Review by Erick Barrientos
Based on the 2011 novel of the same name by Andy Weir, The Martian details the story of botanist Dr. Mark Watney and his time on Mars. Yes, fourth rock from the Sun, Mars. Mark Watney (Matt Damon) and the ARES III crew are on a manned scientific exploratory mission to Mars to retrieve samples and otherwise learn more about the Red Planet. They’re in the middle of doing just that when the timetable of a predicted storm is moved up and the have to get they hell out of Dodge, or uh...Mars. Watney is struck by some debris kicked up by the storm and the rest of his team, comprised of Captain Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain), Rick Martinez (Michael Peña), Beth Johanssen (Kate Mara), Chris Beck (Sebastian Stan) and Alex Vogel (Aksel Hennie), leave him on Mars, presumably dead. Shortly thereafter, we find out he’s not dead, and so does the rest of the world. The rest of the movie is a back and forth on how Watney plans to survive months on Mars with not nearly enough supplies and how NASA’s top people, NASA Director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels), Director of the Mars Mission Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), Satellite Communications Engineer Mindy Park (Mackenzie Davis) and Hermes Flight Director Mitch Henderson (Sean Bean) are going to, and whether or not they realistically can or should, save Mark Watney all while NASA PR Director Annie Montrose (Kristen Wiig) tries to find a way to keep this from becoming a PR nightmare. Somewhere along the lines astrodynamics expert Rich Purnell (Donald Glover) shows up because why not? (He actually has an important role.)
For all of its 141 minutes, The Martian finds several ways to keep you engaged and entertained. Lots of credit to the cast of this film, Matt Damon especially. The majority of his screen time is alone on a planet, on average, 140 million miles away from Earth. The fact that Watney is logging pretty much his entire experience with onboard cameras (GoPros, in this case) gives him a way to talk directly to the audience without it feeling like he’s addressing you. He’s essentially breaking the fourth wall to narrate his story without actually doing so. He is engaging, entertaining, and there are actually plenty of laughs in the film.
Meanwhile back home, NASA is trying to figure out what to do about this situation, and the “Earth cast”, as I will call them, also do a fantastic job in this movie. Of particular note was Kristen Wiig. Though a relatively smaller role, it was very fun seeing her in another more serious role and I’d like to see more of it. She’s a great actor and it’d be nice to see more of those acting chops used in a similar fashion.
This is certainly a science fiction film, but the kind of science fiction that is based as close to reality as possible, it was extremely interesting to watch. The filmmakers worked closely with NASA to make sure that most of the science depicted in the film was accurate and at the very least probable. Even some of the more seemingly unlikely things, such as Watney having to figure out how to make more water and the process by which he does this, have been confirmed by NASA to be scientifically sound. This attention to detail made the film that much more enjoyable to watch and blurred the lines between science fiction and reality that much more. Though, the fact that Mars’ gravity is 40% of Earth’s isn't really depicted on screen, I discovered that Ridley Scott made the choice to not depict this difference. In all honesty, it doesn’t really detract at all from the film and I doubt there are enough regular moviegoers who would even randomly know this, as it is never addressed in the film.
As I stated earlier, this movie is 141 minutes long, but by the end of it, it doesn’t feel that way. The movie is very well paced and balanced, switching in very creative ways from Watney on Mars, to the NASA team on Earth and the rest of the Ares III crew on their spacecraft the Hermes. Though it does feel like the Ares crew is somewhat ignored throughout early in the movie, they are brought in at a narratively appropriate time. I didn’t walk out of the film feeling like I wish I knew more about what was going on with any one scenario.
Honestly, this is a great film, but it suffers from a real lack of emotional lows. For someone who is trapped on a desolate planet 140 million miles from home, Mark Watney was way too damn calm, relatively. The only times he ever really showed any real heightened emotional reactions was after some sort of huge setback in his plan to keep himself alive, and even then, he doesn’t appear nearly as devastated as he should be, even if momentarily. Despite admitting to himself, several times, that he “is probably going to die here”, the full gravity of that (no pun intended) never bares down on him in any way, really. Despite his several admissions, he seems so confident that he’s going to stay alive, that we never see his low point. There’s even a joke where Vincent Kapoor is wondering how Watney’s situation weighs down on someone psychologically, and it cuts to Watney being pretty much fine with his current predicament. And that’s basically how he is throughout the entire movie. Yes, they make Watney an extremely intelligent individual who conveniently has all the skills to survive on this desolate wasteland of a planet, but there is no way he wouldn’t have extremely weak, lowest of low moments. I’m not saying he had to be an emotional wreck the entire time, but he didn’t really have any of those moments. If he did, we saw none of them.
Aside from that, the film had a sort of “predictability.” Not to say that there was any sort of mystery to what was going on in the film, but its progression is very telegraphed. So much so that there’s a moment where a character says something along the lines of “assuming nothing goes wrong”, at which point it cuts back to Watney on Mars only for, yes, you guessed it, something to go wrong. There’s really not much surprise in the film. There are no gasps of realization. No secrets revealed. It’s just an adventure and you’re along for the ride. That being said, it’s still a great ride.
If you’re a fan of space, science, and science fiction movies, then you will thoroughly enjoy The Martian. Despite its flaws, it is still a hell of a ride, looks cool, and will entertain you for a good 2 hours 21 minutes. I’ve not read the novel, but this really makes me want to in hopes that it is even better than the movie (I mean, the book usually is, right?)