To quote Elton John, “it’s lonely out in space.” Movies about space (from “Apollo 13” to “Gravity”) have historically validated that statement with depictions of a cold, unforgiving environment. The “Martian” is no exception to that rule. On Mars, however, the music of choice is apparently not rock but disco. The film is a science-fiction drama starring Matt Damon (the “Bourne” franchise, “Goodwill Hunting”), and directed by Ridley Scott (“Alien”, “Gladiator”). The Martian is a case study in great film-making, featuring a tense, engaging story, top notch acting, spectacular visuals and plenty of humor for good measure.
The film centers on Mark Watney (Damon), a Mars explorer who is accidentally left behind after his mission is scrubbed. Mark has to figure out how to survive long enough to be rescued. On top of that, NASA has to work out how to stage a rescue mission for someone stranded in the vacuum of space, 3.9 million miles from Earth. The story alternates between following Watney’s quest for survival, and various NASA officials fighting both science and bureaucracy to bring him home. The film manages to portray the complex science involved in this joint venture, while making the techno-jargon understandable to the average audience. The details of the plot are very complex, but through clever writing the viewer can understand what the dilemmas are and how the characters attempt to overcome them. The situations presented are very tense, with high stakes and a wide array of emotions. Even with the complexity of the narrative, the story remains tightly focused on Watney and NASA exective Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who defies both science and corporate naysayers attempting to bring him home.
Perhaps “The Martian”’s greatest strength is the incredible acting by the entire cast. This a story so intricate, and focused on so few characters, that it relies on great performances to really sell the drama. Every astronaut, scientist and NASA official in the film is portrayed with remarkable conviction and believability. Matt Damon is electric as Mark Whatney, a man who succeeds in staying cheerful and jokey despite his helpless situation. Whatney accepts that he’s going to die, so he remains calm, upbeat and infinitely watchable throughout the movie. Equally impressive is Jessica Chastain as Watney’s Captain Melissa Lewis. She has to cope with the guilt of stranding Watney, and the pressure of ensuring that nothing else goes wrong for her crew.
Director Ridley Scott manages to make the film exciting and engaging, while also injecting plenty of humor into the film. Watney is constantly making light of his situation with clever quips and observations. Here are some of the standouts: “I don’t mean to brag, but I’m, the best botanist on this planet”; “In short I’m going to science the (expletive) out of this”; “I’m a space pirate.”
While few, the film does have some drawbacks. The first is that Watney’s character is maybe a little too perfect. The odds of his survival are practically zero, but there are only about three moments in the entire film where he shows legitimate panic. It was hard sometimes to feel sympathy for the character when he often treated the whole thing like some extended holiday. As stated, the film is also very technical and may lose some people in the intricacies of the plot. Another complaint is also a backhanded compliment. The visuals are awe-inspiring, but the plot is so focused on details that there are rarely moments to appreciate how beautiful it looks. The only other issue is a particularly grotesque scene where Watney is stitching himself up, which would it felt fair to warn people about.
All that being said, “The Martian” is so good that it was honestly a challenge to think of reasons why someone wouldn’t enjoy it. The film is incredible. Watch it.