“The Martian” Review (****)

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Matt Damon stars as Mark Watney in “The Martian.”

“The Martian” is an emotional, ruthlessly realistic space-travel survival story that never once overwhelms you with the scope of it, with the concept of interstellar isolation, or with hopelessness. Instead, it magnifies the magnificence of everything within its frame. Ridley Scott is practiced and controlled and patient with the grandeur of space, and “The Martian” is arguably his loosest and most playful project to date. And with Drew Goddard adapting Andy Weir’s bestselling novel for the screen, this film can’t be anything but good… and it is. Honestly, it is. “The Martian” never maroons you within the darkest pits of Mars, never speaks in platitudes about the smallness of humanity, never reduces itself to cliché. It’s a champion of exploration, of adventure, and of knowledge and innovation. I doubt there’s much contention in me saying that “The Martian” will be the blockbuster film of 2015.

At this point, I’m sure you’re all aware that at film’s focus we have Mark Watney, played by the charismatic and ever-endearing Matt Damon, who somehow manages to make even the most technical science-talk charming. So the story goes like this: half a dozen astronauts/scientists are sent to Mars. After only eighteen sols (a sol is just a Martian day), a huge, gusty, life-threatening storm appears. While scurrying back to the ship, Mark Watney is impaled with some sort of antenna, and his crewmates, thinking him dead, are forced to abandon the planet. Well, a sol or two later, up wakes Mark Watney. He tends to what I would call a life-threatening wound and proceeds to meticulously plan his survival. Thankfully, he’s a botanist. While with this crew, it was his job to discover whether or not plants can grow on Mars’ climate. Turns out, with a little bit of recycled human waste, manufactured water (take the hydrogen from the extra rocket fuel and the oxygen from the oxygenator, of course!), and good, old-fashioned hard work, you can absolutely grow plants on Mars. Watney uses some pre-packed potatoes to create a farm. Throughout the entirety of the film, his resourcefulness is never exasperated; and it’s so much fun to watch. He’s constantly problem solving, sol-after-sol-after-sol; interestingly enough, I’d say, for every one problem Mark Watney solves on screen, he solves two within the text of the novel.

Within this film, there’s a rigorous attention to science and to the technicalities of outer and inner space travel. And that’s one of the things that makes this film (and textual counterpart) so amazing: the science actually checks out. All of the innovation and science and chemistry behind this film—it’s true, it’s possible. The film itself is a commentary on possibility, on believing in incredible things. And within the context of “The Martian,” Goddard’s script delivers the science jargon in a way that’s graspable; it’s not overly simplistic, nor is it too heavy handed. It’s believable and digestible. With such a heavy emphasis on the technicalities of space travel, and with so much of the film’s 121 minutes dedicated to discovering the science, I do think we sacrifice a bit elsewhere. I think some of the characters fall flat, and that works with this film. We don’t need to know the various histories of our secondary characters; that’s fine. But we don’t really know much about Mark Watney himself. We know he has a mom and a dad. We know he’s innovative and will ‘science the shit’ out of anything on Mars. He’s funny, he’s handsome. We know him on a very superficial level. And we know even less about all of those characters who support him.

The cast is stacked to the nines, and I think the periphery talent is underutilized. We have Jessica Chastain as the Commander; Kate Mara, Michael Peña, Sebastian Stan and Aksel Hennie also play crew members. Kristen Wiig plays a very serious PR woman within NASA, and gets all of maybe six minutes on the screen. Sean Bean plays a handler—the liaison between the crew and NASA. Jeff Daniels is the NASA Director. Chiwetel Ejiofor and Benedict Wong are the brains behind the rescue operation. Donald Glover plays some wacky, millennial-type scientist. The cast is overflowing with talent and potential, and the film simply didn’t have enough time to explore them.

Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Sebastian Stan, Kate Mara and Aksel Hennie
play NASA crew members in “The Martian.”

There’s a levity to “The Martian” that I find really admirable, both within the text and the film, but certainly more so within the film. Mark Watney has this inflated sense of optimism. In his video diaries, we often find him joking or being affable and contemplative simultaneously. It never really takes that dark, twisty turn. He never asks the big questions. The overwhelming sense of solitude he must feel. The thought of dying completely and utterly alone. The idea of being abandoned in space. Or the simple fact that he’s nearly 34 million miles from any other living soul. That’s deep. That’s hard. And that darkness, that coaxing kind of gloom is never even touched on. At one point he asks one of the crewmates to talk with his parents if he dies, but that’s really it. It’s certainly choice to have presented the character and film in this light, and I think it perfectly lends itself to Matt Damon’s charm, but I wished we’d had just a couple more hits at some sort of introspection like that.

“The Martian” is just so much fun to watch. It doesn’t have the nail-biting, white knuckled quality that “Gravity” does, nor does it have the over indulgent mumbo-jumbo of “Interstellar,” instead it has something that’s entirely it’s own. It’s a space adventure film that does nearly everything right. The aesthetic of Mars is gorgeous, all the different shades of browns and reds and oranges; everything just looks to be the most gorgeous sunset you’ve ever seen. It’s a very well decorated film with close attention to detail. See this move in the theatre, it’s most deserving of the big screen. But also, for real, read the book.

4 out of 5 stars.

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