Screenwriter: Drew Goddard
Cast: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Jeff Daniels
Quite honestly, if you have seen Apollo 13, Cast Away, Interstellar, or The Right Stuff, then ironically, The Martian, the new film from Ridley Scott about an astronaut left behind by his crew on Mars, treads no new territory. That being said, why did we all love those movies if they basically explored the same things? The answer is that we have an insatiable appetite for watching humankind’s intelligence put to the test. When The Martian is over, that is the piece that stays with you, not the performances or even the directing, but the way human intellect is pooled to solve unsolvable problems!
The Martian stars Matt Damon as Mark Watney, a NASA botanist who is part of a six-person, 31-day mission to explore the surface of Mars. When an unexpected dust storm escalates with no warning, Watney is struck by debris, disabling his spacesuit’s communication device and forcing his crew to assume he has been killed. With the storm jeopardizing the integrity of their ship, Commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) makes the tough call to evacuate the planet early and consequently leave Watney’s body behind. Now as Lewis and her crew begin the 10-month journey back to Earth, Watney awakens from being struck unconscious to discover that he is alone on a dessert planet 34 million miles from Earth and potentially years from being rescued, and that is if he can somehow communicate to NASA that he is not dead.
For a film with such a discouraging scenario at its heart, The Martian is extremely upbeat thanks to a terrific performance by Matt Damon who masterfully captures the brilliance of Andy Weir’s original character from his novel of the same name. Damon displays a resourcefulness, wit, and spirit with his portrayal of Watney, and it reminds us all of the importance of “mindset.” A film that could so easily present a protagonist’s slow dissent into madness at the mercy of isolation is instead wisely turned on its head early on when Watney declares, “I will not die here.” Whether or not this declaration becomes fact remains to be seen, but this decision to persevere is precisely why this film is such a joy to watch and not a test of our sensibilities. Watney’s decision to live comes with the caveat of finding a way to survive for an indeterminate amount of time on a planet with no atmosphere, extreme temperatures, and no food or water source. It is endlessly fascinating to watch Watney work his way through these dilemmas and according to director Ridley Scott, NASA validates nearly all of the survival methods Watney employs in this film.
It is no spoiler to reveal that Watney does eventually manage to contact Earth and establish that he is alive, creating a new element of tension as the film evolves from a survival film (like Gravity) to one that introduces the concept of rescue. As exciting as it is to examine the power of the individual in films like Gravity and Cast Away, The Martian introduces a type of global effort that can be assembled when the people of Earth put aside their differences and work together on a common goal. Consequently, like Apollo 13, The Martian wisely balances the space scenes with others that show the ingenuity and frustration of the scientists on Earth as they try to develop some kind of plan to save Watney. That being said, a simple glance at the promotional poster for The Martian clearly demonstrates that this film was developed as a vehicle for Damon, but there are many other big names in this movie and boy are they wasted. Michael Peña, Jessica Chastain, Kate Mara, Jeff Daniels, Kristin Wiig, Sean Bean and others all share about 20% of the running time and don’t get to do very much. This is slightly disappointing especially when one thinks back to Ed Harris and Gary Sinise in Apollo 13 and realizes how powerful these roles could have been with some slight refocusing.
With Gravity, Interstellar, The Martian, and soon Star Wars: The Force Awakens, we are firmly in the midst of a science-fiction renaissance. While box office has plenty to do with this current fad, what makes these films most enticing to the big name directors is their opportunity to dazzle us visually. I saw The Martian in 3-D, which I normally avoid. I still believe that 3-D releases are nothing more than a way to make you pay an extra few dollars for a ticket, but I will admit that Ridley Scott has crafted a beautiful and exciting film with The Martian that does use the technology to immerse the audience in the experience better than most.
The Martian is everything you want in a big budget, exciting, tense blockbuster. It is entertaining, researched, and impressive. Still, while it features brilliant people doing brilliant things, The Martian does all of the heavy lifting. It would have been nice to walk away with a little bit more to think about, but it does let you walk out with plenty to celebrate, and that is good too. A-
The Martian is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 21 minutes.