mistakes to keep the struggle credibly going past the two hour length without appearing incompetent could not have been easy. Fortunately, The Martian has a sense of humor and rhythm to its pacing. Its comical setups present one greater physics-baffling conundrum after another, yet not once does it lose focus by moping around. It won’t let you succumb to despair. I would never have expected this much levity in a sci-fi endurance movie this visually surreal. The Red Planet tries to kill this poor astronaut at every turn, yet every breathtaking trademark-Scott landscape sweep reinforces how worth it the trip was, and how important it is for us to try again. Watney finds the silver lining with ease, and the credits song could not have been more appropriate (I won’t spoil it).
The empowering optimism of this film is nothing short of elating. If Saving Private Ryan was an ode to the heroism of our grandfathers as citizen soldiers braving the peril of war in defiance of rational math, The Martian is a cheer for the audacity of today’s finest. The crew dons its space suits like they’re dressing for battle, and incur the wrath of space and even their home base without a second thought. They didn’t just save one man; they shaped the future. We can too. Thanks, Ridley.