#41 — The Martian (Ridley Scott, 2015)
An earnestly ambitious actor, Damon is at his best when he hews closely to his established public persona, that of a mildly doltish yet laudably competent individual. That’s why he was so well-suited to playing Jason Bourne. He’s one of the few performers who can execute a highly complex series of movements and then looking convincingly flabbergasted at what he’s just accomplished. The studio system, much-maligned and justly discarded (though Marvel Studios comes remarkably close to reviving the model), would have actually suited Damon well, as filmmakers took turns plugging him into projects that suited his mildly self-effacing movie star glow. Howard Hawks would have had a field day with him.
The Martian, directed by Ridley Scott, draws a lot of its strength from proper exploitation of Damon’s gifts. He’s hardly the one person giving a strong performance in the film. The cast is a like a Muderers’ Row of crafty, likable actors — Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels, Donald Glover, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Wong, and Sean Bean as the head of the impressive pack — and they all do especially deft work with complicated material often laden with exposition. But Damon, played marooned astronaut Mark Watney, is the slugger the lineup is built around. Navigating the near-impossible task of surviving after he’s left behind on Mars when the mission he’s a part of is forced to undertake an emergency evacuation. A botanist by schooling, Watney manages a small-scale terraforming of the distant planet and cobbles together other stray materials into shelter and communication tools. The character is full to the brim with a white, American male’s unique brand of entitled assurance that seemingly insurmountable setbacks aren’t really meant for him. Maybe Damon’s most remarkable feat is that he makes that fairly odious quality improbably winning, even charismatic.
Like Apollo 13 a generation earlier, The Martian sparks and sparkles because it’s about intelligent people solving problems together, with personality skirmishes and politically minded jockeying as obstacles that opposing factions clear together rather than tar that seeps in cause the work to grind to a halt. Using a sharp script by Drew Goddard (adapted from Andy Weir’s novel of the same name), director Ridley Scott moves the film along briskly and crisply. Just like the figures on screen, the veteran filmmaker is energized by the challenges before him, chiefly managing several interweaving story lines and making the implausible feel as real as sturdy pavement. The movie moves between tones as if it’s the simplest test of cinema, swinging from the dangling tropes of science fiction, thrillers, melodrama, and comedy like a confident acrobat. Like the film’s hero, and the actor who portrays him, Scott draws upon deep reservoirs of resourcefulness and emerges with an unlikely triumph.