Ridley Scott is unquestionably one of the biggest directors in Hollywood, but even his most ardent fans have to admit that Scott’s recent track record has been all over the place. Exodus: Gods and Kings was an overblown CG mess, The Counselor was an audience-stumping bomb, and Prometheus looked so tantalizing yet delivered so little. As I settled in for the screening of Scott’s latest film, The Martian, at the Toronto Film Festival this morning, I thought about Prometheus in particular and how my dashed expectations for that film had cautioned me against getting my hopes up today. Ridley Scott’s movies always make for great trailers, but can they still make for good … movies?
Happily, I can report that he’s still got it. The Martian isn’t liable to become an iconic sci-fi film in the vein of Scott’s early classics Alien and Blade Runner, but it’s a rock-solid, damn fine crowd-pleaser, and that’s more than enough. Here are four reasons why the movie works so well.
1. It’s got a genuinely great lead performance.
Truth be told, The Martian is a bit of a comeback for Matt Damon too. While he was delightful in HBO’s Behind the Candelabra, it’s been a while since Damon led a notable big-screen hit, and as an astronaut marooned on Mars who must struggle to stay alive until NASA can reach him, Damon gives a full-blown movie-star performance. The most valuable tool in this astronaut’s arsenal is the sense of wry humor with which he greets every major setback, and Damon nails every joke. Despite being lost in space, he’s not panicking like Sandra Bullock in Gravity or losing his mind like … well, like Matt Damon in Interstellar: Instead, he’s jerry-rigging exciting new ways to stay alive, recording clever vlogs in his space station, and coming as close as anyone possibly could to making almost certain space death seem like a fun way to go. It’s a pleasure to hang out with him for two-plus hours, and The Martian is surely going to give Damon’s mid-career a major jolt.
2. The cast is wonderfully diverse.
I’ve seen far too many movies this year that can’t find a speaking role for more than one woman, and countless more where you can’t find a non-white face unless you scan the extras. Thankfully, there are a ton of terrific female roles in The Martian, including both Kate Mara and Jessica Chastain in the group of astronauts trying to save Damon — “I’m happy that on a crew of six people, two are women,” Chastain told me at a press conference today, adding, “That’s actually better odds than the current NASA program” — and a diverse cast including Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kristen Wiig, Donald Glover, and Mackenzie Davis toiling for NASA on Earth. Scott still has a ways to go on this subject (the whitewashed cast and racial optics of Exodus were a low point), and some people who’ve read the novel The Martian was based on tell me that even with a cast this diverse, there were still one or two roles that were racebent, but this remains a step in the right direction for the director. At least it pleased Michael Peña, who plays another astronaut in Damon’s crew: “First Mexican in space!” he crowed at the press conference. “You can write that down.”
3. The 3-D is worth it.
Scott’s become a devotee of the 3-D format since shooting Prometheus, even though the extra dimension has started to fall out of vogue with filmmakers and audiences. (Whenever a director announced at Comic-Con this summer that his film was proudly 2-D, the fans would erupt in cheers.) With The Martian Scott makes a real case for 3-D, employing its depth of field as an additional way to isolate Damon, and portraying those dense Martian dust storms so compellingly that you can practically feel the grit flung at your face. Just this once, that ticket surcharge is worth paying.
4. It’s about good people being good to each other.
It’s nice to see a movie with no villain, where the protagonists genuinely like each other, and where people are good at their jobs. No one in The Martian is an asshole even when they have very different notions on how to rescue Matt Damon, and writer Drew Goddard (who adapted the book by Andy Weir) is smart enough to realize that the whole marooned-on-Mars thing is enough conflict to power the movie without making too much of interpersonal squabbles. When the astronauts on their way home from Mars must take a vote on whether to return to the planet for Damon (they only left their colleague because they mistakenly thought he had died during a dust storm), I half-expected a conventional movie conflict where the “no” votes would outweigh the “yes” votes, and then the decent members of the crew would have to convince the more hard-headed ones to cave. Instead, all of the astronauts quickly voted “yes” and then broke out into smiles. So did I.