Review: The Martian

Every movie critic wants to stand out from the crowd. There’s a joy that comes from trashing a highly popular film, and a righteous pleasure from praising a film that was critically panned or generally ignored. But lauding a film that’s cheered by both critics and moviegoers feels a little superfluous, as we’re telling people what they already know. Nevertheless, here I am to tell you that The Martin is just as good as critics and audiences alike have proclaimed. It’s a tense, dramatic story of human ingenuity and the will to survive that feels like a mashup of Apollo 13, Gravity, and Cast Away, but funnier and generally more fun than any of its predecessors. The result is a film that takes tried and true storytelling tropes and makes them feel fresh and entertaining, all anchored by a standout performance from Matt Damon, making The Martian director Ridley Scott’s best film in over a decade.

In the near future when NASA has successfully launched a series of manned missions to Mars, a massive storm on the surface forces the Ares III team to cut their mission short. But during the evacuation, a piece of debris slams into astronaut Mark Watney, knocking him out of sight in the storm and forcing the crew to leave him behind believing him to be dead when his bio readout goes flat. Watney, however, survives and is now stranded and injured on Mars with no hope of rescue until the next scheduled mission arrives in four years. In order to last for four years, far beyond the planned duration of the mission, he’ll have to figure out a way to sustain his habitat’s power and oxygen supply, learn to grow food in Mars’ dead soil, scrap together a method to communicate with NASA, and eventually make a dangerous, long-distance trek across the landscape to the landing location of the next mission. Of course, that’s all after he performs emergency surgery on himself to remove the antenna with which he was impaled.

Back at home, NASA has to deal with the fallout of an abandoned mission which left behind a dead astronaut. While the Ares III team makes their months-long journey back home, Earth mourns the loss of Watney, complete with a memorial in his memory and a corresponding jump in the public’s opinion of NASA. But when a satellite image shows signs of movement around the supposedly abandoned mission site, NASA engineers and executives start to ask questions. Is Watney alive? How did he survive? How long can he last? Can they communicate with him, or send him more supplies until another mission can bring him home? How will the public react to the news? Should they tell the returning crew, who will be wracked with guilt for leaving Watney behind?

The Martian is as much a problem solving film and a celebration of engineering as it is a testament to the human spirit. Watney spends very little time frustrated or upset at his situation, instead devoting all of his energy to tackling the next issue. As a botanist and mechanical engineer, he has the skills and the knowledge to work his way through some of his immediate problems, while the brilliant minds at NASA try to sort out the more long-term challenges. It really does take some of the best aspects of the three movies I mentioned above (each excellent separately) to combine them into something both familiar and unique. Take the sense of fear, desperation, and disaster from Gravity, mix it with the “man against nature” attitude, triumph of the human spirit, and sense of isolation from Cast Away, and then fill the rest with that wonderful sequence in Apollo 13 where NASA has to design a cobbled-together carbon dioxide filter for the crew to build out of spare parts and you’ve got The Martian. Except The Martian is more straight-up fun than any of those other films, and a lot funnier to boot.

The film rests squarely on the shoulders of Matt Damon as Mark Watney, who is more than up to the task. Watney spends much of the film narrating his experience into one of the many cameras in the habitat (GoPro must have spent a fortune on product placement, because their cameras are everywhere), as a record for future explorers if he doesn’t survive. These frank confessionals give the audience both a step-by-step explanation of the challenges Watney is facing and his unorthodox solutions to them, but also a look into his mind and attitude. Damon makes Watney a positive, hopeful, resilient guy with a sense of humor to match his clever brain. His line from early in the story, “I’m going to have to science the shit out of this,” is more than just a great tagline for the film, it’s a perfect summation of Watney’s character. He almost relishes the opportunity to flex his brain muscles by coming up with a creative fix for the myriad of problems he faces, and like any good scientist or engineer he celebrates his successes with joy and faces his failures with determination to try again.

Damon is hardly alone onscreen, however, and the rest of the film is filled to bursting with talented actors and familiar faces. Watney’s fellow astronauts making the slow journey back to Earth are led by Jessica Chastain as the remorseful commander, and she’s joined by the likes of Michael Peña, Sebastian Stan, and Kate Mara, all of whom shine and bring character to their roles despite only being small pieces of the ensemble. Jeff Daniels plays the head of NASA, which in any other film would be the “villain” role because of his antagonism to his coworkers, but the reality is that every character in the film is only doing what he or she thinks is best. Chiwetel Ejiofor brings heart to the ground team as the mission director who matches Watney in determination and spirit. The ground crew is filled out by Sean Bean, Kristin Wiig, Donald Glover, Benedict Wong and more people you’ll recognize in what is probably the most star-studded film of the year that isn’t about superheroes.

It’s hard to believe that The Martian was directed by the same guy who made Prometheus. That awful, slow, boring, depressing, dark mess of a film couldn’t be more removed from the tight, zippy, clever, funny film now in theaters. I’d basically written off Ridley Scott, director of science fiction classics like Alien, Blade Runner as well as masterpieces Gladiator, Thelma and Louise and others, following Prometheus as a lost cause, and I couldn’t be more thrilled that he’s returned to form. Working off a script by Drew Goddard (of Cabin in the Woods fame) based on the book by Andy Weir, Scott gives The Martian the perfect balance of spectacle and humanity. He knows when to let the action or the effects dominate the screen, or how to make discussions of math and science tense and exciting, or when to just get out of the way and let Matt Damon charm his way into our hearts. As a result, The Martian never feels ponderous or bleak, but moves along quickly keeping the audience at the edge of their seats without losing touch with the emotions of the moment.

Perhaps the greatest aspect of The Martian is its pro-NASA message. Better than any commercial, The Martian sells the idea of space exploration not only as something exciting but as something worth doing. (And given the miniscule fraction of the US budget dedicated to NASA, there’s no reason whatsoever for denying them all of the funding they could want.) When combined with the recent announcement of the discovery of evidence for liquid water on Mars (which technically invalidates all of the science in The Martian, but oh well), NASA specifically but engineering and science in general have to be riding a public opinion high. Everyone by now has accepted that the nerds and geeks will someday run the world, but The Martian isn’t the story of a Mark Zuckerberg or a Steve Jobs. Instead it’s the story of the science and engineering workhorses, the sorts who do the thankless jobs that make great breakthroughs and fascinating discoveries that never turn a profit and don’t look sexy in a corporate presentation. It captures the spirit of the old Apollo missions and shows that it still lives in the hearts and minds of the people still working to push the edges of human discovery and advancement. These are the people who know the risks and take them anyway, because they believe in the mission. And with all of the praise for the film, of which this review is just one of many, my hope for the film is that it brings attention and funding to the sort of people who can science the shit out of things.

A+

13 thoughts on “Review: The Martian

  1. I read The Martian by Andy Weir recently and was very impressed. Hearing that Ridley Scott would be directing the movie did not bode well but with all the praise it is getting I’ll give it a chance, soon.
    Staying a bit on Scott, I’ve recently been thinking that he has been failing when he has tried to inject a message into his movies, Prometheus obviously, but also other movies in recent years. For example, The Duellists is a beautiful movie with a solid story but no message, and I have enjoyed it many times.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, I agree about Scott. I think he’s been heading downhill since Gladiator. I haven’t seen The Duelists, but I like the theory that he fails when trying to make a message movie. I haven’t read the book by Andy Weir, but I’m thinking of checking it out.

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  2. Started today, (a rainy, soggy, mess, so good for a movie), with the idea of seeing Pan. A quick check of reviews… which had panned it.

    Sooooooooooooo, hey I heard about The Martian on NPR and, OK, sure.

    1. Matt Damon can act. Vast range of emotions that make him totally relatable, whether or not you think he’s hot (I’m more of a Tom Hiddleston fan myself).

    2. Many strong female characters who talk about something other than men (Bechtel test nailed and surpassed).

    3. Fantastic landscapes. Alien landscapes. Doesn’t look like they filmed it in Monument Valley. Well done FX Dept.

    4. Council of Elrond, Sean Bean didn’t bat an eyelash. I was howling.

    5. Iron Man. Sebastien Stan didn’t bat an eyelash. Yes, the space gymnastics would look like that (rather messy).

    5.5 Messy space dance would make Spiderman howl with laughter.

    6. Making science and technology and geekdom look awesome. This is going to be like Engineer Scott on Star Trek (the original series) who seems to have inspired a generation of NASA geeks.

    7. Random fandom in the form of Sean Bean (LOTR, Council of Elrond) Sebastien Stan (Captain America: Winter Soldier), Jonathan Aris (Sherlock), Gruffudd Glyn (last seen on Thor’s Dark World), Kristen Wiig (How to Train Your Dragon), Michael Pena (Ant Man), Kate Mara (Iron Man 2), and probably more but this is getting kind of silly…

    8. A great take on an archetypal story, the castaway. (Some of my favorites are “Swiss Family Robinson”, “Robinson Crusoe”, “Castaway”, and Gary Paulsen’s “Hatchet”). Astronaut Mark meets each disaster or setback with real emotion and humor and sciences the (bleeeep) out of it.

    9. I will never look at potatoes the same way again.

    10. The line about sending an astronaut into space under a tarp needs to be on a T-shirt…

    11. I have never literally sat on the edge of my seat before… and this theater has reclining seats.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Absolutely agree. Watched it a couple of days ago and it did not disappoint. Also, I watched it together with two friends who normally doesn’t like Damon in movies and they liked him here.

      I especially liked the short clips (like shortly before he is leaving Mars) that showed so much more; no need to do 10 lines about not getting enough food, show him as too thin.

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      • Even though that was clearly a skinny stand-in (towel over head) it followed the wisdom of a picture is worth a thousand words and told us the story in a clear way with emotional impact rather than the dreaded exposition in dialog. The effect was simple and effective… no need to do the Captain America thing of CGing Chris Evans head onto a skinny body double. (though that worked fine there).

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  5. PS: this film is complex enough to want to see it again. So many goodies that I missed.

    I had some questions.

    Like, why did Mark give up the farm? Couldn’t he use some of those potatoes and start again?
    Nope:
    http://scifi.stackexchange.com/questions/104371/why-does-mark-watney-stop-doing-this-in-the-garden#new-answer?newreg=38ef7889ee1142b79ba2be8572cd46fe

    Was that Monument Valley? (didn’t look like it)…
    Actually, Jordan.
    http://www.fxguide.com/featured/life-on-mars-the-vfx-of-the-martian/
    …and lots of green screen…
    …which had to be matched to Jordan…
    …which had to have its shrubbery removed (edited out in the computer)…
    …and had to be matched to actual photos of Mars.

    And some basic Mars facts for the space impaired and those of us who forgot our 6th grade science (which didn’t know anything about Mars yet).
    http://mars.nasa.gov/allaboutmars/facts/

    There were some great bits of science: like messing with camera speed to create the subtle effect of lower gravity (about one-third Earth’s).

    Or removing helmet visors because they reflected camera and crew and green screen and stuff. then having to put reflections back in: of landscape, tech Mark is working on and other native stuff that would actually be reflected in the helmet.

    Use of Go-Pro footage, which had to be, not so much matched, but fit into the RED camera footage (3D). I thought it looked wonderful, and gives us an immediate “you are there” feeling in many shots.

    Practical effects: the Hab entrance flew 60 feet across the set.

    I have no idea how they did all the weightless moments (besides wire work, of course), but it looks RIGHT. The concept of feet first into the chutes down to the gravity part of the spaceship looks like what firemen do on ladders, or sailors do sometimes sliding down gangways or shrouds. Other stuff clearly influenced by actual footage from space expeditions. Also noticed hairstyles were not free flowing, so no gravity aided hair blowing the illusion of weightlessness.

    The part I missed: why can’t Mark Watney call home? “The main communications dish was battered in the storm. The other three backup communications systems were located in the Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV), which the rest of Watney’s crew took with them when they left Mars, believing him dead from the storm. So in order to gain contact with NASA, Watney digs up the Mars Pathfinder, the probe which NASA lost contact with in 1997.”

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