“At some point…things will all go south…you’ll think to yourself ‘This is it. This is how I end.’ You can either accept that, or you can get to work.” – Mark Watney
Astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) didn’t expect to be famous. Sure, he would be one of the first people to walk on Mars, but by the name of their mission, Ares 3, the world had seen this sort of thing before. Go to Mars, bring back dirt…it wasn’t necessarily groundbreaking anymore. However, during an emergency evacuation, Watney is struck by debris and apparently killed, forcing his heartbroken crew-mates to leave without him. Memorials are erected. Eulogies are given. The nation mourns and begins to look forward to the future. So you can imagine the collected surprise of NASA, the United States and the world when it’s discovered that he actually survived, and is now stranded on Mars with limited supplies. As quickly as they had buried him, NASA and the rest of the world unite behind him and work against the clock to bring him home.
If you’re the type that doesn’t indulge in long-winded movie reviews I’ll just start by letting you know I loved this movie. I loved it for all the reasons that people have already pointed out: great cast, superb cinematography, smart writing, and overall a pretty faithful adaptation of a well-loved novel. I also loved it for a reason that others may not have touched on as much: it made me dream of space again.
To start, Damon’s performance as Watney is spot on, from the sarcastic tones to his eternal optimism. The rest of the crew is also well-cast, with the guilt-ridden commander Lewis having the most opportunity to shine. Its best attempt is actually in the opening scene, where approximately 3 minutes of banter solidifies the crews relationship with one another. Now, while I often try not to compare the book to the movie in situations like these, I did go into this movie being familiar with Andy Weir’s novel of the same name, which I highly recommend. I must say that the faithfulness of this adaptation, with one glaring exception at the end, makes it difficult to parse out the nuanced differences. Fans of the novel will largely appreciate this loyalty, though it is not without its shortcomings, specifically when it comes to the character development of the crew as a whole. The novel takes great pains to detail more of the crew’s relationship with not only Watney, but one another, as a mission that takes over a year to complete requires a certain level of camaraderie. This makes Watney’s apparent death early in the film that much more poignant, and the subsequent revelation of his survival and plans to rescue him a powerful impetus. Given the time constraints, it’s understandable that not every element could be expanded in the same amount of detail, but this particular decision to pare down the crew relationship ultimately lessens the emotional impact. It also makes for a certain romance near the end of the film to appear as though it was shoe-horned in at the last minute instead of being a well-developed relationship that was brought to fruition naturally.
Besides Matt Damon and his crew-mates, the casting of Jeff Daniels NASA director Teddy Sanders was probably one of the strongest choices they made. Juggling the demands of not only the Ares missions but all of the projects and research NASA seems to be involved in, Sanders is a sympathetic figure. He explains to a frustrated Mitch Henderson (played by the often ill-fated Sean Bean) “I’m trying to keep us in the air…”; citing the fact that the government is all too quick to pull the plug on NASA programs whenever anything goes wrong as a reason for his controversial decisions. Chiwetel Ejiofor rounds out our NASA leaders as Vincent Kapoor, director of the Ares Mars missions. Others fulfill their various roles throughout the film, not the least of which being Rich Purnell, an astrodynamicist played by Donald Glover, who develops a risky maneuver as a last-minute option for Watney’s rescue. More impressive than their respective performances was the respect for science that Scott’s “The Martian” displays.
At a time when the world seems content with dismissing scientists and shifting more of a focus to pop culture celebrities, it was refreshing to see such a celebration of science, critical thinking and problem solving. Watney’s experiments in his makeshift home are an invitation for all of us to take risks. Even more encouraging was the global participation that Scott’s universe enjoyed. While NASA certainly wasn’t without pressure, it was a world where the United States had decided that getting to Mars was going to be a priority and so it got done. The China National Space Administration (CNSA) partners with NASA as well in order to assure Watney’s safe return home, signaling a global interest in this endeavor. “The Martian” makes the science of space travel engaging and interesting, and the pacing helps keep things fresh.
The film is excellently paced, with just enough roadblocks and setbacks to keep the viewer invested. This was a weakness of Gravity in my opinion, which was content to let the film drag on without any significant advance in the plot just long enough to begin losing the viewer’s interest. Watney’s repeated complications, if mirrored exactly as they occurred in the book, would certainly leave audiences rolling their eyes at just how aptly Murphy’s law seemed to apply to poor Watney. Thankfully, screenwriter Drew Goddard spared us all of his misfortunes, and actually did a skillful job of integrating Teddy, Vincent and the other NASA power players to give a more complete look at space travel and the complications that arise when you leave your astronaut on a planet some tens of millions of miles away.
One of the most striking things about “The Martian” was the beautiful cinematography. For that, we have Dariusz Wolski to thank. Sweeping, panoramic views of the rust-colored planet drive home Watney’s isolation, yet inspire the same sense of wonder he has for the situation he’s in. Though some may be content to watch this as “a rental”, I would challenge you to go and enjoy the vast horizons and landscapes of Wolski’s Mars on a big screen. Its emptiness and, well, alien-ness is a character in and of itself that draws the viewer in and ultimately plays a large role in Scott’s most impressive feat of “The Martian”: its ability to rouse a disinterested country, myself included, to begin dreaming about space travel again.
I don’t think The Martian could have asked for better timing. With the recent announcement of water on Mars, more interest has been generated in exploring our galactic neighbor. I walked away from “The Martian” not only content with the storytelling and the journey that Damon and the others took us on, but inspired and excited for what the next chapter in space exploration has in store for us. It wasn’t too long ago that young men and women grew up aspiring to be astronauts. They would gaze at the moon and think of the day they would walk on its surface. Mankind has reached the moon. We’ve developed technologies in the last 20 years that have put the computing power of NASA’s early Apollo missions in everyone’s pocket. The world of Ridley Scott’s “The Martian” challenges us to imagine a world where investing in multiple trips to Mars is not seen as a “folly” or “waste of taxpayer dollars”, but as our obligation as an adventurous and investigative species. It is time to pursue such dreams again.
In short, not only has Ridley Scott delivered a great film, he has succeeded in crafting a film that can inspire and encourage a whole new generation of young people to once again look to the stars and dream of what we can accomplish together.
(Note for Parents: If you weren’t aware, MPAA allows PG-13 movies up to one “f-bomb”, but only if used in a sexual context. This particular film features two, which Goddard had decided to burn in the first 15 minutes or so of the movie. Following this, there are some scenes with suggestive language (e.g. words blanked out or characters mouthing words but you can’t hear them), but the language really constitutes approximately 80% of the PG-13 rating. The other 20% is an early scene where we find Watney having to perform surgery on himself in order to remove debris from his stomach. I will admit there were some in the theater who obviously were a bit more squeamish than others, but when almost all of the “offending” material is handled within the first 10-15 minutes of the film, I would not let that keep me from bringing my kids, especially to a film that can offer so much in terms of inspiring imagination and dreams for the future.)