The Martian  puts the science in science fiction, dropping Matt Damon into an ever-shifting puzzle as stranded astronaut Mark Watney. Glazed with a coat of unnecessary—but certainly welcome—comedy from screenwriter Drew Goddard, adapting Andy Weir’snovel, Damon is guided through his marooned sojourn by the famously steady hand of director Ridley Scott. The static expanse of Mars hovers eerily across the screen, lasting forever. There’s nothing else around.
Help is only $140 million away. Over the course of his career, Scott has leaned more and more heavily towards commercial tendencies, but his penchant for atmosphere has never diminished. Here, the two are perfectly married… although at the vague expense of artistic weight. Visually gorgeous yet technically straightforward, thematically intricate yet narratively basic, The Martian is the absolute greatest caliber that mainstream filmmaking can reach without breaking into a higher level of art.
Send help NASAP. What this film does perfectly is blend its tones: of despair and humor, caution and recklessness. The comedy may feel like window dressing at times, but the sardonically grim reality, the pivotal battle of the cheeky smartass versus the unfeeling almighty, is as integral to the film’s skeleton as its passion for ingenuity. With the help of a whole galaxy of distinguished costars, (such as Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jessica Chastain, Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Sean Bean, and Kristen Wiig… seriously. Even you’re in this movie.) Damon and Scott plunge the viewer into a complex solar system where innovation and creativity is the only way forward… indeed, the only way that anybody would even consider living. This potent atmosphere is created more through performance than through any actual plot machinations, but it’s an inspirationally driving feel nonetheless.
There is a moment— Is it scientifically plausible? Honestly, who can tell? Anyone smart enough to actually defend their practical complaints is already smart enough to look past them… a dynamic sorely lost on some viewers of the similarly-received Gravity and Interstellar. Laboratory-grade integrity isn’t what realism is about. “It’s space,” Damon’s Mark Watney says. “It doesn’t cooperate.” And that’s what realism is. The stickiness and the frustration of the natural order and the effects it has on fully-drawn people.
A quarter-dozen’s a crowd. Three films in as many years isn’t exactly what many people would call a “glut,” but the immediate legacies of Gravity and Interstellar must be taken into account when considering The Martian. No longer is it life-changing to see the sight of a highly intelligent group of characters discussing cosmic consequences while stars rotate casually through a window behind them. No longer is the deathly silence of the abysmal vacuum quite as chilling as it once was. Grounded (heh) space films, like any other subgenre, now must rise to the occasion of providing stories and characters where once-innovative conventions will start to fall short.
Sets a precedent for films that don’t set precedents.