In the late 70s and early 80s, Director Ridley Scott was synonymous with science fiction after the success of Alien and the cult classic cool of Blade Runner. However, his most recent films have been mainly misses than hits. Does The Martian continue that string of losses or does it signal a comeback?
Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is a botanist on a NASA mission to Mars. When a violent storm hits and Watney is separated from his evacuating crew, he is left for dead on the red planet. However, Watney is very much alive and as his crewmates make their way back to Earth none the wiser, he finds himself stranded, millions of miles from home. Using his keen scientific mind, Watney must not only find a way to contact NASA back on Earth, but then figure out how to survive for the four years it will take them to send a rescue party. Meanwhile, back on Earth, NASA Director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) tries to deal with the public fallout of Watney’s “death,” while scientist Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) struggles to keep the Mars program on track despite the tragedy. When it is finally discovered that Watney did not in fact die, the space organization and the world pull together to find a way to bring him home.
Essentially, The Martian is a cross between two Tom Hanks films: Cast Away and Apollo 13. However, it never fully captures the complete isolation of Cast Away—due to the constant cutting back to Earth—nor does it fully capture the extreme tension of Apollo 13 or for that matter 2013’s Gravity. That is no way to imply that The Martian isn’t a great movie—it is—but considering the situation Watney finds himself, I expected the tension to be unbearable. Part of the lessening of tension has to do with Watney himself. Watney’s a funny guy and he injects a lot of humor into the video diary he keeps throughout the film. The audience only really sees him nearly break a couple of times, but for the most part, he stays cool, calm, and collected throughout. For me, though, I never found the ending to ever be in doubt. The journey to get to that ending is fascinating, but ultimately, the tension dissipates in the last twenty minutes or so of the film. Compare that with, say, Gravity in which everything that can go wrong, does so for Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. I thought the hard science would turn out to be boring, but Damon delivers the material effectively and keeps the audience engaged for the entire film. The film is based on the bestselling novel by Andy Weir and the screenplay was written by Drew Goddard. From what I understand, the book has even more science in it and Goddard does a great job boiling everything down into an entertaining film. Scott and his Prometheus cinematographer, Dariusz Wolski, deliver spectacular visuals while keeping the story moving at a good clip, though you may get a little squirmy toward the end—the film is just shy of two and a half hours.
The ensemble cast delivers on every level and is stacked with consummate professionals. The Mars crew includes Jessica Chastain, Kate Mara, Michael Peña, Sebastian Stan, and Aksel Hennie. They all tackle the material well, but I would have liked a little more character development for all of them. Hard to do in a single film, and it’s a minor quibble, but I think it would have helped deliver a greater emotional response when they discover that Watney is alive on Mars. Ejiofor and Daniels are great as usual and supported by Kristen Wiig, Donald Glover, Benedict Wong, Mackenzie Davis, and the Lord of Winterfell himself, Sean Bean. All do great work here as they grapple with the problems of bringing Watney back. Of course, though, as great as the supporting cast is, this film belongs to Matt Damon. For those who are not a fan, I encourage you to see The Martian and try not to be charmed by Damon’s performance here. He totally nails his scenes and delivers one of his greatest performances yet.
Overall, while I had minor quibbles with some of the story elements, The Martian is a winner. Definitely go check it out. It will get you excited about space and space exploration again and the film is just entertaining as hell.