One is an incident; two is a coincidence; three is a pattern.
In the fall of 2013, the sci-fi masterpiece Gravity took the world by storm. In late 2014, the spectacular Interstellar did the same. Now here we are, in the first week of October 2015, and sure enough, here comes The Martian. And lo and behold, it’s absolutely brilliant.
If you’ve seen a movie ad in the last two weeks, odds are it was for this behemoth from sci-fi maestro Ridley Scott (the man behind Alien, Blade Runner, and Prometheus), based on Andy Weir’s out-of-nowhere bestseller and boasting a cast that would make Robert Altman jealous. The Martian is well aware of its high expectations, made higher by how much could go wrong with its premise, but never takes a wrong step.
In the near future, on the third manned mission to Mars, the crew of the Ares III (Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, and Aksel Hennie) is besieged by a sudden storm that threatens to kill them all if they don’t scrub the mission and fly home. During the trek back to their ship through the gale forces of the tempest, Mark Watney (Damon) is struck by debris and killed. The rest of the crew search for him but are forced to evacuate and leave him behind.
Of course, Mark’s not really dead. There wouldn’t be much of a movie otherwise. Instead, Watney wakes up to find himself left for dead on a foreign planet, with limited oxygen, even more limited water, and enough food to survive for 30 days. A rescue mission — only once and if he’s finally able to communicate with Earth again, as communications were knocked out by the storm — will take another four years.
What follows is the space equivalent of what Cast/Away was to desert islands or, more accurately, what 2013’s All is Lost was to the ocean. Like that Robert Redford-starring opus, Damon’s Watney has to rely entirely on his brains and resourcefulness to survive in the face of nearly unfathomably adversity. And like All is Lost, The Martian‘s star and ability to hold the screen keep the narratively simple film from ever lagging.
Watney narrates his thought processes in video logs, which does wonders for getting around the tricky concept of showing what he’s thinking without giving him another character to interact with. It also can’t be overstated how much of an assist the movie is given by Matt Damon, who has always had that ineffable charm and winning positivity that leaves you rooting for his characters.
Back on Earth, NASA has to deal with their biggest crisis in decades, working madly behind the scenes to do everything to get their man left behind back home, while also having to weigh what the cost of one life truly is in billions of dollars. Not to be outdone by the casting of the Ares III crew, the earthbound characters get to be played by the equally impressive Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jeff Daniels, Sean Bean, Kristen Wiig, Mackenzie Davis, Benedict Wong, and Donald Glover.
Ridley Scott can make flops and disappointments like all directors do, but when his movies are en pointe, everything from the acting to the visual effects to the cinematography is perfectly measured, and The Martian is the best example of that since 2000’s Gladiator. The movie is stunningly gorgeous, the technical effects are believable and convincing, and Scott’s direction truly makes you feel you’re going through Watney’s harrowing story of survival alongside him.
Gravity and Interstellar both went on to gross around $700 million worldwide, before their combined 15 Oscar nominations and eight wins. The Martian is destined to for a similar path, but it would be unfair to credit that to the “fall sci-fi movie” pattern it fits into. Ridley Scott, Matt Damon, and the cast and crew of The Martian deserve all the credit for ultimately making not just a new sci-fi masterpiece but the best movie of 2015 so far.