By my estimation, there must be two Ridley Scotts directing in Hollywood today who, for brevity’s sake, we’ll call Alien Scott and Prometheus Scott. Alien Scott has a deft understanding of film as a visual medium, using it to enhance his story and characters whether or not he has extensive visual effects to back him up (see: Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven). On the other hand, Prometheus Scott is who we seem to have been stuck with for at least the past five years, using film as an excuse to stage elaborate setpieces at the expense of telling an interesting story or creating compelling characters (see: Exodus: Gods and Kings, Robin Hood). So I was a bit wary to go see The Martian, as I could very easily see how putting Prometheus Scott anywhere near a science fiction premise could spell recipe for disaster.
Thankfully though, after much goading from my peers and after everyone on planet Earth seemingly having watched this before me, I got to see how Alien Scott proudly suppressed his lesser instincts and asserted control. I think this is because The Martian, though a piece of science fiction, has an incredibly simple premise: what if one man were stranded alone on Mars? The comparison has been made that this story is a combination of elements of Cast Away and Apollo 13, as we see the stresses and difficulties of being stranded alone in a hostile environment alongside a scientific exploration of a team looking to problem-solve their way to bringing their lost astronaut home. And miraculously, that could have been an overly busy film is incredibly watchable and entertaining.
I think a lot of it comes down to excellent casting. Matt Damon is pretty much perfect for stranded astronaut Mark Whatney, a character who could be a bland cipher if placed in the wrong hands. Thankfully, Damon is such an effortlessly likeable actor that he brings crude humor and tragic emotion to his part while still remaining charismatically neutral enough to act as an audience surrogate as he spends most of his screentime alone. You’re right there with Whatney, feeling his triumphs and setbacks just as he does.
The cast back on Earth and in the returning space vessel that mistakenly left Whatney for dead are equally impressive, a collection of characters so vast that it is impossible to list or even remember most of their names. However, Scott played this smart by giving most key characters a well-recognized actor to play them, including Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jessica Chastain, and Jeff Daniels to name a few. Their characters are well-developed enough to give them distinct personalities and make them immediately recognizable, but not so well-developed that the audience is given more information than they can handle. It’s the kind of large cast management that would make Joss Whedon blush, and I think that is the biggest contributing factor to Ridley Scott’s success with The Martian.
There’s obviously a lot more that goes into a film than its characters, but as I’ve said in other reviews, sometimes the seamlessness of direction is precisely what makes a film so great. The script is rock solid, the story beats land perfectly on the exact emotion the audience needs to feel at a given moment, and the science-positive message of an entire world looking to save one man is simply awe-inspiring. I know for a fact that Prometheus Scott would not have been able to direct one of the best films of the year. But Alien Scott, the true Ridley Scott, most assuredly has.