Ridley Scott is one of the all-time great filmmakers. Of that, there is no doubt. But he is getting on in years, and when he began to make questionably received attempted masterpieces (like Prometheus) followed by an unquestionable turd like Exodus, some people started wondering if he was done. But then he came roaring back in 2015 with the well-made, well-received The Martian and our faith was restored. With that success at his back he went on to revive the Alien franchise with Alien: Covenant which most people seem to agree was at least not that bad, and now, who knows - sky is the limit for the 80-year-old auteur.
So was The Martian really that good? I definitely liked it. Essentially, it is Cast Away on Mars, as Astronaut Matt Damon gets stranded on the Red Planet in a not-too-distant-future NASA mission got awry and has to be inventive in order to survive long enough to be rescued. The movie is very proud of the fact that it is based on real, plausible science. And kudos indeed to the fact that science co-starred in an Academy Award-nominated film. But it is a bit sad what we live in a society where most movies are so devoid of any actual scientific basis whatsoever that when one does cleave to plausibility it is lauded for it like the second coming of Christ.
Nevertheless, I love good hard sci-fi (rare, on the screen) and this one delivers. Damon is charismatic enough to carry the film, and I guess calling it Cast Away was pretty disingenuous since there is a large cast of characters back at NASA and JPL and even on a space ship struggling to save him. So perhaps it is more like Apollo 13 crossed with Cast Away, which really begs the question why didn’t Tom Hanks have a cameo??
As you would expect from a Ridley Scott film, the visual aesthetic is terrific. The Martian vistas were breath-taking, and the film is edited and paced expertly. Ridley Scott earned his stars back with this one (though, for my money, he never really lost them). I thought the science featured in the film, usually deployed to solve seemingly intractable problems, was presented in a way that was easy to understand and not too clunky or hamstrung by exposition. The film actually benefits from comparison to Interstellar in that regard. The Nolans could not figure out how to convey complex scientific ideas seamlessly in that film and in the future, before they make another existential space opera about the time-traveling properties of love, they might want to take a page from The Martian about making science accessible and integral to the plot. Just an idea.
Oh yeah, one other thing that got me excited about this film is that it depicted plausible technologies for manned space travel to Mars. Now that is probably not going to happen in my lifetime due to logistical and financial realities of living in a world full of mouth-breathing butt-touchers, but it was really nice to see how it might play out in this movie. So, in the ultimate analysis, even though it features some moments of excessive silliness - like Matt Damon riding a farting space glove to safety - this is definitely a cool movie for nerds and we support its existence and its success.