The Martian Review


In Stanley Kubrick’s epic space saga, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Strauss’ “Blue Danube Waltz” plays over a famous docking sequence. In Ridley Scott’s The Martian, a critical docking sequence is scored by David Bowie’s “Starman.”

The differences go on, but perhaps it’s this one that best demonstrates what Scott is going for in relation to cinema’s true space masterpiece. The Martian isn’t and doesn’t want to be transcendent, and that’s fine. What isn’t quite fine is the way it also pales in comparison to the similarly “popcorny” Gravity (emphasis on “corny” when it comes to The Martian). Alfonso Cuaron’s film was relentless spectacle. The Martian breathes, and while those pauses help develop characters and laughs, they also distract us from what ought to be a harrowing experience. I liked The Martian for what it was, but I still couldn’t help wish it was and wanted to be something more.

The film follows the triumphs and many tribulations of Mark Watney (Matt Damon). One of the six NASA astronauts who are part of the Ares III mission to Mars, Watney gets left behind when his crew presumes him dead and evacuates following a sudden storm. Without communications but still in possession of all the other equipment meant to keep him alive on Mars for a short time, Watney goes to work extending the life of his shelter (the HAB), water reclaimer, and oxygenator. The trickiest problem, though, is food. Without more, he’ll starve in a few months. But Watney is a world-class botanist, and as he so eloquently states, he’s ready to “science the shit out of this.”

It’s not long before NASA realizes that Mark is alive, and it’s all hands on deck figuring out a way to bring him home. His crew, however, is in the dark. Few on Earth think it smart to let these five grieving men and women know their extent of their error, what with many months of complicated space travel in front of them. None of their challenges, nor the challenges of those on Earth, remotely compare to what Mark faces, however. Every time it seems like our beloved space pirate is thriving, he gets surprised—and nearly killed—by something terrible.

The best thing The Martian has going for it is the presence of Matt Damon. He gives the best movie star performance of the year as the stranded man with a sardonic wit. On paper (or e-readers, if that’s your thing), Mark Watney comes across as pretty unrealistic and fairly inhuman. But on film, Damon gonna Damon. He’s not Mark Watney; He’s Matt Damon playing astronaut. And considering the sort of low artistic bar the film is trying to clear, a performance of this nature is exactly what it needs.

Visually, this film’s Mars doesn’t have a lot of character, but it’s creatively shot and edited with lots first-person body-cam footage and narrated montages that help guide us through some of the text’s more scientifically dense, “tell don’t show” passages. Scott’s musical choices add to the fun.

He balances all that with more suspense-driven scenes and serious-minded characters back on Earth. While Damon carries the film, the rest of the cast is aces, too. Chiwetel Ejifor and Jeff Daniels are high-level NASA directors charged with making billion-dollar, life-or-death decisions on behalf of a half-dozen individuals. Benedict Wong is the overworked team leader trying to get Watney food as quickly as possible. And Kristen Wiig is the paranoid NASA press liaison—arguably the worst job on planet Earth for the duration of his crisis.

On the Hermes, which slowly carries Watney’s teammates home, it’s a mix of the two competing attitudes. Jessica Chastain is their commander, who carries the weight of leaving Watney behind squarely on her shoulders. Meanwhile, it’s not hard to see why Watney and Michael Pena’s Martinez are best friends.

A lot has been said about both this film and its source material being a return to smart, character-driven science-fiction. It’s definitely a surprisingly character-driven story, considering its title brings to mind little green goblins. But smart? A film can talk all it wants about soil properties and propulsion paths and whatever mumbo jumbo is getting spit out at us, but I’d argue The Martian is actually enjoyable because it’s dumb. Its characters are resourceful, which is ultimately what allows the film to resonate, but those who enjoy The Martian the most are the viewers who go in ready to shut their brains off. They’ll get taken on a wild, fantastical ride between worlds, while everyone else wonders how exactly the Rich Purnell maneuver makes any sense.

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  1. Pingback: Reviews: The Martian (2015) | Online Film Critics Society

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