Ridley Scott's never been known to have a lighthearted touch. The British-born auteur of such dark classics as Alien and Blade Runner usually favors characters on the brink of extinction. Their plight is no laughing matter. If you've seen the excellent and depraved American horror story The Counselor, for instance, you know just how bleak things can get for a Scott “hero.”
Considering this track record, The Martian stands alone as a surprising tonal outlier in the director's varied filmography. It's a visually spectacular space opera that doesn't just use comedy to soften the blow of a tragic event, in this case a failed NASA mission that strands marooned botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) on Mars. The film genuinely cherishes the replenishing qualities of laughter as part and parcel to survival.
Cynics might find this theme naïve, but The Martian unabashedly believes and asks the audience to do the same. Based on Andy Weir's 2011 bestselling novel, the film begins on the red planet's epic surface where weather can change from peaceful to raging in a single moment. This is what happens when an American crew of astronauts is collecting samples; a massive storm overtakes their position, leaving Watney presumed dead and his colleagues ravaged by guilt for leaving his body behind.
Commander Lewis (Jessica Chastain) makes the decision to retreat unceremoniously, and the shame weighs heavily on her throughout. Maybe that's why she's the one character who never appears to be having any fun. Watney, on the other hand, embraces the awfulness of his situation through sarcasm. He awakens covered in sand and impaled by an errant radio antenna, but he instantly takes action to “Doogie Howser” his injuries and “MacGyver” the only salvageable living space into a functioning farm.
Much of the film's first half highlights Watney's innovative techniques. He uses his own feces to start a mini potato farm and various other items to create a water source. This portion rides heavily on the character's mix of irony and resilience. Recording his experiences on a camera allows him an audience, not quite the same as Tom Hanks using a volleyball to unload his thoughts in Castaway but therapeutic nonetheless.
The Martian's personality evolves after Watney and his superiors on Earth find a way to communicate. Strangely timed jokes and disco tracks help ease the ongoing process of rational problem solving, spearheaded by a collection of scientists and bureaucrats played by the likes of Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jeff Daniels, Kristin Wiig, Sean Bean and Donald Glover, just to name a few. There's an ABBA musical cue that kills, giving life to a particularly brazen gamble of innovation.
Watching the best and brightest of NASA attempt to formulate a legitimate rescue plan reminds us that this isn't the first time a film has spent its entirety trying to save a character played by Damon. But unlike Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan, The Martian refuses to label its story a weighty tragedy. No matter how bad things get for Watney (and they definitely do), it explores the bizarre and enjoyable nature of human innovation, even when experienced under stress.
Rationality doesn't just win the day, it prolongs life for everyone involved. Even the Chinese government seems energized after its space program provides a key piece of technology to aid in the rescue efforts. Aside from its quirky view of mental and physical elasticity and international politicking, Scott's film revels in the widescreen vistas of its red setting. Watney's base camp resides at the center of an intergalactic Monument Valley, beguiling in scope and depth.
If these weird cinematic traits are any indication, The Martian, which opens Friday, Oct. 2, remains a fantasy of best possible scenarios emanating from the worst reality can throw at us. Keeping a sense of humor goes a long way. In space, no one can hear you laugh, but that doesn't mean you should ever stop cracking jokes.