Ridley Scott has been directing feature films for nearly forty years, doing so at a reasonably prolific rate. Included among his films are a pair of science fiction efforts (Alien and Blade Runner) that are widely considered classics and have absolutely influenced the similar genre efforts that followed with a pervasiveness that only Star Wars can rival. He’s received three Best Directing Academy Award nominations and presided over a Best Picture winner. While I think even his most fervent adherents would acknowledge that he’s signed his name to more than a few clunkers, by any fair estimation Scott has had an enviable career. So I mean it as no small statement when I assert the following: The Martian is the best film Scott has ever made.
Based on a novel by Andy Weir, The Martian is set at some point in a near future that includes manned missions to the red planet that has long been an alluring frontier for mankind. The smart screenplay by Drew Goddard gets to the driving dilemma of the film with admirable efficiency. When a scientific expedition on the surface of Mars is cut short by a storm of unexpected intensity, an accident causes botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) to be left behind by his rapidly fleeing crew, who believe him to be dead. Taking shelter in the research station they’ve set up, Watney commits himself to the near-impossible: creating an environment that will sustain him on an inhospitable planet until rescue arrives. In its portrayal of highly intelligent people using scientific know-how to conquer daunting problems, The Martian resembles Ron Howard’s Apollo 13, but without the pesky need for historical accuracy to get in the way of the flights of imagination.
The successful convergence of rigorous scientific methodology and almost pulpishly satisfying science fiction storytelling would be enough to impress, but The Martian consistently surprises with reservoirs of casual insight. Besides being markedly funny without resorting to jokiness, Goddard’s screenplay consistently finds ways to flesh in the characters without getting mired in obvious screenplay mechanics. In part it accomplishes this by knowing precisely how much to hold back. There’s precious little deep background provided on any of the characters, including Watney, but Goddard and the fine fleet of actors show who these people are through depicting the ways they handle their respective jobs. They reveal themselves through their actions, not by tediously relating their own stories. Even the stretches of obvious exposition feel completely natural. Watney explains almost everything he’s doing to a camera in part to document the extreme circumstances he faces, as any diligent scientist would, and also in part to keep helpful from cracking up as he toils in extreme isolation. It helps the flow of the movie, but it also makes sense within the context of the fiction. In this facet, the tremendous performance of Damon helps immeasurably. Though in many ways the films that house them couldn’t be more different, Damon’s performance reminded me of Brad Pitt’s exceptional work in Moneyball, in that both turns manage to employ little flints of nuance to mystically bend movie star charisma into stealthy character work.
That brings me back to the contribution of Scott. Too often in his career, especially in recent years, Scott’s directing has fluctuated between overly fussy shot structures disrupted by hyperactive editing and an apparent disinterest in the material that bordered on callous (or, in the case of the disastrous Prometheus, a frosty swirl cone of both). The Martian finds him the most invested he’s been in years, maybe going all the way to Thelma & Louise, arguably his previous high-water mark. His storytelling is measured and shrewd, his sense of timing superb, and his belief in the solidity of the script absolutely unwavering. Like the characters that populate his film, Scott comes to it fully dedicated to the task at hand. And like them, it’s a pleasure to watch him level his very best effort at the challenge before him.