Ridley Scott has been nominated three times for a Best Director Oscar, but The Martian is the first time his hat has been thrown into the Best Picture ring. Could be that the Academy finally took notice of the fact that few directors in our lifetimes have been more adept at transforming the movie experience into a journey to another world – an expansive, visual and aural immersion that is as compelling in Ancient Rome as it is in a futuristic Los Angeles. And in an era when folks like James Cameron take full advantage of the technological advances of computer-generated muscle, Scott still finds a way to put those directors to shame.
It is also very likely that the Academy appreciates a film that represents the complete package: a visionary director working with an excellent screenplay, and an inspiring performance by The Martian‘s star, Matt Damon. That appreciation takes the form of Academy Award nominations for both Damon and the screenwriter, Drew Goddard, but, uh… somehow they seemed to have left Best Director off the list. Oversight.
Damon stars as Mark Watney, a NASA botanist who is part of the Ares III manned Mars mission to check out dirt and whatnot on Acidalia Planitia. When an unexpected sandstorm causes the crew to abandon the planet after only six sols, Watney gets speared by an antenna and is left for dead.
The movie follows the survival efforts of Watney on Mars, as he deals with one scientific conundrum after another, but it also showcases the efforts of NASA and a team of consultants back home, as well as the painful interactions among the other members of the Ares crew, who are only told that Mark is still alive several weeks into their eleven-month journey back to Earth.
As much as I gush over Ridley Scott and his ability to transport an audience, the guiding force of The Martian is truly Matt Damon. His motivation for survival is a little less primal than another left for dead Oscar nominee, but it is no less human, and it demonstrates the kind of determined spirit that every one of us admires in our fellow man, whether they be athletes, cancer battlers, or superheroes. Damon’s character, however, is a scientist. And upon coming to grips with his situation, he literally says, “Fuck you, Mars,” and resolves to put his botanical knowledge and engineering prowess to the test.
Again, it also helps that Scott was dealing with great source material, and an excellent adaptation. Andy Weir, a self-proclaimed science dork, had originally serialized The Martian and offered the chapters for free on his website. When his book was later published as a $0.99 Kindle e-book, and sold 35,000 copies in a three-month span, Weir caught the attention of the major publishing houses.
The novel is remarkable in that it is, first and foremost, a story of survival, and the instinct to casually classify it as science fiction discounts the exhaustive research and superb level of science fact that went into the book. In fact, the novel is so meticulous in its attention to detail that one can easily argue that it needed Scott’s touch to remind the audience that we are indeed watching a story set in the near future, on a planet that we haven’t actually set foot on as of yet.
Personally, I couldn’t give a shit about how spot-on the science is. You can modify the deflector array or override the hyperdrive to your heart’s content and I’m going to be convinced that you performed a miraculous feat of space-age engineering. But I know that a lot of people have been genuinely impressed with the astounding accuracy of everything from the creation of water to the orbital slingshot. I suspend disbelief just about every time images start moving on a screen, so just make with an engaging story, folks.
Drew Goddard, the screenwriter for The Martian, does just that, by combining Mark Watney’s story of determination and ingenuity with the story of the folks back home – both fictional and real. As audience members we may not be able to empathize or understand what Watney is going through, but we brainstorm, we cheer, we agonize along with every member of the supporting cast, from satellite operators to members of the Ares crew. Goddard, who made his directorial debut with 2012’s The Cabin in the Woods, was meant to direct The Martian as well, but because of scheduling conflicts was forced to turn over the reins.
But Goddard’s work on the screenplay did not go unnoticed, as he is up for an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. Which brings up this happy connection: Goddard is also the genius responsible for Netflix’s Daredevil series, reviving a Marvel character who was left for dead after an abysmal film version starring Ben Affleck. Affleck, of course, has a Screenplay Oscar of his own, for 1997’s Good Will Hunting. An award he shares with the co-writer of that film… Matt Damon. Who, in turn, has an Oscar nomination for playing the left-for-dead man-without-fear lead in The Martian.
The Martian has already claimed one major accolade, winning the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy. Now, to be clear, despite some great 70’s disco and the poignant “Starman” by David Bowie, this film in no way classifies as a musical. And despite some good chuckles, I can’t imagine anyone calling The Martian a comedy. In which case I suppose the Foreign Press is adhering to the classical dramatic definition of a comedy as a story with a happy resolution. In which case the Foreign Press are a bunch of assholes spoiling the ending.
Top 5 Favorite Ridley Scott films, according to six Idle Timers:
1. Alien (1979)
2. Blade Runner (1982)
3. Black Hawk Down (2001)
4. The Martian (2015)
5. Gladiator (2000)