Matt Damon in The Martian

Movie Review: ‘The Martian’

Between its space exploration storyline, progressive science fiction themes and its starring Matt Damon and Jessica Chastain, The Martian will no doubt remind viewers of last year’s Interstellar in more than one way. Drawing on the popularity of the epic Christopher Nolan film, Ridley Scott brings us another astronaut-centered sci-fi drama which is as much a return to form for the director as it is a faithful adaptation of its source material.

Opening with an effects-heavy action sequence in which a team of astronauts on Mars find themselves caught in a deadly sandstorm, things take a turn for the worst when one of their crew members Mark Watney (Damon) is hit by debris and falls out of sight. Concluding that he could not have possibly survived, the team’s Commander Melissa Lewis (Chastain) makes the decision to abort the mission and save everyone else.

Of course, Watney survives and finds himself the only human on the planet and with no means of contacting NASA. Thus, much like the novel, the first half plays out like a sci-fi version of Robinson Crusoe or Cast Away, as Watney must figure out how to do everything from harvest crops on a planet where nothing grows to preserving food rations and ultimately to figure out a way to contact NASA. Though the film doesn’t dwell on the psychological aspects of Watney’s isolation or any kind of existentialist themes, like the book it does show how he partly maintains his sanity by recording daily video journal logs to track his activities.

Eventually though, NASA is able to figure out he’s alive when one of the mission’s directors Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) discovers that the HAB system which was left behind during the storm moved since the crew left, and eventually figures out a way to contact Watney. As the second half of the story shifts to a rescue mission, the film continually juxtaposes between Watney, the NASA station and Lewis’ crew as everyone in the world is determined to bring this man home.

Aside from Prometheus, Scott’s 21st Century work has veered away from his sci-fi origins in favor of venturing into other genres. He’s made warrior epics (Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven, Exodus: Gods and Kings), a war film (Black Hawk Down) and has even left his mark on gangster movies with American Gangster. Yet unlike Blade Runner and Alien, The Martian is a far more hopeful and lighthearted take on science fiction, a rarity in today’s dystopian-obsessed culture. Maintaining the spirit and even the humor found in Andy Weir’s novel, both Scott and screenwriter Drew Goddard (Daredevil, The Cabin in the Woods) managed to steer away from their generally darker material in favor of exploring a more optimistic future for humanity.

As previously mentioned, one of the best aspects of The Martian is that it doesn’t focus on Watney’s psychology and instead puts more emphasis on the actual science he uses to survive. As he says at one point during one of his video logs: “I’m gonna science the s**t out of this place.” Rather than dumb it down for mainstream audiences, Goddard pulls much of the text directly from Weir’s novel, assuming that viewers are smart enough to keep up with the various botany and engineering terms Watney uses throughout. Thumbs up to Goddard and Scott for staying true to the source material.

Damon certainly gives a strong performance, bringing to life Watney’s sheer determination and easygoing nature. He’s a guy well aware of how likely it is that he’ll die on Mars and is accepting of that fact, but at the same time is able to harness his skills and wit to beat the odds. I’m also glad that the movie made sure to include his hatred of disco music, which the book reminds us of repeatedly as well.

With an all star cast of supporting actors that includes Chastain, Kate Mara, Michael Pena, Jeff Daniels, Sean Bean, Kristen Wiig and even Donald Glover, it’s difficult to judge their performances given that they only get so much screen time. Nevertheless, Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave) definitely stands out the most, nailing Kapoor’s character. Being the one who sets the rescue mission into motion, he is a character of fierce determination, with Ejiofor commanding every moment he has on screen.

While no 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Martian delivers a fresh and engaging cinematic experience as well as terrific ensemble work. Just don’t wait for Netflix, as the scenes on Mars and in space deserve to be seen on a big screen in all their glory.

Grade= A

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