If you need to cast someone in the role of a hapless chump who must be rescued, look no further than Matt Damon, apparently. Spielberg noted this first for Saving Private Damon, and then Nolan apparently rescued him in a different solar system in InterDamon, and now we have The Mattian, about a guy who says “Read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States” one too many times, so the crew leaves him behind on Mars.
But when NASA catches wind of it, not realizing it’s Matt Damon, they mount a heroic resupply/rescue effort.
Meanwhile, Matt Damon, not realizing he’s Matt Damon, deploys all kinds of science, math, engineering and botany to stay alive.
Actually, he’s quite good in this, as he usually is. But he is fun to poke fun at, and it’s kind of fun that such a left-wing guy is starring in the most conservative movie to come out of Hollywood in 50 years!
OK, I can’t really back that up, but this movie is so traditional, so American, and so cis-normatively meritocratic, that Walt Disney himself could have made it (except for some of the salty language). In fact, I thought Walt Disney had made back in the ’60s as Robinson Crusoe on Mars—and check that one out on Netflix, it’s way better than it sounds—but that was actually an independent production.
Not surprisingly, it’s also getting raves from critics as being a great movie from the 77-year-old director Ridley Scott who, 77-or-not, has directed no fewer than three movies in-between this and the last movie of his I saw, 2012’s Prometheus. Which was not great. Interestingly, this is not a movie you’d sit down and say “Hey, Ridley Scott directed this”, so restrained is his approach. I was actually surprised to see he had directed it. (I knew that he had but had forgotten.)
But realism is the watchword for The Martian, and while there’s a real limit to how far you can take that in a movie, it focuses enough on realistic details to buy sufficient suspension of disbelief for the elements that aren’t explained. They even have a decent explanation for him being left behind, where some of the movie capsules I’ve read make it sound like a Home Alone thing: MARRRK!
Anyway, we have here an adventure tale, as people struggle to find solutions to various problems. Unlike most “desert island” stories, they figure out pretty quickly how to communicate and we get some drama not just from the people on Earth, in the spaceship Hermes, and Matt Damon individually, but also between them all as well, with due deference given to the time delay. In the classic mold, we actually don’t learn tons about the characters: One of the characters has young children, one is married, Mark doesn’t have children or a wife, but he has parents, etc.
We’re just given pictures of people in action, and we form our feelings toward them based on that, and based on their collective struggle to save a fellow human being, even as it might risk others. Fancy that.
The cast is almost ridiculously A-List, given that there’s precisely one really meaty role, but the Big Name roster helps to give each role a little extra heft. Jeff Daniels plays the head of NASA—fine, practically expected, especially if Bill Pullman was busy—but his assistant is Kristen Wiig, and she’s great in her non-nerd-surrounded-by-nerds part. Michael Pena has a kind of side-kicky role to Matt Damon, okay, business as usual—but Jessica Chastain and Kate Mara do, too, just as Sean Bean is sort of a side-kick to Jeff Daniels.
Scott generally gets good performances, even when he has no right to expect them (*kaff*Prometheus*kaff*), and I get the impression Drew (Cabin in the Woods, Cloverfield) Goddard’s screenplay is fairly respectful of a novel that itself is very respectful of reality. All these combine to make a truly fine film, worthy of the upper half of Scott’s resume.
The rescue plan, by the way, is preposterous, except that it’s very similar to the one actually used for the first moon landing (which I also thought was preposterous). They probably go a bit overboard to get the Big Ending, but I really couldn’t find much fault with that. If there was a serious flaw with the film, I’d say it’s in the fact that we don’t really get a strong sense of Mark’s loneliness, which is kind of the hallmark of this sort of story. There’s just so much going on in the two hours and twenty minutes, there’s no time to feel that.
On the one hand, that contributes to the refreshing nature of the film. On the other, in actuality, no matter how busy you were, most of your hours stranded on Mars for years would be spent in quiet inactivity.
I had a moderately hard time dragging The Boy to this, but he came out much favorably impressed, probably more so than I. Neither of us mentioned “best film of the year”, though it’s a likely top 10, and may just win a bunch of Oscars depending on what politically correct buttons get punched in the upcoming two-month flood of award-bait flicks.
In any event, it is one of the most remarkable films of the year: Without the language, this could’ve been a G-rated Disney flick. The only thing that separates it from the movies of 60 years ago is “diversity” and a little Chinese ass-kissing (back in the ’70s it would’ve been Russian ass-kissing). And that ain’t too bad.