Monday, October 19, 2015

'The Martian' review

Ridley Scott has been on a career roller-coaster over the last few years and his latest film has not changed that. From the solid American Gangster in 2008, to the poorly received Robin Hood, to the divisive Prometheus, to the critically derided The Counselor and Exodus: Gods and Kings, Scott has been less-than-consistent over the course of the last decade. However, every once in a while, he proves that even at the age of 77, he's still got it. The Martian, his latest foray into the sci-fi genre, is evidence that Scott is still one of the most talented directors on the planet. A smart, witty and universally appealing film, The Martian is led by an absolutely terrific performance by star Matt Damon, Drew Goddard's magnificent script and assured direction from one of the modern sci-fi masters. The Martian may not be as bold as Christopher Nolan's Interstellar or as technologically revolutionary as Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity, but it combines some of the best elements from those films for a tasty concoction of humor, strong ensemble performances, scientific smarts and a deeply human story that will endure for years to come.

Set in the near future during a manned mission to Mars, astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon), commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) and the rest of the Hermes crew (Michael Pena, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie) are on a routine walk when disaster strikes in the form of an incoming dust storm. Due to the danger, the crew must pack their things and leave immediately. The evacuation goes well, except for one small thing- Mark is struck by a large piece of debris, presumed dead and left stranded on Mars. Watney awakens with a large rod stabbed into his abdomen. He only has enough food to last for a month. And he's stuck in a small life habitat not meant to keep people alive for a very long time. Mark's death seems imminent. But thanks to his scientific genius, Mark finds a way to stay alive. Through his own brilliance, as well as the tireless work of NASA scientists back on Earth, the mission to return Mark safely home becomes one that unites humanity and brings a sense of hope to the world.

The first thing that is noticeable about The Martian is the fact that throughout the whole film, there are no villains. No mustache-twirling astronauts who want to sabotage Mark's plans. No dastardly bureaucrats that stand in the way of success. In The Martian, everybody is united behind the common purpose of saving Mark. Optimistic, hopeful and altogether free of the dread that seems to permeate through the sci-fi genre today, The Martian is a film with exceptional flow and a brilliant sense of humanity that is deeply felt in every frame. Exquisitely shot, set on an epic, but intimate scale, and cast to perfection, The Martian is a top-notch blockbuster that stands as one of the best films of the year and an instant science fiction classic.

While what really makes The Martian work lies beyond the actors on screen, the ensemble cast is phenomenal and every actor, no matter how large or small the part, contributes to make the film even better. Matt Damon anchors the production with a smart cockiness and a constant likability that helps the audience relate to Mark. In this film, it would have been absurdly easy for the producers and writers to give Mark an incredibly gimmicky backstory with a wife, kids and some sort of contrived reason to get back home. That angle had already been done rather well in Interstellar (and Gravity to a certain extent) and there was no need for it to appear in The Martian. Thankfully, we know very little about Mark. He's just a good guy- a man who was injured and caught in a dangerous situation just for doing something that he loved. And because of that, we as audience members are able to effortlessly relate to him.

The supporting cast is loaded with Oscar winners, nominees and great character actors who all get their chance to shine. Jessica Chastain plays the leader of the Hermes crew rather well, and her guilt over leaving Mark behind is felt in every scene that she's in. It's not quite the emotional turn that she gave in Interstellar, but the different flavor that she brings to it is pretty spectacular. Michael Pena also has some fantastic moments, as do Sebastian Stan, Kate Mara and Aksel Hennie. Chiwetel Ejiofor is the most prominent member of the Earthbound NASA crew and he is terrific as always. He brings a lot of wit and dignity to the role of Vincent Kapoor and I think that Ejiofor is slowly becoming one of my favorite actors. Jeff Daniels turns in a strong performance as NASA President Teddy Sanders and he does great as the brains and logical center of the operation. In addition, Donald Glover has some comical moments as Rich Purnell, Benedict Wong is consistently fantastic, and despite having little to do, Mackenzie Davis and Kristen Wiig do a very good job.

In addition to being impeccably cast, The Martian is also wonderfully scripted by Drew Goddard, working from Andy Weir's beloved best-seller. Goddard wrote World War Z and some other hit TV shows in the past, but this is the first screenplay that could garner him some Oscar attention. The film takes extremely complex science lingo and difficult ideas and makes them accessible to a wide audience. And it does it in a way that works even better than it did in Interstellar (one of the main complaints of that film was its scientific complexity and the confusion that resulted). Goddard's screenplay is also tremendously funny and it moves along a brisk pace, never becoming boring over the course of the film's 142 minute runtime.

While Goddard sets the tone with his taut and magnificent screenplay, Scott is the master executor, taking the material and allowing it to flow off the page onto the screen with ease. The film is simultaneously grand in scope and incredibly intimate, allowing us to feel like we've been on an epic journey with characters that we truly care about. Scott's direction never does anything extraordinarily unique, but the filmmaking is classically constructed to perfection and unfolds gracefully. His use of sound, of music (David Bowie's "Starman" is put to great use) and of stellar visual effects make The Martian a masterpiece of composition. This is, without a doubt, Scott's best film in years.

But what really sets The Martian apart as a film that will be remembered for ages is the feeling that it gives you as an audience member. It's an almost intangible sensation- one that can't easily be described in a few meager paragraphs. If I had to put together the words, I would say that it's a feeling of hope. A feeling of pure joy at what is coming together on the screen. The Martian is pure cinema- a trip to another galaxy that is so filled with rich, textured human emotion that you'll leave the theater elated. Everything with The Martian feels natural and easy. Nothing is forced, nothing is contrived. It's all perfectly and masterfully done.

I entered The Martian with a lot of trepidation, simply because of Scott's recent track record, and I left feeling invigorated. A perfect blend of all of the elements that make up great films, The Martian is an instant Oscar contender and an instant classic, a film that makes all the right moves and does it in a fresh, entertaining way. Damon is fantastic, the script is fresh and Ridley Scott has another great sci-fi film to add to his already impressive collection. You might think that there's nothing new left to be done with the space genre, but The Martian will make you rethink that. It's a masterful film and one of the best times I've had at the theater in years.

THE FINAL GRADE:  A+                                            (10/10)

Image Credits: Screen Rant, The Guardian, Variety, Hollywood Reporter, Joblo

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