The Martian (movie review)

An inherent quality of human beings is our dissatisfaction with stagnation. We build, we explore, we invent. We really don’t like staying still. Mars is a symbol of this notion and the focus of Ridley Scott’s newest film The Martian, adapted by Drew Goddard from Andy Weir’s novel of the same name, a film that, on paper, has a recipe for a smash hit.

One of the things The Martian nails is its representation of this enterprising spirit. Mark Watney (Matt Damon), an astronaut stranded on Mars, along with his team on Earth, demonstrates the very American ‘Land of Opportunity’ ideology that says you can accomplish anything in this life if you apply enough knowledge and effort. The amount of applause in this film highlights this positive outlook. There’s so much applause that you’d think you were attending a State of the Union Address.

So, how does Mark find himself stuck on Mars in this upbeat sci-fi? During a storm, the crew of the Ares III manned mission to Mars is forced to fly away from the planet, leaving behind an injured Mark who they presume dead. He’s not dead, however; thus, we have a story. This tale of survival, with an unusually light and comedic tone, follows Mark as he tries to survive on a desolate planet while attempting to be rescued by those on Earth.

Mark is resourceful, though, to say the least. The gears are always turning in the mind of this brilliant botanist and it seems like there’s no problem he can’t solve, be it a food shortage or mechanical malfunction. Somehow, he ‘sciences the shit outta Mars’ (his words) to grow a potato farm. Upon waking up to discover he’s stranded on a distant planet, he doesn’t despair; he gets to work. Though, his mood is so positive at times that you wonder if he appreciates the gravity of his situation. Nevertheless, he keeps the jokes coming. He does so mostly in a set of video logs he creates to inform people about his experience and to maintain his sanity.

This isn’t one of those meaty roles that commands award consideration, but it will remind us why Damon is one of the best in the business. He can be as chipper as they come at times, but somehow he still projects a subconscious level of doubt and fear that lingers in the periphery of everything he says and does. He also has a way of making the character instantly identifiable and likable with many human-like qualities to go with his computer-like mind.

Unlike similar movies such as Gravity and Castaway, we see a lot of action from two groups of characters separate from Mark. The first is the crew of the Ares III as they drift away from Mars and their crewmember. It’s a somber mood until they learn of Mark’s survival. Though, Commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain in a role too small for her) still feels guilty about her decision to leave him. Other good actors with fairly underwritten roles on this journey home are Kate Mara and Michael Pena.

The second group comprises the people of NASA attempting to save Mark. His survival is noticed by satellite planner Mindy Park, played by soon-to-be-star Mackenzie Davis in a role that’s similar to her Halt and Catch Fire character, still a big techy but with less sass. Likewise, Jeff Daniels more or less reprises his role from The Newsroom as Teddy Sanders, the stern director of NASA, also with less sass but with the pretension and earnestness intact. Joining them are the excellent Chiwetel Ejiofor, the usually wonderful but miscast Kristen Wiig and a somber Sean Bean. Everyone gives solid performances, although no one really overachieves and we don’t learn a whole lot about these people.

If you pay attention, though, you might learn a thing or two about science, space and even farming. The movie is filled with educational dialogue that sounds completely authentic, and should, considering that NASA itself was consulted by both Weir and the filmmakers. One of the more enjoyable elements of The Martian is listening to Mark use science and logic to break down complex situations into their base elements, especially when his stream of consciousness concludes with him labelling himself a space pirate.

Although the movie sounds great, its look won’t blow you away. After witnessing the mesmerizing effects in Gravity and Interstellar, those that are on display here seem a tad underwhelming by comparison, though Mars looks fantastic. Filmed at a site in Jordan called Wadi Rum, the movie brings Mars to life with its vast seas of burnt red sand and towering cliffs, a landscape that makes Mark seem so tiny. The 3D is unnecessary for the film except in some breathtaking overhead shots of the planet.

This is, no doubt, an entertaining film, but there’s a major flaw. Dozens of problems emerge in the story, since Mark is so intelligent that as soon as tension builds in the script, it dissipates because Mark has solved the problem in a matter of minutes. You’re never really convinced that he’s in real danger. This, coupled with the movie’s light tone and one too many jokes create a film almost devoid of tension save for a brief sequence near the end. Another miscalculation is a lack of references to Mark’s family or life in general on Earth. It’s hard to empathize with a character that’s such a blank slate. If we saw him emotionally invested in someone else, perhaps we’d become more emotionally invested in him and the movie itself.

At times, you may feel as isolated from The Martian as Mark is from his colleagues. It’s a well-paced film with authentic dialogue and solid performances, but it rarely makes you worry about those who are supposed to be in peril. We never see ourselves in their shoes. That’s the difference between a good movie and an experience.

Rating: 3.5/5 Atoms
NR 3_5 Atoms - B-

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