Toronto: ‘The Martian’ Is a Great Popcorn Movie, and a Lot More

This isn’t a technical tour de force like “Gravity” was, but Ridley Scott delivers an exciting piece of adrenalized filmmaking

Ridley Scott‘s best movies have managed to be simultaneously suspenseful, thoughtful and impeccably executed, and you can now add “The Martian” to a list that includes “Alien,” “Blade Runner,” “Black Hawk Down” and the Oscar-winning “Gladiator.”

His new film premiered on Friday night at the Toronto International Film Festival, where it screened in the huge Roy Thomson Hall to an audience that took it to heart when Scott introduced the film by saying, “It’s OK to laugh.”

In fact, it’s not just OK to laugh at “The Martian” – it’s all but mandatory. The story of an astronaut who’s left by himself on Mars when his fellow crew members think he’s dead may not sound like the stuff of levity, but Scott has a light touch with the material.

And as played by Matt Damon, the stranded astronaut leaving a video record happens to be a born comic, as well as an ace botanist and creative thinker who’s able, as he says at one point, to “science the s— out of this.” In doing so, Damon turns what seems like a death sentence into a survival tale.

The story is divided between Damon’s resourcefulness in staying alive on Mars – using the astronauts’, um, waste to grow potatoes in the inhospitable Martian atmosphere is only one good idea. The efforts of NASA to figure out how to rescue him when they realize he’s alive is the other half.

The crew members who left Damon behind also figure into the story, and it’s a measure of the film’s effectiveness that the rescue mission isn’t any less exciting just because we’ve known it was coming since the first half hour of the film.

Scott remains a kinetic, charged filmmaker with impeccable tech credentials. This isn’t a technical tour de force like “Gravity” was, but it is an exciting piece of adrenalized filmmaking. The key with “The Martian,” though, lies in a large cast that makes just about every person onscreen interesting.

Jessica Chastain, Michael Pena, Kate Mara are among the astronauts, while the crew on the ground includes Jeff Daniels, Sean Bean, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Donald Glover, Mackenzie Davis and Kristen Wiig. All are given great opportunities, and all know just what to do with them.

It’s possible that the popcorn-movie pleasures of “The Martian” will work against it when awards time rolls around, with some voters perhaps opting for more overtly serious works. But Scott (working from the popular novel by Andy Weir) does have some serious things on his mind here, crafting a tale whose heroes use brainpower rather than brute strength to overcome impossible obstacles.

This is a love letter to science and to international cooperation and to all sorts of Utopian things you don’t usually find in the work of the man who made “Blade Runner” and “Alien.”

At any rate, it’s hard to deny filmmaking this adept and this thrilling, whether or not it puts any more gold on Scott’s shelves.