Matt Damon may be in the midst of a PR kerfuffle and suffering, perhaps, a bit from foot-in-the-mouth syndrome. As a performer though, Damon is in never better shape if Ridley Scott’s grandly entertaining space odyssey The Martian is any indication. Damon uses his full faculties in a graceful tightrope walk of a performance, one that’s relentlessly physical, emotionally heart-wrenching and light on its feet all at once. You could say the same thing about the movie as a whole as well.
Part of what makes The Martian such a joy to watch to luxuriate in the company of Damon himself- useful and necessary for the movie to work considering the actor spends great portions of screen time all by himself. The Martian features a sprawling, star-studded ensemble, but make no mistake, this is Damon’s movie, through and through. Modern American cinemas current “everyman,” Damon is making his mark as the heir apparent to classic movie star goods guys like James Stewart and Tom Hanks and his charismatic and emotionally economic leading turn in The Martian may be Damon’s most potent example yet. In the film, Damon portrays Mark Watney, a botanist on a mission to Mars. An opening sequence finds a raging and unpredictable storm coming, one that sends Watney and his fellow crew of astronauts and scientists on a perilous track to leave the red planet at once. An accident leaves Watney stranded and presumed dead to his crew (headed by Capt. Lewis, played by Damon’s Interstellar alum Jessica Chastain). The Martian is posited as the ultimate survival tale.
The film is also a gas, again mostly because of Damon’s infectious performance. Watney understands the circumstances (as one can) and that death may loom unexpectedly within seconds- Watney must always contend with oxygen breaks, rationing food, not to mention losing his mind. The ever wavering sense of returning home to Earth makes up the plot of The Martian, so the stakes couldn’t be higher. Yet Scott, screenwriter Drew Goddard (The Cabin in the Woods) formulate their spectacle- an adaptation of Andy Weir’s “rah-rah science” best-selling novel- as an engrossing E-ticket adventure. By that, Watney is not designed as a brooding, tortured soul. There’s anguish in Watney’s situation but none in his temperament, a grace note that marks The Martian a totem seemingly from another era. Damon doesn’t appear to be bleeding for his art (though a ghastly early sequence of body horror when Watney performs makeshift surgery on himself may qualify) and Scott allows jokes and fun pop songs to soften the film which never lets a sense doom and gloom creep in. All of which is particularly refreshing in an age where so many leading men on the big and small screens are asked to dim their charisma for the purpose of “truth.”
With that, its a bit of a surprise- a first even jarring- that The Martian is so funny. Not just on terms of observational wit, but yuk yuks put on the page. “I’m gonna have to science the shit out of this,” Watney exclaims in with his attempt to create a water source. All the while, disco tunes like “Turn the Beat Around” and “I Will Survive” rock the soundtrack, asking us (not unlike another Scott picture), “Are you not entertained?” Yet as whole, the humor, even the music (likely to be lazily compared to the soundtrack of Guardians of the Galaxy) blends perfectly with the drama and the spectacle. Scott, experiencing a sci/fi resurgence following his awfully glum 2012 prequel/whatsit Prometheus, posits The Martian as seemingly a picture with the spliced genetic materials of filmmakers James Cameron (crisp, nuts and bolts, grand) and Frank Capra (slightly square, optimistic, engulfed with a strong sense of community and teamwork). Both complement one another rather nicely.
If there’s a drawback to merriment of this survival tale, it may that Scott crosscuts back and forth between Watney’s last man on Mars with events back at NASA, as a crack team tries to bring him home. Included are some incredible performers including Jeff Daniels as NASA head Teddy Sanders, Kristen Wiig as press secretary Annie Montrose and Chiwetel Ejifor as Mars mission head Vincent Kapoor. Bringing Watney home requires not just an incredible grasp of scientific detail but also a great deal of global politics (at one point, the Chinese space program steps in with a Hell Mary pass, something which seems more like a nod to the growing box office numbers in the People’s Republic of China than a sense of international comradere). It’s not so much that the Earth sequences are bad, they just divert interest from The Martian‘s grandness- Damon’s glorious one man show. To further matters, time is also splits with Watney’s crew as they journey their way back home to Earth- again, some engaging actors (including Chastain and the always welcome Michael Peña) make up that team.
A further note comes in the form that Scott can be accused a bit too often of telling rather than showing. Part of this is explainable, considering the dense scientific exposition The Martian muddles through (we’ll live it to Neil deGrasse Tyson to way in on how accurate it is), however with a wink of an eye. Watney, through video diary charts his successes, failures and various insane ways of staying alive. A great deal of which is humorous, sometimes even heart-breaking but therein lies some of the disconnect between the what makes a very good picture just a bit short of being a great one- most of his journey, his isolation, his boredom is read to us as if the audience were a child being told a bedtime story. Like what comprises its soundtrack, The Martian is catchy, breezy and tremendously entertaining. But does it stay with you?
Anchored with great wit and enormous ease by never stronger Matt Damon, The Martian is a grand piece of pop entertainment. Eager to please and filled with humor, heart and a remarkably steady pace, Ridley Scott’s space odyssey marks one of the strongest films the director of Alien and Blade Runner has helmed in years, perhaps decades. While the film may lack the visual poetry of Gravity or the experimental vigor of recent survival film entry 127 Hours, The Martian is a grand, gorgeous, old-fashioned spectacular spectacular. The best summer movie of the fall.