★★★★ / 👍
Ridley Scott directs his best film in years (if not decades), and it’s an inspirational science fiction epic about human ingenuity in the face of enormous obstacles, rather than timey-wimey space magic and the power of love over the laws of thermodynamics.
The least plausible element in the film is, of course, the initial premise of a series of American-led human missions to Mars in a recognizable near-future. The obligatory disclaimer in the closing credits that NASA doesn’t actually endorse this film is a bit disingenuous; this film is, however unofficially, propaganda for the space program.
I am personally too cynical to fully accept the vision of scientific and political cooperation on display in The Martian, and sometimes the optimism is a bit forced. (As when the film pointedly uses Bowie’s “Starman” rather than, say, “Space Oddity” for a musical montage.) Still, I would like to believe that human beings could accomplish things like this within my lifetime, and that certainly colors my perception of the film.
Probably my favorite part of The Martian is not any of the stirring inspirational drama, or the technical aspects of the science fiction, but the matter-of-factness with which the movie asks us to treat interplanetary travel. For the most part, the script doesn’t shy away from the implication that pretty much every character in it is, by definition, smarter and better at their jobs than almost any member of the audience. The film’s worst missteps are precisely when it plays to the crowd: an eccentric genius making infuriating comedy-relief rocket noises as he explains his plan; a fully-qualified astronaut and pilot demanding things be explained to him “in English!”
There are characters and scenes which seem practically irrelevant to the story. Not having read the novel, I can’t tell whether their purpose will be clearer in the inevitable director’s cut, or if they are simply vestigial elements of the source material which could have been eliminated. Along those lines, there is one gag presumably from the novel which, though amusing, also pulled me out of the film because of a casting choice. (One does not simply walk into Tolkien references.)
Finally, I do hope that The Martian sets a precedent for more lenient MPAA ratings for films not from major directors; it gets a PG-13 despite explicitly drawing attention to its multiple examples of “strong language” through a self-reflexive bit of self-censorship that is the funniest thing in the film.