Much like its protagonist, “The Martian” is a film that’s captivating, inventive, resourceful and widely appealing. Not only does it deliver a long overdue quality movie about the red planet after a wake of big disappointments (thank you Val Kilmer and Gary Sinise), it also offers us director Ridley Scott’s most robust, complete and accessible film in a decade.
‘Martian’ arrives on the heels of “Gravity” and “Interstellar,” two films that on the surface are decidedly more ambitious and certainly more thematically rich projects – even if the latter struggled to reach its own lofty aims. Admittedly Cuaron and Nolan’s works offer more striking visuals than Scott’s more pragmatic and formulaic driven work here.
Yet this film is also a welcome reprieve from that new wave of space films that feel the need to blend grounded and supported science fact and theory with quasi-theological implications, spiritual self-affirmation character arcs and troubled familial relationship tropes. There’s no pining for dead or estranged children or siblings, no near death vision quests and no extra-dimensional deus ex machinas to save the day.
Instead, the film is a straight up tribute to the power of science, human ingenuity and our collective spirit. The story is set in the near present and follows Mark Watney (Matt Damon), an astronaut and botanist in a seeming impossible situation. Left stranded on Mars by the rest of his crew who think he died in a storm, he must figure out how to survive long enough for a rescue mission to reach him in a few years.
Rather than dropping into despair or soul searching though, Watney right away resolves to live and gets on with the task of solving the very long list of problems that come with trying to survive this hostile environment on his own. At the same time the narrative also cuts back to NASA and later his crew as they also try to help him return.
Remember that mid-section of “Apollo 13” where it was all about NASA and the ship’s crew trying to resolve the various problems they had using only the limited resources on hand? “The Martian” is essentially that stretched out to feature length. With a runtime of 140 minutes the film’s brisk pacing and palpable sense of urgency keep it moving like a finely tuned Swiss watch – only the last half hour or so (once Damon’s facial hair arrives) being where it begins to stumble and could use a tiny bit of trimming.
“Cabin in the Woods” scribe and “Daredevil” producer Drew Goddard adapts Andy Weir’s acclaimed novel and in doing so eschews the often problematic earnestness and sentimentality of the genre in favor of frequently self-effacing humor along with the always racing forward pace. There’s almost no fat on this thing, it’s streamlined and brutally efficient to the point that there’s zero time for extraneous subplots and tangents.
Yet that’s also its crucial weakness. This genre in particular is where some need emotional hand holding, however slim, in order to relate. Goddard tries to keep technobabble and exposition to minimal and approachable levels, but its a film mostly of surface tension and smart practical thrills, its only deeper theme being the obvious inspirational message of collective human innovation achieving great things.
That problem is also reflected in the characters – Damon’s astronaut never suffers from debilitating self-doubt despite prolonged isolation, and can seemingly solve every problem that comes his way. Similarly some supporting characters fall into tropes – the bureaucratic boss, the flustered PR woman, the computer geek with a winning solution, etc.
What helps there is that Scott has stacked the cast top to bottom with excellent talent who help add dimension to some of the more pat roles and really make this feel like more of an ensemble piece than you might expect. These include people like Jeff Daniels and Chiwetel Ejiofor effortlessly conveying authority to the likes of Kristen Wiig and Donald Glover going against type in fairly straight bit parts.
Damon is the main attraction here though and does not put a foot wrong, the actor’s everyman appeal and charm being a huge reason the film works as well as it does. Like his character, he keeps the action moving and makes it work even when it falls back a little too often onto the odd joke that either doesn’t click or overstays its welcome. An example of the latter is one about disco music which provides much of the film’s score aside from Harry Gregson-Williams forgettable incidental music.
The fact that it is the unsentimental Scott at the helm, and not another who is more likely to acquiesce to formula, means it really is uncertain if Damon’s character will survive or not which keeps the stakes feeling high throughout. Added to this is that the film strictly adheres to the science, the characters never really take a leap that doesn’t seem unreasonable considering the scenario and conditions and the film sticks to the high ground of never compromising the science when it’s inconvenient for the story – something “Gravity” and “Interstellar” are very guilty of. Technical talent is superb from top to bottom, notably cinematographer Darius Wolski who gives the film a lush visual vibe.
“The Martian” effectively achieves what “Tomorrowland” tried and failed miserably to do earlier this year – to inspire a new generation of science nerds to think and dream big and find solutions for our problems today. That this ‘MacGyver In Space’ is also not just a commendable artistic achievement but a very marketable and crowd pleasing piece of entertainment in the process makes it a real winner.