The Martian

Directed By: Ridley Scott

Starring: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Sean Bean, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Donald Glover, and Mackenzie Davis

Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity may have hit a nerve in the human psyche and started a trend at the box office.  Every year since Gravity's debut on the big screen back in 2013, we've had a space epic arrive.  With each, we have interesting collective dialogue about the authenticity and accuracy of each.  With +, we discussed how realistic Cuaron's depiction of Ryan Stone’s isolated journey above our big blue planet.  With Interstellar, we discussed whether Christopher Nolan got it right with the science of wormholes and travel throughout the universe.  Now, we're going to be discussing whether Ridley Scott's The Martian — a story of survival on Mars — is a figment of our imagination or something that's truly possible.  As fate would have it, NASA announced that there is indeed water on Mars earlier in the week.  This timely revelation certainly adds fuel to this discussion.

While on a manned mission on Mars as part of NASA's Ares Program, a group of astronauts face the prospect of a dangerous storm derailing their mission.  Their commander, Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) orders an immediate evacuation as their only way home is unable to withstand the harsh weather.  As the crew scrambles to reach their aircraft, astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is hit by a piece of debris.  Unable to locate the downed Watney and unable to detect any signs of life, Lewis and her crew presume Watney is dead and continue with the evacuation.  The remaining crew members escape back to their ship Hermes and report their colleague's death to Mission Control.  NASA director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) mourns with the world over the loss of Watney.  As fate would have it, the world has nothing to really mourn.  Watney is alive and will soon do what no man has ever done.

Sometime after the storm subsides, an injured Watney awakens on Mars alone in the sand.  Determined to survive, Watney makes his way back to the station, patches himself up, and even manages to grow a crop of potatoes using his skills as a botanist.  With his fellow crew members gone, this may not matter.  The next mission from the Ares program will not arrive for another few years, so his best bet is to find a way to communicate with NASA, which is an impossible task.  Back on Earth, Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) wants to get back to Mars to continue the work that was left undone by the Ares 3 team in light of the storm, but Sanders refuses with the counsel of his public relations expert Annie Montrose (Kristen Wiig).  When Mission Control analyst Mindy Park (Mackenzie Davis) finds signs that Watney is alive, however, opportunity knocks for Vincent.  Meanwhile, Lewis and her crew continue their mission back to Earth unaware that their comrade is still ticking.

It's safe to say that both Ridley Scott and Matt Damon have put their feet in their mouths when it comes to their commentary on diversity in the film industry.  Setting my issues with their misguided personal views aside, I must say that The Martian continues the trend of terrific annual space-themed extravaganzas during the fall movie season.  Boldly envisioned, meticulously crafted, and beautifully executed, this film finds Scott in rare form.  This is not the Ridley Scott who made The Counselor and Exodus: Gods and Kings.  This is the Ridley Scott who made Gladiator.  This is the Ridley Scott who made Blade Runner.  This is the Ridley Scott who made Alien.  Delightfully entertaining from start to finish, The Martian may just be the best blockbuster of 2015 (so far).

Ridley Scott manages to concoct the perfect formula for his slightly futuristic space thriller.  With the vast empty planet of Mars and all the unknown variables endangering Mark, it's easy to build suspense.  Scott takes it to another level with the grand kind of edge-of-your-seat thrills only he can deliver.  At the same time, he infuses the film with quite a bit of humor (and disco music for that matter).  Despite being a film about a guy marooned on a planet, the film isn't a sad or brooding movie.  While it certainly has its fair share of dramatic moments, you'll walk out with some classic 70's tunes in your head and at least one memory that brings a smile to your face.  All the while, he's adapting a narrative that's fueled by one risk-based decision after another and managing to sift through tons of scientific minutiae that a segment of the audience craves in sci-fi spectacles like The Martian.  It really is among the best of Scott's movies.

The film is really made up of three moving parts — Mark Watney spending some alone time on Mars, the Hermes crew barreling back to Earth, and NASA leadership navigating a public relations fiasco.  The massive cast fueling these interwoven stories really does a fantastic job.  For his part as our lead character Mark Watney, Matt Damon brings the charisma needed to carry a never-ending monologue on his own.  He definitely delivers most of the memorable humor that fuels the film with his chatty videos documenting his time on Mars.  For her part as Commander Melissa Lewis, Jessica Chastain gives a very different performance relative to what we've seen from her in the past.  A confident lead, she is a noble astronaut with no cut cards and a penchant for shouldering burdens.  Finally, we have Jeff Daniels as NASA director Teddy Sanders.  With shades of Will McAvoy from The Newsroom, Daniels gives a nuanced performance as this cautious leader weighing one risk after another.

I could write all night about The Martian's cast.  Whether we're talking about Sean Bean making LOTR references and serving as the film's moral compass or Michael Peña talking loads of trash to his colleague left behind on Mars, the cast simply does what they do best and brings this terrific screenplay to life.  Better yet, The Martian is an outstanding piece of cinema that gives both Gravity and Interstellar a run for their money.  You just can't miss this one.  Ridley Scott's The Martian gets a sober rating.