Hollywood, CA…First things first: The Martian is a pretty good movie. Like all good films, however, it comes with a catch. In this case, if you don’t like Matt Damon, you will probably not like this film, as it is two hours of Mr. Damon. That said, he delivers an extraordinary performance, filled with surprising amounts of humor, and an-all star cast carries the rest of the film, which stands on its own as a solid drama, and one that audiences will enjoy even if they haven’t read the book.
The Martian, based on author Andy Weir’s self-published 2011 book of the same name (which has, not surprisingly, experienced a recent surge in popularity due to both the film and a 2014 re-release by Amazon), concerns a manned mission to Mars called Ares III. While the timeline of the film goes unnamed, it’s the near future—Next Sunday A.D. as Mystery Science Theater 3000 aptly put it—and NASA, far from being the underfunded organization that is today, is now a bright monument to space travel.
The story opens with the Ares III crew already on Mars, taking samples of the soil. But when a massive dust storm forces them to scrub the mission months before their intended departure, botanist Mark Watney is struck by debris and presumed dead, and the crew departs in the Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV) without him to begin their long trip home.
But, surely to no one’s great surprise (Watney himself even lampshades this in one scene), Watney lives, though to the film’s credit, it ratchets the drama up enough to make the audience wonder about his initial survival. Now stranded on a hostile alien world, he must survive until he can be rescued. What follows is a series of twists and turns as Watney struggles to contend with problem after problem. Meanwhile, back on Earth, the scientists and mathematicians at NASA must figure out how to communicate with him and eventually—as the film’s tagline states—bring him home.
When it comes to tone, The Martian has most in common with films like Cast Away or last year’s Gravity. Robinson Crusoe updated for the age of space, the modern version of the classic man versus nature tale—only this time, the planet itself will kill our hero without a second thought. From Cast Away comes the battle for survival, and from Gravity comes the sense of looming disaster: the knowledge that at some point, something will go horribly wrong.
Director Ridley Scott, best known for classics like Blade Runner, Alien, and Gladiator, has also drawn inspiration from the 2009 Sam Rockwell sleeper hit MOON and Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, with Damon’s one-man performance mimicking the former and some of the visuals borrowed from the latter. The difference, however, comes in the details.
While both MOON and Interstellar dealt with more esoteric scientific concepts like wormholes, time dilation, and more, The Martian remains strictly in the realms of possibility, with spacesuits, ships, and rovers that—while they could have lifted from a dozen sci-fi videogames of the past decade (the suits in particular evoke the Mass Effect series)—all look like things that could exist in the next decade or so. And while Interstellar concerned itself with the last gasp of space travel as the means to save a dying world, The Martian is the exact opposite: it glorifies astronauts and encourages the advance of science.
To that end, the cast is largely comprised not only of the astronauts themselves, but also the members of NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, or JPL. The ensemble cast includes Jeff Daniels as the director of NASA, who plays his role with sly humor and drama, Kristen Wiig in a surprisingly serious role as the organization’s media director—which she takes to with real heart, although her character lacks much to do—and Sean Bean as the Ares III mission director, whose role, while minor, is played with gravitas by the veteran actor.
Lastly, there’s Jessica Chastain as the mission’s guilt-stricken commander, Michael Peña (whose really been on a role recently) as the craft’s pilot, Kate Mara as a computer scientist, Chiwetel Ejiofor (best known for his lead role in 2013’s 12 Years A Slave) as the Mars missions director, and Donald Glover as astrophysicist Rich Purnell, among others. Chastain is as magnificent as ever, coming across as alternately strong and wracked by doubt, while Peña provides much of the humor during his scenes. Ejiofor is as good as usual, although he’s much more humorous here. Glover, meanwhile is extremely believable—so believable, in fact, that one wonders how much he actually had to act to play his part.
It’s a fairly large group of characters, although the film makes it work. While Damon takes center stage, he’s not the only character to receive depth, and the entire cast seems more realistic than many other recent films. What Damon is, however, is excellent in his role. Wisely, the filmmakers cut down on some of the book’s inner monologues by having Watney keep a video journal, although Damon’s narration still permeates the film. Unlike some other films, however, it works here and adds to the film. Damon infuses Watney with real humor during all of his scenes.
Indeed, humor is one of the film’s greatest and most surprising strengths. From Watney’s sly observations about his survival to the banter between other characters, the humor feels real and natural, and at the showing that I attended, much of the audience (myself included) laughed out loud more than any recent comedy. The realistic feel of the characters, the world, and the dialogue does more than anything to make The Martian a good film.
The other strength of the film is its efficiency. For example, within minutes of the film’s opening, the audience learns about the mission crew, their roles, and their personalities. Later on, any time a new character is introduced, a small text pop gives their name and role at NASA, which does wonders to cut down on unnecessary exposition.
The score, though minimal, adds much to the loneliness and desolation of the red planet (this film marks the third collaboration between Ridley Scott and composer Harry Gregson-Williams). The other music is largely anachronistic disco, although it’s justified in-story by the mission’s commander bringing nothing but disco with her, and it works in a sort of strange way, adding to the elation that Watney feels during several scenes. And while some parts may not be as vibrant as expected, the sweeping vistas of Mars (filmed in Jordan) are occasionally breathtaking.
The Martian is not a perfect film. While the aforementioned efficiency works for the most part, it occasionally feels rushed, as aside from Watney, the characters don’t really go through any arcs, which—though not damaging to the film—can seem odd. There’s also the fact that many characters exist with nothing much to do, including the masses of extras in certain shots.
In addition, the film strips out much of the book’s technical explanations and math, leaving some of scenes in which Watney details his survival plans feeling awkward and filled with holes. Another thing missing was Watney’s sense of loneliness; the viewer never really feels the crushing isolation, as Watney remains upbeat the entire time (within minutes of his survival he declares that he “isn’t going to die here”). While it doesn’t lessen Damon’s performance, speaking only for myself, it would have been nice to see a darker side of the character.
The film suffers from editing details, making the scene transitions abrupt and relying on montages (although some of those can be forgiven due to time constraints). Some of the camerawork, while solid enough on a technical level, was nothing spectacular, although I can’t speak for the 3D version. Finally, while the film has its own form of beauty in the blinking monitors of NASA and the dust storms of Mars, the color palette is muted, thus making some scenes appear rather dull when they should be anything but.
Ultimately, The Martian is a solid entry from a legendary director. While it has imperfections, they don’t detract from the humor and tone of the film, which ends up as heartwarming and very well done. Damon anchors the drama with the rest of the all-star cast, all adding up to one you don’t want to miss.
Final Score: 8/10