Ridley Scott returns his cinematic gaze back to outer space in the visually triumphant and emotionally satisfying film The Martian. Aided by a classically structured and a strong, character-driven script from Drew Goddard (based on the book by Andy Weir), Scott delivers a Sci-fi opus on par with his previous efforts Alien and Blade Runner. The story, while steeped in the science fiction of traveling to Mars, is at much, or perhaps more, about how man fits into the laws of science, traveling in space and surviving as much on his own ingenuity as on the advances in science in the equipment and technology surrounding him. In the case of The Martian, the focus is primarily on the survival – and rescue – of one man, Mark Watney, who is stranded alone on Mars, millions of miles away from any other human being. Matt Damon, in a riveting, splendid performance, embodies Watney with a calm focus, a strong will and a delightful sense of humor. And he can wax poetic with certain obscenities to the delight of audience and the chagrin of many other character in the film. If feels effortless, but Damon demonstrates the instinct for man’s survival in intelligent, entertaining and, sometimes, calculated fashion. The rest of the cast all support Damon marvelously. The visuals are stunning: outer space is vast, the scenes on Hermes spacecraft are fascinating and the Mars landscape is extraordinary, beautifully realized and captivating. The Martian is inspiring, exploring the human spirit and determination to survive. It is the must-see film of the season.
On the surface of Mars, the Ares III team are faced with aborting their mission when a monstrous storm bears down on their location. In the confusion, Botanist Mark Watney (Damon) is lost and presumed dead, leaving commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) no choice but to leave without his body. However, Watney is alive, wounded and alone on the hostile planet with only the mission’s artificial habitat, rover and various other equipment to survive until the Ares VI, the next mission, can arrive…in four years. Back on Earth, NASA, lead by Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels), learns of his miraculous survival and fight to reach him before Watney’s supplies run out.
Undeniably, The Martian belongs to Matt Damon who carries much of the film on his own. This is very much his “Chuck Nolan” (Tom Hanks in Cast Away) role where his video-log screen becomes his “Wilson” allowing him to share his intentions, emotions and – often hilarious – reactions to his many efforts to survive via wonderfully crafted monologues. His strength is illustrated in his handling of his first obstacle, a long sliver of shrapnel lodged into his abdomen. His psychological prowess is revealed as he discovers how to grow food on what is essentially a dead planet or use what little resources he has or what other missions have left behind to improve his chances of survival. Or his charming humor reflecting his will to live as he proclaims “I am going to science the shit out of it” or “I am the greatest Botanist on this planet.” Damon creates a rich, well-developed character that has the audience in his hands from nearly the onset. There is little choice but to root for him, fully with every emotion invested. Damon’s performance as Mark Watney in The Martian easily sits along side his award winning role of Will Hunting.
Damon is supported by a strong and varied cast that includes Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor and many more. The crew of the Hermes, lead by Chastain, is also comprised of Michael Pena, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan and Aksel Hennie. They are perhaps the hardest hit by Watney’s death made even more tragic upon learning of his survival. Chastain deals with the responsibility of leaving him behind while the crew wrestle with their role in Watney’s rescue. While Pena once again makes the most of a smaller role in a large cast especially with a clever and touching conversation with Watney, the entire crew are terrific.
Back on Earth, the cast is lead by Daniels, the head of NASA, as he balances the politics of his position and the responsibility of launching efforts to rescue a single man. While Watney’s struggles to survive are rightly given the majority of the screen time, Daniel’s Teddy Sanders conflict of Earthly financial and political scopes are not ignored, given just enough time to provide a balanced weight. The “how to rescue” and the “why to rescue” are given ample screen time, providing the well-worn “Is one man worth risking the lives of many” struggle a refreshing, albeit fleeting, and emotionally realistic approach. Ejiofor and Sean Bean (as Mitch Henderson) represent the other arguments in the efforts from handling the financial challenges to involving foreign diplomacy to deciding when to inform the Hermes team that their presumed dead colleague is actually alive. The reasoning behind every decision, every success and every failure is riveting and captivating, best illustrated by exchange between Daniels and Bean. “I am not risking their lives, it is bigger than one person” declines Sanders. “No, it’s not” replies Henderson.
Ridley Scott uses the majesty of the Mars environment and the impressive details of the Hermes space craft to counter-balance the core themes of The Martian. It primarily deals with man’s will to survive against all obstacles, no matter how big or desperate. It’s the fight to live another day, to return home, to overcome all adversity be it on Earth or 140 millions miles away. It is also about the sacrifices man makes to save others in peril looking past their own well being be that their careers or their very lives, personally and globally. Scott contrasts the different locations of Mars, Hermes and Earth to tell his tale. Scott is able to focus on a variety of subjects and situations with The Martian as he focuses on Watney and his fight to live or on the crew of the Hermes and their struggles to risk their lives to rescue Watney and the various NASA locations where the many join together for a single cause. His direction brings out the scope of the vast space and the intimacy of being stranded on an unpopulated planet with equal skill and execution. All the parts make an incredible, solid and rewarding whole.
The Martian manages to take a positive and surprisingly optimistic look at the human spirit that is uplifting and gratifying. It is most definitely a feel-good movie. The success of the film emotional core is shared between Ridley Scott, Drew Goddard and Matt Damon. Scott weaves his flair for the grandeur of outer space with a welcomed focus on humanity and mankind’s will and spirit. Whether the scenery is the gorgeous Martian landscape or the Hermes or Earth, the point is rarely very far from focusing upon the character. This may be due to the talents of Drew Goddard and the source material from author Andy Weir. Whatever the explanation, it is a winning combination. Damon is outstanding in the lead role of Mark Watney, giving a performance deserving of recognition and awards. He is the heart of the film, a charming, engaging and wondrous heart. Today’s cinema can use a lot more of what The Martian has to offer and today’s audiences deserve the emotional and visual rewards the film provides.
The Martian (4.8 / 5)