A film review by Craig J. Koban October 8, 2015

RANK: 10


2015, PG-13, 141 mins.


Matt Damon as Mark Watney  /  Jessica Chastain as Melissa Lewis  /  Kate Mara as Beth Johanssen  /  Jeff Daniels as Teddy Sanders  /  Chiwetel Ejiofor as Venkat Kapoor  /  Michael Peña as Rick Martinez  /  Aksel Hennie as Alex Vogel  /  Sebastian Stan as Chris Beck  /  Kristen Wiig as Annie Montrose  /  Sean Bean as Mitch Henderson  /  Donald Glover as Rich Purnel  /  Mackenzie Davis as Mindy Park  /  Naomi Scott as Ryoko

Directed by Ridley Scott  /  Written by Drew Goddard, based on the novel by Andy Weir


Ridley Scott’s THE MARTIAN - based on the 2011 novel of the same name by Andy Weir -  represents something so decidedly rare in our current cinematic climate: 

A science fiction film that puts the science back into the genre.  

The film is a love ballad to scientific MacGyverism in the manner that it stresses the importance of using math, physics, botany, chemistry and other disciplines to solve incalculably large and exceedingly dangerous problems.  On a basic level, THE MARTIAN is about an astronaut stranded on the red planet without a hope in hell of rescue or survival, but the manner that the film champions its main character as one whom must summon up all intestinal fortitude and use a courageous amount of mental ingenuity is the main selling point.  In an age when sci-fi thrillers offer up cookie cutter action and perfunctory visual effects, it’s ultimately reinvigorating to see Scott – well known for being a consummate technical filmmaker – underscore the humanity and the spirit of resourcefulness in his genre effort.  

There have been many films – far too many worth mentioning here – that have dealt with Mars in some form or another.  THE MARTIAN is as masterful as they come at relaying the awe-inspiring majesty of the distant world while evoking it as a supremely inhospitable and hazardous place for maintaining human life.  There’s rarely a moment in the film when you don’t feel like you are actually on Mars.  Yet, Scott has other tricks up his sleeve in THE MARTIAN beyond delivering a state-of-the-art 3D epic utilizing the finest visual effects available.  He's sort of taking a sabbatical from his normal aesthetic eccentricities here and instead seems to be honing in more on the inherent tension of what it would be like for a man to be millions of miles away from home with no potential rescue in sight.  The genius of Scott’s approach here is in how it’s more intimate and introspective with its handling of its marooned character; he’s not really compelled by the “wow!” factor of presenting a visually potent space odyssey.  THE MARTIAN is about celebrating the indomitable human spirit, which is supremely driven home by Matt Damon’s thanklessly layered performance. 



Damon plays astronaut Mark Watney, a botanist that, alongside his crew – Captain Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain), pilot Rick Martinez (Michael Pena), chemist Alex Vogel (Aksel Hennie), and specialists Beth Johanssen (Kate Mara) and Chris Beck (Sebastian Stan) – are tasked with exploring Mars as part of the Ares 3 mission.  The film doesn’t waste time with unnecessary exposition or introductions (no time period is given, but it's assumed to be the near future) and opts to just thrust viewers right into a normal day of their mission on the planet’s surface.  A rather large storm approaches their base of operations that threatens to destroy it, which leads to the captain making the difficult choice to abandon the mission and blast off back into orbit to save themselves.  In the process, Mark is separated from his party when struck by a large piece of debris, leaving his fellow astronauts believing him to be dead.  Rather reluctantly, the captain decides to take off without engaging in a search for his body, seeing as any more time spent on the planet could potentially kill all of the crew.  News of this disaster hits home, leaving NASA director Teddy Sanders (the unflappable Jeff Daniels) and mission director Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) having to break the news of Matt’s death to the world back home. 

Here’s the thing, though: Mark, rather impossibly, survived his battle with the storm.  Although severely injured, he manages to make it back safely to his base to treat his wounds.  Very soon, he comes to realize the sheer enormity of his situation: he’s all alone on an alien planet nearly a quarter of a billion miles away from home, with limited provisions, next to no available communications available to him to chat with those back on Earth, and with a small food supply.  Understanding that he must find some way to relay his survival back to Earth (which could take time), Mark decides that he will need to find some way to feed himself while waiting for a rescue mission to be launched, which could take not months, but years to mount considering existing technology.  Through some remarkably quick wits – and a lot of luck – Mark is able to let NASA know that he is indeed alive, but he then must pull out every bit of botanical skill he can to grow and cultivate food on Mars in order to live during the long wait for a rescue party.  

Matt Damon essentially has to perform throughout most of the film...by himself.  What’s most compelling, though, about his work here is that he never plays Mark as a hopeless victim.  Certainly, Damon conveys the whirlwind of conflicting emotions that Mark is definitely going through when placed in his predicament – fear, anger, loneliness, and despair – but he also manages to show how the character uses a sly sense of humor as a coping mechanism to deal with the horrendous dilemma of being stranded on Mars and starving to death.  Rather brilliantly, the film allows Mark the opportunity to record daily mission logs that capture his daily thoughts and confessionals while trying to find a scientific manner of staying alive, which frequently becomes THE MARTIAN’s source of huge laughs.  Mark’s usage of gallows humor really makes this one of Scott’s most relaxed and surprisingly amusing films in quite some time.  Despite all odds pointing towards his death, Mark remains a beacon of positive hope and gritty perseverance.  

Mark never once gives in and tosses in the towel, so to speak: he pools up every amount of scientific knowledge he can to find highly unusual solutions to his main problems of a sustainable food source that will last him indefinitely.  So, of course, this leads to him building his own makeshift potato farm using manufactured moisture and – yuck! – the other astronauts' feces to grow them in the protected Martian soil within his base.  He also takes chances, like digging up radioactive material to generate heat so he doesn’t freeze to death.  In one remarkably bold move, he even drives several hundred kilometers in his rover to locate and dig up decades old tech that was sent to Mars previously in hopes of establishing some crude and makeshift communication device to let Earth know that he’s okay.  If anything, part of the limitlessly intoxicating allure of THE MARTIAN is in experiencing each new startling solution that Mark dreams up – using nothing but his keen intellect and guts – to ensure his survival.  Despite the inherent darkness of the film’s premise, it ultimately becomes a powerful valentine to scientific inquiry, know-how and the sheer audacity of trying anything to conquer hopeless circumstances.  

That’s not to say that THE MARTIAN is all rosy.  Mark’s drive to keep himself alive while waiting for another NASA party to land is beset with multiple problems, each one taking a taxing toil on his very sanity.  Much like CASTAWAY and TOUCHING THE VOID, THE MARTIAN captures the psychological damage that isolation – and the thought that no hope may be in sight – has on the human body and spirit.  Scott’s visual style, again, is never too obtrusively showy; he uses a bravura combination of location shooting and magnificent visual effects to make Mark’s seclusion feel eerily authentic.  Most crucially, Scott understands that drowning the film with too much visual dynamism would subvert the core drama and the power of Damon’s remarkable performance.   THE MARTIAN, perhaps better than any recent film, uses visual effects to compliment the story and enhance the experience of watching the film…and not the other way around.  It should be also noted too that the screenplay (by THE CABIN IN THE WOODS scribe Drew Goddard) also creates tension back on Earth.  The film never shies away from the thorny ethical quandaries that NASA experiences and must fight through in order to save Mark.  The biggest battle that Mark’s companions have back home is not in deciding whether or not they should go back and save him, but rather…if they can…and before he dies.  THE MARTIAN highlights the monumental undertaking that space travel entails, which involves – much like Mark's survival efforts on Mars – a whole lot of race-against-the-clock creative problem solving. 

In the end, I guess that the one thing that so thoroughly won me over to THE MARTIAN is that it’s a science fiction film with two borderline extinct traits: brains and heart.  So many genre examples over the years go out of their way to portray the future as grim post-apocalyptic nightmares, which makes singular examples like THE MARTIAN – steeped in hope – so manifestly invigorating.  Scott has lovingly crafted a sci-fi opus that mainstream Hollywood can’t seem to conjure up with any real assurance or confidence anymore: a technically astounding, intelligently rendered, dramatically grounded, intensely gripping, and unexpectedly comical large scale adventure/survival film.  The overall narrative of THE MARTIAN may be, by some critics’ complaints, relatively straightforward and simple, but it’s the sheer execution of said story that separates Scott’s film well apart from the pack.  

And how great is it to see a science fiction film that has scientists as the heroes? 

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