The Martian and all the images you see in this review are owned by 20th Century Fox
Directed by Ridley Scott
Oh yay! Another Ridley Scott film, because the last one was so good. Well despite his shaky track record as of late, there’s no denying that the man is one of our greatest living directors and a movie like this is right in his wheelhouse while also being an original science fiction property as opposed to going back to the Alien well. Can he manage to make a great movie with so many excellent resources at his disposal, or will he still manage to screw it up like he did with Exodus and Robin Hood? Let’s find out!!
The movie is about astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) who is part of the Ares III manned mission to Mars. While on the planet’s surface, the crew gets word of a big ass storm coming their way so they have to leave the mission early, and by early I mean RIGHT THE FRAK NOW!! Apparently they didn’t see it coming until five minutes before it hits. The astronauts on the planet (including Mark) try to make it to their recon ship in the midst of the downpour of… whatever the hell it is Mars starts raining down in a storm (rocks I think).
Things get ugly Mark is separated from the rest and is presumed dead (his vitals monitor gets crushed by falling debris) which forces the rest of the crew to leave without him. Turns out that Mark is NOT dead (if he was, this wouldn’t be much of a movie) and now he has to find a way to survive on the planet while the Ares III crew are making their way back to Earth and NASA is dealing with the fallout of having a dead Astronaut. It doesn’t take long though for NASA to realize that Mark is still alive on the planet (and holding up in the onsite super science tent) which means they have to start figuring out how to keep alive and eventually save this guy who is REALLY far away using their incredibly limited means of communication. Can Mark survive the uninhabitable wasteland that is the surface of Mars? Will Nasa science their way to a solution? Has Ridley Scott managed to make a good movie again!?
This movie is spectacular. It’s been a while since Ridley Scott had a big commercial hit (most of his films in the last decade managed to meet their budgets with international gross but underperformed domestically) or even a critical one with Exodus and Robin Hood being duds and Prometheus not living up to the hype. I’m glad he managed to make something amazing again, but I think the more significant thing to note about this movie is that it is genuinely sweet, optimistic, and crowd pleasing! How often does Ridley Scott do that? I mean he DID direct A Good Year, but I’m guessing even he wants to forget that movie exists. Most of his filmography is about putting people in awful situations to show us how they react when they are pushed to their limits; Ripley fighting the Xenomorph, Thelma and Louise being hunted down by the law, or even Leonardo DiCaprio’s super spy character from Body of Lies who has to infiltrate a terrorist cell… or something. It’s been a while since I’ve seen that one. The Martian isn’t all that different in that regard considering that Matt Damon is stuck on a lifeless planet, but in here there’s a sense of triumph of man’s will to survive and about what can happen when people really work together for something good. Even if we look at this movie outside of Mr. Scott’s own catalogue, it’s still a refreshingly upbeat movie in the sci-fi genre which has been over saturated with apocalyptic settings and young adult angst. Seriously, unless the word Disney in the credits, chances are that you’re getting something about how much humanity sucks or a morality tale about all that scary technology we’re developing. This movie instead makes science the most awesome thing ever with everyone in the cast doing insanely complex math and engineering problems that manage to keep this one dude alive on Mars because they don’t want him to die. The most cynical this thing EVER gets is with Jeff Daniels as the director of NASA, but his character is simply a reflection of the realities of a publicly funded organization. They’re program can only survive as long as the government (and by extension the people) continue to support them and provide funding. Just look at the current debacle with Planned Parenthood and how with absolutely no effort and even fewer facts that an organization that does so much good work for so many people can now be at risk of being defunded. You may not always like what Jeff Daniels is doing in this movie, but there isn’t a second that you don’t understand exactly where he’s coming from.
The cast overall is fantastic with Matt Damon and Jeff Daniels stealing this thing. On Mars (which is half the movie) Damon is all alone and has to carry scenes with nothing to interact with expect for inanimate objects and a webcam. It’s actually similar to what Sam Rockwell does in Moon, but I find this movie much better because it’s a more interesting story overall (Moon can drag a bit at points) and because this movie was smart enough to incorporate humor into Mark’s character which only helps to bring across that hopeful and optimistic tone that gives this movie so much of its power. He’s not too complex or unique as a character but then the movie doesn’t really call for that. He’s has his musings about being on a planet that’s always been deprived of life (at least as far as we can tell at the moment) but his main motivations throughout the movie is trying to survive and not get too down about his situation and I think that does work for the best. We don’t really need to add drama to this situation which is already fascinating on its own. Putting too much emphasis on his drinking problem, his terrible home life, or whatever the hell else they could do to make him more ‘compelling’ would have just taken time away from what’s ACTUALLY important about being stuck on Mars which is BEING STUCK ON MARS!! He’s already got enough crap to worry about! To get back to his performance of the character as it is written, Matt Damon had to bring a lot to the table here in a role that asks him to carry so much of the film on his own and sure enough he proves once again why he’s one of Hollywood’s biggest stars.
So Matt Damon manages to carry the scenes on Mars all by himself, but what about back on Earth where everyone at NASA is trying to get him back? This works just as well because the ensemble cast they got for this (lead primarily by Jeff Daniels and Chiwetel Ejiofor) are stellar in their roles and the time they take to show each piece of this giant machine working towards a singular goal is a joy to watch. Some are working on ways to get him more supplies, others are working on communication channels, and others still are trying to handle public relations and fund allocations. It’s all great stuff and as I said earlier, Jeff Daniels is fantastic. Maybe the film makers were intending to have us dislike him (he is the guy in a suit running tings), but if that was the case then the failed because I loved him to pieces! There really isn’t a weak link in the entire cast with even smaller parts getting solid turns by great actors such as Donald Glover who plays a super smart college student that helps NASA figure out a problem they were running into.
So the story is engaging, the acting is great, and the tone of the movie leaves you smiling the whole way through! On top of all that, you get gorgeous cinematography, great attention to detail for the sets (particularly Damon’s science tent thingy) and a sound track that, while a bit gimmicky, is at least catchy and goes along with the upbeat tone. Is there anything this movie DOESN’T do well? Well yes. This movie has one problem and it’s not an insignificant one. During the majority of this movie (the beginning and ending don’t really suffer from this) there are pacing issues. Now this is based off a book written by Andy Weir and frankly it’s paced like one. The movie takes place over at least two years which means we can’t stick around for ALL of Mark’s adventures on the planet, but the film will take HUGE leaps in time with no warning which can be jarring. This can work in a book where time jumps can presumably be restricted to in between chapters, but in here there are skips in time of several months that just all of a sudden happen. It kind of starts to wear on you because so much of this movie is about how Mark will survive, but then that tension gets deflated when it turns out he did just fine for about a hundred days straight. It also never feels like it’s been that long because they don’t really do much to convey it other than a time stamp at the bottom of the screen every once in a while. A lot can happen in that period of time and granted Mark doesn’t have much to do, but at least on NASA they could have given characters different haircuts or something to show that we’re now several months down the road. Along those lines, the crew of the original mission who are slowly getting back to Earth are out of the movie for a sizeable portion only to have a big part to play at the end. I like the actors they got (Kate Mara is FINALLY in a good movie) but they were pretty stock characters who got very brief scenes until the end where they fleshed them out a bit more because they finally had something significant to do.
Despite some great movies (Age of Ultron, Ant Man, Mad Max) and some serious surprises (Straight Outta Compton) it’s been a pretty weak year so far. With The Martian though, I think we’ve got something that people will remember for some time. It’s based on a book (that doesn’t have pictures which apparently matters to some people), is directed by someone that everyone knows, has the budget of a Transformers movie, and stars some of the best people we have working today. I don’t know if this is the BEST movie of the year, but it’s definitely the one I hope becomes a massive success simply because we don’t often get movies with THIS kind of budget and scale that are as original as this one is and are as definitely pro science. When movies like War Room or Pixels end up making money, it can feel like we live in a world that actively discourages effort and quality for some unfathomable reason, but it’s films like this that give me hope. There’s still room for smart movies with messages that can truly inspire to get the kind of studio backing to make that vision a reality. No matter how many Terminator sequels or Fantastic Four reboots we have to suffer through, there’s always going to be something better that catches the public’s attention and will actually matter after it’s hit red box. Go out and see this movie because it is an absolute blast to watch along with being a force for good! GO SCIENCE!!!!
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