Ridley Scott’s directorial return since Exodus has The Academy taking notice as The Martian seeks Oscar contention with a near flawless screenplay, captivating acting and an upbeat film that otherwise had potential for hopelessness. The Martian wins audiences over with many victories that it’s counterparts have failed at in recent survival drama genre films. It’s able to pull hearts with a fresh take sans a predictable story of a man that is trying to get home to his family. Instead Ridley Scott follows the novel without trying to add sympathy by having a loving wife or family that drives the lead Matt Damon for survival. The audience is treated to survival story of an incredibly endearing big-headed, yet still humble, man that battles impossibility for his fight for his own life and the greater good.
The Martian follows astronaut and crew botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) on a manned mission to Mars where a terrible storm gets the Ares 3 team into trouble and must abort their mission. The violent storm takes Watney out with debris, and in a rush to get out before the rest of the crew is stuck, they must abandon the presumed dead Watney and launch back home on a 400+ day return trip to Earth. Wantey awakens injured and all alone on a decollate planet to fight for his survival with minimal supplies while attempting to some way notify Earth millions of miles away he is still alive.
While some may cringe at my comparisons, The Martian is the today’s space version of Castaway though with a entirely additional plot of the rescue party. Instead of having nearly no dialogue, the movie intelligently devises a need for Matt Damon’s character to speak often with him documenting his every move with video logs and GoPros with added comedic lines scattered throughout the entire film. The film is actually quite hilarious that had the audience laughing out loud much of the movie keeping the audience engaged and happy.
Much of this is part to Matt Damon’s character being an endearing little brat that keeps much of the snarky dialogue from the novel. Watney takes light to much of his situation and finds the humor in much of the setbacks but stays committed to himself not dying on the planet. Damon proves to be someone that can hold a movie all alone, but to the films benefit we are actually treated to a giant ensemble cast that’s witty and just as interesting.
Ridley Scott finds the perfect ratio of time spent alone with Matt Damon on Mars to the team on Earth working on Watney’s rescue. The NASA team is lead by Director of NASA Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels), a true leader that is in it for the right reasons but remains pessimistic on Watney’s saving until it seems feasible in the latter, but is counterweighted by his team that believes in what is morally right opposed to the PR correct decisions.
Mitch Henderson (Sean Bean) provides the sound and opposite dispositions to Sanders along with the comedic relief from assistant Annie Montrose (Kristen Wiig) that brings the peoples voice to the screen of the clear PR problems NASA will face. An ultimately pointless character except to add the “WTF” moments to ridiculousness of the rescue mission and the idea that they left Watney for dead unknowingly. Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slace) also counteracts much of NASA decisions and is ultimately the saving grace to find a way to communicate with Watney.
The Ares 3 mission crew remains sidelined for much of the movie until the second half featuring the likes of Jessica Chastain, fan favorite Michael Pena, and Kate Mara that are supported by several others that all provide superb acting. Watney’s crew provides the emotional impact needed for the films success with the focus on their feelings about leaving their crew member behind while still wanting to do everything they can even if that means putting their own lives at risk.
While The Martian is scientifically sound and stays relatively realistic in a world that I am not actually familiar with myself, it’s a far cry from the impressiveness of Alfonso Guano’s Gravity or the terribly confusing and overly complicated Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. In a way this is one of its strong points as the movie remains smart and intelligent, but also doesn’t alienate its audience. There is an abundance of scientific jargon that doesn’t get lost or lose its watchability. In fact, the movie is pretty matter-of-fact and isn’t really about the actual mission to bring Watney home but rather how Watney copes with being alone on a planet for nearly 4 years.
Another annoying comparison would be to think Apollo 13 after the iconic “Houston, we have a problem.” You have the crew at Mission Control and NASA trying to find solutions much like the classic ‘round tube in a square hole’ dilemma while NASA also faces moral challenges for the best way to save the man left behind. The film stays intriguing as it is almost a how-to educational film of what to do if you find yourself stuck on a planet all alone. While that’s nothing you or I will ever have to face, it is entertaining to see how Watney and the NASA team overcomes each obstacle that comes their way.
The film shines with cinematography from Dariusz Wolski (known for Pirates of the Caribbean franchise and Alice in Wonderland) with scenic views of the red planet that are unbelievably realistic blurring the distinction from live sets to CGI driven scenes. The space shots are large but are not focused on the beauty that Gravity found, but rather focuses on the space ship and weightlessness one would find inside a space station. Never did it feel like it was trying to showcase the effects and instead uses them strictly for providing a natural believable setting.
The entire film remained enjoyable on every level from start to finish in this 2 hour 21 minute film that never felt to drag or have a loss of pace. While a big movie, yes, it never felt too big or too epic for what it truly was. Space was its setting, and while there are plenty of action sequences and epic disasters, it never felt too big. It pulls the audience to each scene, but doesn’t make anything too incredible where the viewers couldn’t grasp the magnitude of what’s happening on the screen.
This Oscar-worthy film has ample amount of powerful acting and a solid screenplay/adaptation. While I hear the ending is slightly different from the novel, I don’t feel anyone will be let down. Every aspect is solid and I have no doubt Damon should be getting some nominations along with several actors in the supporting cast. It’s a journey that I will surely be taking again.