The Martian (2015) Review: Cast Away. In Spaaaace.
Ridley Scott is an interesting director to say the least. While his beginnings of ‘Alien’ and ‘Blade Runner’ cemented him as a sci-fi great, Scott’s curriculum vitae is as broad as the xenomorph’s skull. He’s done a war film in ‘Black Hawk Down’, a gangster movie in ‘American Gangster’, historical epics through ‘Gladiator’ and ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ and even a political thriller in ‘Body of Lies’. Whether or not you’re a fan of Scott’s, you have to admit that’s quite a feat.
Despite that, he is still very much regarded as a sci-fi director, and that’s probably because that’s where his best films come from. Recent years however, Scott has had more misses than hits. Even returning to the franchise that introduced him to the world in ‘Prometheus’ had mixed reactions at best. Whenever this happens, it’s only a matter of time until a director’s prestige isn’t enough to let him get off scot-free.
This is why it’s so good that ‘The Martian’ is so good. ‘The Martian’ is based on the novel of the same name by Andy Weir and introduces audiences to a world in which missions to mars are established as common experiences. Every few years NASA sends a team of researchers on a mission to study the planet for months at a time. Upon one of those missions, something goes horribly wrong and leaves astronaut Mark Watney, played by Matt Damon, stranded, left in the dirt on a planet not fit to sustain human life. Using the supplies and equipment left behind Mark must find a way to survive the harsh environment of an area that ain’t the kind of place to raise a kid. In fact it’s cold as hell.
Just as Mark Watney refuses to accept his fate, the movie itself resists the doom and gloom inherent with it’s tale. ‘The Martian’ is actually wickedly funny, with Watney’s sarcastic grasp on his situation driving his resilience. The film operates somewhat as a dark comedy in moments and takes an “if you don’t laugh, you cry” approach to the plot. Normally when a film tries to inject humour in an otherwise serious story, it comes off as horrifically imbalanced.
Thankfully, ‘The Martian’ avoids this with the help of Drew Goddard’s biting script. Characters in the film are never overbearingly light, and you never do forget the height of the stakes. The balance of the tone also helps to build extreme tension in the film. Because the situation is so dangerous, you never truly feel as though Watney is safe. Yes the movie gives you a sense of Watney’s capabilities, but he is still very much at the mercy of murphy’s law in the film.
The majority of the film is told from Watney’s perspective. To mirror the near impossible task of his character, Damon has to find a way to be interesting whilst spitting astro-jargon and performing agricultural tasks, and he actually does in one of his best roles to date. He exudes the sort of charm that makes this story not the gloomy one it’s synopsis provides. Damon actually gives the viewer a sense of hope in an absolutely impossible situation.
Watching Mark Watney work his way through each individual problem of growing food and establishing communication was always fascinating to watch, and that’s due to Damon’s performance. The film also does a good job of putting you in Mark’s world, as it cuts to pov shots from his helmet, cameras situated in his hub, and his vehicles. This is when Mark most charms the viewer, and uses us as his own personal Wilson.
Back on earth however is where the rest of the story takes place. If anything these scenes just contextualize just how great an effect Watney’s survival has on the world at large. This is the point of the film after all, as the force that drives Mark to survive is his own force of will. Seeing it play out from the perspective of home enhances the sense of miracle that is his survival. The only gripe with these scenes is that the characters are not exactly characters, they’re more types.
There’s the official who makes the hard decisions, the one who says “this is a PR nightmare” and the mission director with heart of gold who tells the hard decision official he’s an douchebag. These are cliches in a movie that otherwise feels fresh. A few performances stand out such as Jeff Daniels and Chiwetel Ejiofor, and the scenes don’t falter so much that you lose the sense of pacing necessary for you to care about Mark’s survival.
It is remarkable though that this film was able to keep up it’s pacing all the way through. There’s never a point where I believed it was running on a bit too long. The only thing I would mention is that it presents Mark with constant obstacles which he has to overcome before he can have a beer on the couch. This is the premise of the film, but at a certain point it feels like there were one too many plans that failed that had to be salvaged. This is no doubt intentional to put you in the characters frame of mind, and I suppose it succeeds on that front, but I still felt as though narratively it might have been tighter if one or two of those failures were taken out. Just for the sake of making the sequence of events more memorable. This is not to say that the movie doesn’t hit hard when it needs to, because it definitely does.
Following the tire tracks of Mad Max: Fury Road, ‘The Martian’ makes dirt and sand look real good. Since Watney’s scenes are placed against a backdrop of Mars, he doesn’t have much variation in his environment, but you’d never feel robbed watching the movie. The landscape and topography of Mars is endearing in how colourful it is. The movie also is similar to Mad Max as it has an emphasis on practicality.
Everything Mark makes to help him survive feels like it was just made and not a product of a set designer. You truly do get the sense of the discipline and sheer will it takes to do everything in the movie. The filmmakers also decided to actually grow the food Mark grows in the film. Each of these decisions only enhances the viewer’s experience. Even with Watney himself, Matt Damon seemingly goes through a physical transformation as the film goes on. Make no mistake, dude goes full ‘Cast Away’ by the time it’s all over.
I’ve mentioned how 2015 has been a great year for film, but more specifically than that, it’s been a year of triumphant returns to cinema. Inside Out marked the return to greatness by studio Pixar, Mad Max brings back the desert wanderer as well as practical effect filmmaking, Jurrasic World revitalised the once extinct franchise, and even Johnny Depp came back with a furious vengance in ‘Black Mass’. ‘The Martian’ is a return to form and marks what is his best film in at least a decade. It’s definitely a film people should see, especially in the theatre. The 3D actually works to the films advantage and doesn’t affect the lighting of the movie as most 3D does. I can’t express enough how much I enjoyed this film, even if it has few issues, but they were so minor I’ve already forgot them.
Rating: BIG SCREEN WATCH