As summer draws to a close, theaters bid goodbye to superhero movies and action thrillers and instead welcome those films seeking the industry's highest accolades. It's the preliminary round of awards season, when the the films looking to score Oscars, Golden Globes or any of the countless awards available begin releasing in theaters across the country.
One of the first contenders in the ring this year is Ridley Scott's The Martian, which follows stranded astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) as he struggles to survive on the hostile planet while NASA launches a risky rescue mission. The film has all the trappings of an award-winning entry: a celebrated director at the helm, a screenwriter (Drew Goddard) with a burgeoning career, a captivating performance from an isolated Damon, an impressive ensemble working together to save him, and stunning visual effects work bringing not only the Martian landscape but the rigors of space travel to the big screen.
Though it's still a little less than a month before The Martian releases in U.S. theaters, the film will soon begin screening on the festival circuit, most notably premiering this weekend at the Toronto International Film Festival. Many outlets have had their chance to catch a screening of The Martian and the film's first reviews are now trickling in.
Here's a sampling of what The Martian's first batch of reviews had to say:
Collider - Matt Goldberg
"For a movie that takes place on a barren planet where everything could kill its central protagonist, Ridley Scott’s The Martian is a lively, breezy sci-fi trip that rarely lingers on science or pathos. It’s desolation without the harshness of loneliness, and utilizes the complexities of science without getting bogged down in how that science functions. It’s a survival tale where catastrophes come off like inconveniences, but the film can always ride its high stakes thanks to its unique setting and commanding lead performance from Matt Damon, who continues to show he’s one of the best actors working today. The Martian may be light, but it’s a fun ride out of this world."
Variety - Peter Deburge
"Like Robinson Crusoe on Mars, Damon’s 'right stuff' hero has to get by on his own wits and 'science the sh–' out of his predicament. It won’t be easy, but it is possible — and that’s the exhilarating thrill of both Andy Weir’s speculative-fiction novel and screenwriter Drew Goddard’s 'science fact' adaptation. Considering that the United States hasn’t launched a manned space mission since 2011, The Martian should do far more than just make Fox a ton of money; it could conceivably rekindle interest in the space program and inspire a new generation of future astronauts."
The Hollywood Reporter - Todd McCarthy
"Although technically science fiction by virtue of its being largely set on a neighboring planet, this smartly made adaptation of Andy Weir’s best-selling novel is more realistic in its attention to detail than many films set in the present, giving the story the feel of an adventure that could happen the day after tomorrow. Constantly absorbing rather than outright exciting, this major autumn Fox release should generate muscular business worldwide."
The Guardian - Henry Barnes
"With Alien, Scott went to space and found horror. With Prometheus he came back having caught something horrible (although, interestingly, the space suits in that wonky misadventure and this new film are very similar). The Martian floats between them. It is not fantastic, in either sense, but it does show-off a sense of play. For a survival flick it’s actually pretty light on peril (you never really believe that the Jordanian desert, where the film was shot, is Mars), but it’s not short of thrills."
Judging by these early reactions, The Martian is a film for those who found Interstellar too preachy and Gravity too intense. No stranger to either strand of science fiction, Scott has instead chosen to aim for a more hopeful outlook on the future of human space exploration, one that will be defined by humanity's perseverance overcoming impossible odds.
Another common thread throughout The Martian's early reviews is the praise given to Damon's performance. In particular there's The Telegraph's Tim Robey, who writes:
"Funny this one duly is, thanks in large part to Damon’s ruefully engaging solo showmanship. Ironically, given that Mark’s sending all his winking messages into a void, communication is Damon’s genius: he’s built up such a strong relationship with audiences over the years that we know exactly how to read him for an impending burst of irony or a fit of pique, milliseconds before it comes on. And he’s great at fatigue, and indulging himself with childish strops, and holding back emotion when there’s practical MacGyvering to be done, which is for months on end. "
Yet, for as compelling a performance as Damon gives, it may not be the one that the Academy or any other award judge may pick for this year's Best Actor. Not that Damon likely won't garner a nomination or two, but Cinema Blend's Sean O'Connell suspects that other areas of the film are more deserved:
"Is The Martian an Oscar picture? That’s the inevitable question whenever a star-studded event picture like this plays a fall film festival. Right now, the film’s prospects in the annual awards race are stellar, and I can see successful bids for Best Picture, Director, Screenplay and a half-dozen technical nods for Sir Ridley Scott’s thriller. The thing about The Martian is that it plays more as an roller-coaster event picture, but appeals to the smarter, more mature and demanding audiences who tend to turn out for end-of-year dramatic fare. It bridges the gap between effects-driven tentpoles and Oscar-seeking human dramas. No matter your taste, you’ll find something to celebrate here. It’s one of the year’s best films."
With award-baiting performances, writing and direction, as well impressive effects work usually reserved for the vapid, spectacle-laden films, The Martian is on track to not only win over general audiences but the more highbrow critics. With a blend of both survival and exploration, Scott's film may even prove a much needed boost for NASA itself, reigniting our imaginations and again getting us to "keep looking up," as astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson is so fond of saying.
The Martian will see theatrical release in the U.S. starting on October 2nd, 2015.