It’s a great feeling when a filmmaker capable of cinematic magic comes in from wandering the creative desert. Ridley Scott has had a rough go of it the past five years. In that time, the director helmed the debacle Exodus: Gods and Kings (read my reaction here), the critically lambasted The Counselor, the made-for-TV movie The Vatican, and the disappointing Robin Hood. The uneven Prometheus was also released amidst that flurry but, as a return to the world he created in his classic Alien, is entertaining despite suffocating under the weight of its own mythology. The Martian is a return to form for Scott, almost matching his best work. All that’s missing here is the heavy tone that comes out of exploring themes like what it means to be human, as he did in Blade Runner. But that’s like faulting the stars in the sky because of the view from a light-polluted city. Scott did exactly what The Martian’s source material demands. He made a wildly fun, acerbically funny, exciting ride of a movie.
The film is based on the bestselling book of the same name by first time novelist Andy Weir. The author self-published The Martian in serial format for free on his own website before it exploded in popularity via Amazon Kindle. It’s essentially Robinson Crusoe on Mars, albeit far more scientifically accurate. Weir did painstaking research while writing the novel to ensure as much technical exactitude as possible. The Martian tells the story of astronaut Mark Watney, a botanist and mechanical engineer, who becomes stranded on the fourth planet from the sun when his fellow crew members are forced to abort their mission because of a harrowing sandstorm. The crew believes Watney was killed during the escape, and the scientist’s attempts to survive and to figure out how to contact NASA with no working communications equipment make up the crux of the story.
Mark Watney is the epitome of a smartass. His intellect is second to none, and his sarcasm knows no bounds. Matt Damon brings Watney to life with a cocksure swagger that is magnetic. This is easily the performance – among many outstanding ones – that could define Damon’s career. He was born to play Watney. The movie is split between his struggles to sustain himself long enough to be rescued, and NASA’s efforts back home to figure out a way to do so. So, yes, the center of this movie’s solar system is still a straight, white man because Hollywood still has a long way to go to consistently diversify the hero role.
But Damon is supported by a group of actors every bit as talented as he is, with a pluralistic cast of characters representing a refreshing sense of egalitarianism in humanity’s future. The brilliant Chiwetel Ejiofor – whose American accent here is flawless – plays NASA’s director of Mars operations, Vincent Kapoor. Kristen Wiig shows some dramatic chops as Annie Montrose, NASA’s director of media relations. Donald Glover sinks his teeth into the role of Rich Purnell, a socially awkward but brilliant astrophysicist working on the problem of bringing Watney home. The crew who unwittingly strand Watney on Mars also reflects our changing attitudes of what women are capable of in society, with Jessica Chastain as the commander of the ship Hermes, and Kate Mara as computer system analyst Beth Johanssen. Michael Peña rounds out the multicultural crew as pilot Rick Martinez.
As great as it is to see diverse casting, the real strength of The Martian is its sheer entertainment value. Ridley Scott and his collaborators prove they know the visual power of the medium inside and out, and they exploit that knowledge and experience to the fullest. The movie’s climax is as intense as any sequence from the phenomenal 2013 sci-fi adventure Gravity. The source material is a book, but Scott telegraphs quirks of character using uniquely visual means, even in small moments. One hilarious sequence involves Watney’s reaction – he can only communicate with NASA using text – to the insane plan to get him into orbit. As he types his expletive-laced response, the members of mission control in Houston stand with mouths agape and eyes bulging. We never see what Watney types, but there’s no need. The characters tell us everything we need to know with their faces.
Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski transforms the Earth-bound shooting locations into the Red Planet seamlessly. Wolski’s Mars is a truly alien world rich with stark, haunting beauty. Harry Gregson-Williams’ score thrums with dramatic intensity, but is a bit heavy-handed at points. The digital effects are beautifully rendered, but a few of them stand out as particularly artificial, specifically whenever the crew of the Hermes quickly moves from one location to the next in zero gravity.
Screenwriter Drew Goddard – whose previous work includes adapting the book World War Z for the screen, as well as writing and directing The Cabin in the Woods – did a fine job translating Watney’s sarcastic wit from the book. His script’s divergences from the novel in the second half are fine with author Andy Weir, and much of the scientific minutiae from the book aren’t included. I only made it through a third of the book before seeing the movie, but as far as I can tell Goddard has deftly distilled the essence of Weir’s story for the screen. Wired Magazine’s Angela Watercutter even makes the heretical assertion – to word nerds, anyway – that The Martian proves movies are now better than their books. That’s a moot question, like the fabled argument over chickens and eggs, because books and movies are inherently different art forms, with strengths and weaknesses all their own. What’s for sure is The Martian stands on its own as a jolting, smart, and raucous cinematic experience.
Why it got 4 stars:
- Although there’s no way to fit in every bit of science from the book, the movie does a great job of translating a good bit of it to the screen.
- The Martian is about as tense and entertaining as they come. It’s the perfect movie to close out the summer blockbuster season.
- The only reason it doesn’t score higher is because I like my sci-fi existentialist. This is not “the thinking person’s sci-fi,” if I can be pretentious for a minute. That doesn’t mean it’s not a hell of a good time, and after all, Ridley Scott’s Alien is basically the prototype for the blue-collar sci-fi movie. Truckers in space!
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- Speaking of that last point, allow me to riff on the joke that went around when the first trailer for The Martian came out. A lot of people noticed space, Jessica Chastain, and Matt Damon being abandoned on another planet and quipped, “it’s the prequel to Interstellar!” I think the two movies would go well together. The Marian would be the nuts and bolts examination of how we move out further into the universe, and Interstellar would be the one that brings up all the questions about our place in said universe.
- If you haven’t seen the meme going around in the last few weeks about Matt Damon, let me share it with you: Between Saving Private Ryan, Interstellar, and The Martian, Hollywood has spent millions of dollars just to rescue Matt Damon. There’s even a listicle about it, so it must be worthy of discussion…