Films that revolve around isolationism and survival can often lead to dramatic storytelling that can also be traumatic and draining on its audience, even if awards shows tend to love them. The Martian, based on the novel by Any Weir, is not that kind of film. Ridley Scott presents a tale that is full of love, humor and hope that showcases one of the best performances of Matt Damon’s career.
Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is a botanist working as part of a manned crew on Mars, taking research samples and collecting data for study. Storms on the Red Planet are unpredictable and when a dust storms descends on their landing site, quicker and with far more power than expected, the crew has to make an emergency departure. Unfortunately for Watney, he suffers injury from flying debris and is separated from his team – believed dead by his crew, Watney wakes up very much alive and stranded with no way home.
Watney is such a tremendous character and Damon’s portrayal is so full of personality and charisma that it takes a type of story that has been done many times before and makes it riveting. The character feels so real, that at times I forgot the film is science-fiction and thought I was watching a biography of an American hero. Damon’s portrayal is smart, witty, and constantly relatable as one of the best everyman characters in recent memory.
While Watney is an everyman, the feats he accomplishes in the film are fascinating and grounded in real science, which adds a ton to the film’s credibility. At one point Watney says, “I going to have to science the shit out of this” and The Martian really takes the ball and runs with it. The problem-solving methods that Watney uses to survive are incredibly engrossing and worth the price of admission alone. Hopefully this film has the power to inspire a new generation to make space exploration a bigger priority.
Ridley Scott directs a beautiful film, bringing one of his most wonderfully restrained outings of his career. The vistas of Mars and the chaos of the planet are perfectly balanced with plenty of quiet, outstanding character moments. The Martian has spectacle, but it refreshingly takes a backseat to the characters and their struggles to survive and save their friend. Like Watney himself, the film has an endearing air of hope from the very start in what could otherwise could have been a drab, depressing slog of a survival movie.
Damon isn’t the only actor in the film (this isn’t Castaway) and has a stellar supporting cast to provide the B-plot, which revolves around the attempts to plan a rescue for the lost botanist. Jeff Daniels plays Jeff Sanders, NASA administrator, with the same deadpan gravitas and leadership that he brought to his role on The Newsroom. Similarly, Chiwetel Ejiofor stars as Vincent Kapoor, head of NASA’s Mars missions, and the brains and heart behind the attempted rescue of Watney. Ejiofor is just as engaging as you would expect in the role and serves as the audience’s eyes into the rescue effort.
The rest of the cast are little bit short-changed, even with the long running time of 141 minutes. Kristen Wiig plays NASA PR rep Annie Montrose, but isn’t given much to do outside a few quick lines about the absurdity of the situation. Most notably Jessica Chastain, head of the Ares III Mars Mission crew, is also left with little to do other than show guilt of leaving Watney behind.
The rest of the Mars crew are your typical ensemble archetypes with Michael Peña (Ant-Man) playing the comedic relief (extremely well), Kate Mara (Fantastic Four) as the tech girl Beth Johanssen, and Sebastian Stan (Captain America: The Winter Soldier) as the vague, random love interest (?) of Johanssen. Donald Glover (Community) also has a small cameo as a quirky, brilliant young scientist that helps crack a potential mission to save Watney. Sean Bean (Game of Thrones) is the Ares III flight director, in a role that never feels natural, but rather seems tacked on as just another name to add to the impressive cast.
The climax of the film does get a bit ridiculous and perhaps asks the audience to stretch their disbelief a little bit too far. But thankfully, viewers should be so invested in the characters at this point in the film that they’ll be willing to forgive any shortcomings with the finale.
The Martian is sure to a be a crowd-pleaser with its broad mix of humor, relatable characters, and an Oscar-worthy performance from Matt Damon. Ridley Scott has managed to put together one of his best films to date and the first must-see movie of the fall season.