"The Martian", the latest space adventure from the man who gave us the seminal "Alien" franchise, can be summed up in one particular scene. In it, commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) of the Ares III mission discusses the rescue options for Mark Watney (Matt Damon), the crew member they mistakenly left behind on Mars. The most viable one will require great risk and extend their current assignment by a few more years, keeping them away from their loved ones for and the safety of home. From the immediate affirmative reaction from the crew however, she might as well have been saying "Call the sitter, honey. We're going to be out a little late." Indeed, despite the high stakes, this latest addition to the "lost in space" canon is a joyous testament to the power of human optimism and intelligence.
But let's back up a bit. At this turning point in the film, Watney had already been on Mars for many days (or "sols" as they are known on Mars), after a storm left him stranded and presumed dead by his crew. With an unfavorable atmosphere and limited resources, his situation was dire to say the least. But through perseverance and brain power - using his training in botany and other sciences - he managed to provide himself food, a habitable environment and establish communication with his people. In effect, creating life on Mars. Eventually, his efforts are detected by NASA, prompting a daring mission to bring him home.
It's been a good few years for the "space" genre, with the likes of "Gravity" and "Interstellar" taking us into the stratosphere exploring concepts both intimate and epic. And now with "The Martian", Ridley Scott and screenwriter Drew Goddard have taken the best aspects of those films - emotional catharsis and intellectual discourse - and distilled them into another thoroughly entertaining film.
On paper, "The Martian" wouldn't immediately appear to be riveting cinema, focusing on pure science and problem-solving above sentimentality and spectacle. But the film fully engages its audience through strong writing and compelling lead performance. Indeed, the beauty of the script is how it takes complex scientific concepts and makes them accessible. Unlike more ambitious sci-fi films, the clarity of Goddard's writing never makes it feel like a daunting science lesson.
Indeed, "The Martian" is consistently exciting and cinematic, and its greatest spectacle is Matt Damon's shining one-man show at the heart of the larger ensemble. As the character keeps himself occupied and entertained to maintain his sanity and hope, it's amusing to watch Damon's transition from momentary despair to eventual triumph.
Ultimately, it's this triumph over seemingly insurmountable odds which makes "The Martian" so satisfying. While recent space epics have left us in fear of that vast unknown in the sky, "The Martian" makes space exploration cool again. It leaves you in awe of what we are capable of as human beings. We can use our wit to save ourselves, our fellow man, and in the case of Ridley Scott, to revive a floundering film career.
And much like Johnny Depp in "Black Mass", the Academy will likely embrace Ridley Scott's return to form. "The Martian" is a crowdpleaser that sends you out feeling better about yourself, which will put it in a good position for a possible Best Picture nod, with Best Director to go along with it. I also expect some love for the Best Adapted Screenplay and of course, for Matt Damon's invaluable work as a Best Actor candidate. And though I suspect its visuals aren't striking enough to overcome the "been there, done that" sentiment for yet another space film, I think the sound design will be able to reap nods for Best Sound Editing and Best Sound Mixing. Of course, it will have to win over audiences first, but that seems like a near certainty. which I'm sure it will. As such, be sure to keep an eye on this one come January.