MOVIE REVIEW: The Martian
"THE MARTIAN"-- 5 STARS
As a genre, survival films have an unmistakably infectious draw. A 2013 article from The Daily Beast entitled "Why We Are Under the Spell of Survival Movies" is a nice primer. Contrary to other action/adventure spectacles that offer peril of different types and scales, survival films boil that risk down to the rawest and simplest instinctual goal we are all programmed with: life or death. Survival films trigger the automatic "what would you do" response from their audiences. You cannot help but picture yourself in the same survival circumstance as the scenario you are watching. That's their power and draw. The great survival films take an extreme circumstance, simplify it to that life-or-death essence, and induce those strong instinctual thoughts and reactions. When done right, those films are tremendously moving, powerful, and, best of all, entertaining.
Simply put, "The Martian" from director Ridley Scott and headlining star Matt Damon, is a great survival film. It strikes all of those aforementioned chords of survival essence and entertainment. Giving it the easy labels of "Cast Away in Space," "Robinson Crusoe: Astronaut," "Interstellar without Nolanism," "Apollo 13 on Mars," or "The Next Gravity" sells it too short. "The Martian" doesn't need to borrow anything from those five notable survival films and stories and can stand confidently aside, or even above them, as an exemplar all its own in the genre. Meet what is sure to go down as one of 2015's best films.
Set in the not-too-distant future on America's third manned mission to Mars, the Ares 3 crew, led by commander Melissa Lewis (Academy Award nominee Jessica Chastain) is forced to abort and evacuate when a strong dust storm threatens to topple their only exit spacecraft. The crew attempt to navigate from their habitat to the rocket in the storm when botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is struck by flying debris and separated from the group. The rest of the crew, played by "Ant-Man" scene-stealer Michael Pena, Sebastian Stan of "Captain America: The Winter Soldier", former "House of Cards" member Kate Mara, and Norwegian newcomer Aksel Hennie, depart safely and start the long journey back to Earth.
Due to the severity of the impact and the high chance that his spacesuit lost pressure killing him quickly, the crew, as well as NASA director Teddy Sanders (Emmy winner Jeff Daniels), presume Mark Watney is dead. With assistance from press liaison Annie Montrose (Kristen Wiig), that very death is reported to the world when news breaks of the Ares 3 evacuation. The stunning loss of an American in space is a gut punch to the crew, Mission Control Flight Director Mitch Henderson (Sean Bean), and NASA engineer Vincent Kapoor (Academt Award nominee Chiwetel Ejiofor) who worked so hard and closely on this mission.
Low and behold, Mark Watney survives the accident and the storm. He's wounded, but makes his way back to the habitat. Mark knows the score. He knows everyone probably thinks he's already dead. He only has food for about a month, is cut off from NASA communications, and the next Ares mission doesn't arrive on Mars for four years. He can either live out his resources or use his ingenuity and drive to solve problems and survive long enough to make it home. Determined and skilled, Mark embarks on projects to reestablish communications, use his botany skills to grow food, and cull his resources together to extend his time until NASA can do something to arrive sooner.
The casting of Matt Damon as Mark Watney is wholly perfect. He quickly helps us forget his horrible heel turn in "Interstellar" last year in a spacesuit. Unlike the breakneck pace of "Gravity," "The Martian" allows a superb amount of character development and Damon is all game. He's a strong enough actor to go it alone in isolation and possesses the positive rooting appeal of the kind of Everyman we love. He's keen, but not entirely too smart for the room. He's heroic, but not beefy enough to be the square-jawed stereotype. To pull that off, Damon combines equal parts engaging movie star and skilled legitimate actor. Like himself, he makes Watney equal parts soulful and playful. The humor comes out naturally. Damon gives this role the tangible feel where you put yourself in his shoes. That kind of approachable hero is exactly what a great survival film needs. The creative casting that assembles the enormous supporting ensemble behind Damon matches that high bar. Jeff Daniels, Jessica Chastain, and Chiwetel Ejiofor are all particularly good, but "The Martian" always remains Matt Damon's show.
The sheer size of this story and production is a tremendous undertaking that is masterfully delivered. The technical precision on display from director Ridley Scott and his team is through the roof. Scott has collaborated with his inner-circle of cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, Oscar-nominated production designer Arthur Max, and Oscar-winning editor Pietro Scalia for combined 24 films between them, dating as far back as 1997's "G.I. Jane." Wolski varies the visual canvas of vistas and exciting 3D elements deftly. In as many places as possible, Max brought practical, physical sets to the scenes. Even at 141 minutes in running time, Scalia honed this sculpture from being too busy or bloated with the extra time. Swirling and swelling in the background, the Harry Gregson-Williams music score suits all levels of the film's tone, from isolation to hope. The overall craftsmanship shows and builds smartly with the film's own emphasis on science. The open NASA involvement and participation adds genuine quality and production value to "The Martian" and vicariously boosts their own needed promotion for their own burgeoning planetary exploration goals. "The Martian" isn't for astronauts and botanists what "Top Gun" was for fighter pilots 30 years ago, but it is bashfully close.
This film's excellence extends to its treatment of Andy Weir's best-selling source novel. Weir was is the son of particle physicist and sought an accurate realism and practicality to his adventure story. Adapting the novel to film to maintain its optimism, scientific plausibility, and wide scope was no small undertaking. The outcome is Ridley Scott's most humorous and crowd-pleasing movie in a long time. The solo take on "The Martian" from screenwriter Drew Goddard ("The Cabin in the Woods") coolly balances the Mars-bound isolation of Mark Watney with the ensemble efforts of all the connected folks in space and back on Earth working feverishly to bring their man home. The Mars scenes don't lag like the complete isolation from survival films like "Unbroken" or "Cast Away." The passage of time and heightened danger is fueled by Watney's journey and the highly interested parallel NASA work back on Earth.
Consequently, "The Martian" is everything one would want in a survival film. This is a stirring adventure and an instant classic science fiction film. The science is smart and the winning characters are never dull. The overall rooting hope to beat death swells in the right places alongside the palpable moments of suspense, awe, and excitement. "The Martian" is a successful blockbuster effort that will resonate after the experience. The STEM geeks out there will soak this up like a fine dessert. You have to admire a movie that works its ass off to get those things right and still entertain.
LESSON #1: THE PERSONAL RESOURCEFULNESS NEEDED FOR SURVIVAL-- Like all great survival movies, "The Martian" has a classic lead character finding and developing the resourcefulness needed for survival. Mark's supplies are limited and his patience and wit have to take over. He has to adapt, discipline, and problem-solve in order to maintain his life and hope in an inhospitable place that can kill you in an instant with a mistake. If life gives you lemons, you make lemonade. Here, life gives Mark Watney human feces and potatoes.
LESSON #2: BONE UP ON YOUR SCIENCE-- Both Andy Weir's source novel and the film take great pride in its scientific acumen. That skill in science is the basis for necessary ingenuity from Lesson #1. NASA's Director of the Planetary Science Division, James L. Green, served as a technical adviser on the film and some of their own Mars projects are referenced and cameoed. The film also backs Weir's initial deep research and feedback he put into the novel. All of this intellectual density is focused on and highlighted enough that it demands to be respected and admired. For a nice piece about this film's scientific accuracy and inaccuracies, check this article from Time magazine.
LESSON #3: HAVING A SENSE OF HUMOR TO EASE ONE'S MIND AND FATE-- Andy Weir insisted that Mark Watney not succumb to loneliness and depression. He intentionally sought and crafted an optimist that doesn't quit. Thanks to Damon's performance, one secret to easing the heaving weight of fate in a survival situation is having a sense of humor. Mark talks to himself on the computer logs. He knows an active mind will stave off the nerves. He pokes fun at his crewmates' leftover music and hobbies. He's aware of how MacGyver-ish and lucky his science is. Between this sense of humor and the ability to stop and smell the roses in reflection, Mark avoids the madness of isolation and toll on his body and will to survive.
LESSON #4: THE HUMAN INSTINCT TO HELP ONE ANOTHER-- This final lesson speaks to the substantial human effort of NASA to problem-solve on their end back on Earth to find a way to bring Mark Watney home alive. Hope is challenged by logistics, but rightly never wavers. The big question that comes up often among the higher-up NASA characters in "The Martian" is whether or not saving one man is worth risking the lives of others. Some are given pause by that question and others are instantly steadfast to give it their all without question. All of that taps into a human instinct to help one another. From simply offering a tissue after a sneeze on up to putting your life on the line to save someone, humans are societal creatures that project and help the good of the group because they know they are dependent on each other to survive. They need that group. Saving one at whatever costs preserves that group.