Leave it to the man who directed the scariest movie ever made about outer space – “Alien” – to now make the coolest movie you’ve ever seen about outer space, “The Martian.”
The man is Ridley Scott. The movie is “The Martian,” now playing in area theaters in all of its 141-minute glory. The big difference is this: When Scott made “Alien,” he was 40 years old and, in middle age, proving conclusively to the world just how extraordinary were the directors who had emerged from making episodic TV and TV commercials in England. Back then there were movie snobs lined up around the block to deride him for just that reason.
The man who now gives us the ultra-cool and exciting “The Martian” is 77 and known as Sir Ridley Scott, a fellow whose past is celebrated everywhere people are still capable of celebrating others’ pasts freely, especially when they’re as worthy as Scott’s.
The film visionary knows things now he might not have known before. “The Martian” is almost like a triumph for movies in the 21st century.
It is brilliant and exciting but not even remotely original and almost proud of it. We’re watching Matt Damon as a botanist stranded on Mars when he’s assumed dead and the rest of his crew has to flee the red planet for their very lives.
So he stitches up his wound in a little solitary homemade surgery and observes to his video log “I’ve got to find a way to grow three years worth of food here.” Which, because he’s a botanist, he figures out how to do by synthesizing water from hydrogen and oxygen and using his own excrement for fertilizer.
The resultant crop? Potatoes. No one ever said Mars got five stars in the Michelin Guide.
In 1964, a first-rate B-movie director named Byron Haskin (“The Naked Jungle,” “War of the Worlds”) scratched out a B-movie called “Robinson Crusoe on Mars” about an astronaut stranded on Mars.
Scott’s terrific vision of a man alone on Mars – and a NASA team on earth trying to get him back – was made with the advice and consent of NASA itself which means there’s as much science in this crackerjack sci-fi as they could dramatically get away with.
It is a wonderful accident that two completely triumphant movie visions are opening in the same week with the same amazing cinematographer – Dariusz Wolski, who shot this and also Robert Zemeckis’ “The Walk.” In both cases, we’re watching cinematography and CGI coming together with stunning and exciting seamlessness.
For dramatic purposes, seeing is believing and Sir Ridley has been in the forefront of those making sure that’s been true for the past 40 years.
It is almost as if “The Martian” were some sort of connivance to make us aware in 2015 how stunning an art form movies have routinely become.
The movie itself shows you a whole world concerned with an astronaut stranded on Mars – even astrophysicists in China who decide to lend some technological support. The movie itself found deserts in Jordan with just the right red color to replicate Mars.
But make no mistake: Drew Goddard’s script for Sir Ridley is so 21st century that it came from an Andy Weir story first told on Weir’s blog and then sold online for 99 cents. A lot of the film’s terrific and flip man-alone humor (our boy explaining to us how terrible was the musical taste on the laptop of the captain who had to leave him behind) is characteristic internet drollery. Here’s a movie where someone’s love of disco is so complete that the only relief for the ear is Donna Summer’s “Hot Stuff.”
It’s one of the film’s best comic moments. Pay attention, too, to what plays on the soundtrack when the movie ends.
We’re watching a tale of two planets. On Mars is the stranded astronaut (Damon) who spends every day thinking of new ways to survive and rendezvous with the next manned mission to the planet. We see his cocky pride in being “the best botanist on this planet” and, legalistically speaking, an interplanetary “pirate.”
On Earth is NASA, with the rest of our planet looking on. Jeff Daniels is the NASA boss, Chiwetel Ejiofor is a concerned scientist and Kristin Wiig is the voice of PR reminding all the scientists and technocrats how every decision may look to their less-scientific fellow humans.
On the space ship that left him behind are Jessica Chastain, Michael Pena and others, the ones who figured he was already dead and fled to save their own skins from the Martian storm.
“The Martian” is so much a triumph of movies themselves in a new century that he was able to recycle all sorts of things from other space movies, including his own “Prometheus,” an unloved spectacle that was amazing to look at but dramatically inert.
Not this one. It’s both an interplanetary vision and a bit of a nail biter when it gets going.
We’re in an era of some amazing-looking space movies – “Oblivion,” “Gravity,” “Interstellar.”
This is the only one that has it all – wit, brains, visual magnificence, and wonderful suspense throughout.
It’s a wee bit too long, perhaps, but great to look at and exciting to watch. And both the film and the story it tells are about the unbelievable things human beings can accomplish together.
Cool. Wayyyy cool.
3.5 stars (Out of four)
Staring Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Michael Pena and Kate Mara. Directed by Ridley Scott. Rated PG-13 for strong language, injury images and brief nudity. 141 minutes.