20th Century Fox
It’s generally understood in movies that interesting conflict requires a villain for our hero to fight against. Superheroes have super-villains, action heroes have maniacal bad guys, and even rom-coms toss in competing love interests named Chad who think their daddy’s immense wealth is more powerful than true love and witty banter. Films focused on a single person’s struggle to survive are one of the rare exceptions as movies like Castaway and Gravity find drama, suspense, and character depth without the need for villainous foils named Chad.
The Martian is the newest film to join that short list, and it just may be the best as it goes well beyond generating thrills, laughs, and genuine emotion in its story of one man’s struggle to live. It does all of that extremely well, but it also embraces the seemingly radical idea that knowledge, education, and team-work are necessary for both individuals and humankind in general.
Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is part of a six-person team of astronauts working a short mission on the surface of Mars when a fast-rising storm separates him from the group. All signs point to him being deceased, and in fear of further casualties the remaining members of the team evacuate and begin the long trip back home. Watney survives though, and after making it back to their surface base – one designed to support life for a month – he’s faced with a dire situation. He has no way to communicate with Earth or his fellow astronauts, he’s stuck on a planet where food doesn’t grow and water doesn’t readily flow, and even if he could contact someone a rescue effort would be many, many months away.
Director Ridley Scott is no stranger to films that run past the two hour mark, but this is a rare one for him in that it never feels its length. There isn’t a dull moment to be found, and the film’s pacing is a beautifully executed series of escalations that level off only to then ramp up again. It feels lean, fast-moving, and absent the bloat that accompanies too many of Scott’s “epics,” and he manages to deliver big even as Watney’s isolation highlights something more intimate.
The vastness of space and of Mars’ surface offers big, gorgeous imagery that accentuates Watney’s loneliness and hints at the same for humanity. Drew Goddard’s script (based on Andrew Weir’s novel) acknowledges that but then takes an optimistic view of figuring out how it can be remedied. Watney becomes an embodiment of hope not just for Americans but for the world – he’s a human first, and the desire to see him return safely crosses borders and ideologies just as we hope it would in the real world. The film’s focus is on his Mars-based triumphs and failures, but we also move between Earth and the astronauts to watch as they face-off against a myriad of problems getting in the way of bringing him home.
NASA’s obstacles include everything from mathematical equations to the potential public relations nightmare of Watney’s dead body being broadcast around the world. The risk inherent in trying to save one man’s life is weighed fairly against those of the remaining six – neither answer is necessarily more right meaning those arguing against a rescue aren’t portrayed as villainous, cartoon bureaucrats. It’s a collective of contributions at every stage, but none feel so important and necessary as Watney’s.
Damon (and Goddard’s script) creates an immensely human character with personality and wit to spare, but it’s his brain that gets the most screen time. He works through his various problems and takes us along for the pain and poo-filled ride. Rather than feeling like dull lessons his efforts come across as mini adventures in botany, engineering, physics, and pure resourcefulness. all buoyed with a sense of humor and the sincere hope that it won’t blow up in his face. We’re in this race with him – each triumph has us cheering, each setback feels like our own.
The supporting cast of characters all get their moments to shine even if they’re grounded in comparison to Damon’s arc. Jessica Chastain, Michael Pena, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, and Aksel Hennie are the astronauts forced to weight their own needs against Watney’s, and they deliver authenticity over showiness. Meanwhile, Earth is represented by actors as diverse and talented as Jeff Daniels, Kristen Wiig, Sean Bean, Chiwtel Ejiofor, and Mackenzie Davis. All do solid work, and it’s only Donald Glover who feels mildly out of place.
Even if celebrations of ingenuity and optimism aren’t your thing this is still an exciting, fast-paced, and fun adventure, and it’s another rarity in that it’s well worth seeing in 3D. Rather than settle for shooting objects at your face, the 3D here is designed to create depth. We’re invited into the experience as the elements and energy envelops our POV.
Ultimately, The Martian values the know-how required to get shit done – real-world shit that will not only make you a fully-functioning, capable human being but that also might save your ass some day. It should be shown in schools. It should lead to an increase in education funding. It should encourage you to stock up on duct tape.
The Upside: Understands the importance of knowledge, education, and science; optimistic; great sense of humor; incredibly rare action/adventure without an antagonist; constantly engaging; fantastic ensemble cast
The Downside: Could have been a bit more serious at times; Donald Glover feels at times like he’s playing a bit