|Matt Damon in Ridley Scott's The Martian.|
Ridley Scott has a reputation for making engrossing large-scale entertainments, but most of his movies are somber and bloated in almost equal parts. The somberness seems to be a pass at seriousness, but movies like Gladiator, American Gangster and Prometheus are humorless blockbusters that substitute layers of mass for layers of meaning. (At least his last, Exodus: Gods and Kings, had John Turturro camping it up Old Testament drag as Pharoah Seti, but the film killed him off early, Joel Edgerton inherited the throne, and any chance at fun went out the window.) Only occasionally does Scott turn out something I care about. Black Hawk Down is a conventional war picture but visceral and affecting; A Good Year, which got little attention, is a vivifying, sun-drenched comedy about an investment broker who inherits a vineyard in Provence and recalibrates his misdirected life. A Good Year is in the mold of the marvelous early-eighties Bill Forsyth movie Local Hero, where a corporate type sent by his Houston-based company to purchase an island off the Scottish coast falls in love with it, and Russell Crowe, as the main character, is supple and animated (his performance in Gladiator was paralytic); he seems turned on by both the bronzed light and all the beautiful women Scott has surrounded him with. Sensuality isn’t generally Scott’s forte, so you keep pinching yourself – and he’s done nothing remotely like it since. (It sank at the box office.) And I had a terrific time at The Martian, Scott’s latest, based on the Andy Weir bestseller about an astronaut on an exploratory trip to Mars (played by Matt Damon) whose crew abandons him on the mistaken assumption that he’s been killed in the sudden storm that leads NASA to abort the mission and send them back into space.