The red planet has been a source of inspiration for years, especially for science fiction visionaries such as H.G. Welles and Edgar Rice Burroughs. It has hosted alien civilizations, portals to other dimensions and Bugs Bunny. This time, Matt Damon takes on the second step of the final frontier. It’s his Oscar-nominated performance that anchors this movie, “The Martian,” and allows legendary science fiction director Ridley Scott to produce a quality adaption of the Andy Weir novel of same title.
The movie opens with the Martian landscape, a beautifully barren wasteland that sets the scene for the rest of the movie. The audience is then introduced to a team of astronauts who are forced to abort their mission when a sandstorm hits. During the evacuation, one of the astronauts, Mark Watney (Matt Damon), is knocked away from the group by a flying piece of debris. After failing to find him, the team believes him to be dead and leaves the planet.
Watney survives this accident, but unfortunatelyl, the next Mars mission isn’t scheduled to arrive for another four years. Using only his brain and the supplies abandoned by his team, Watney must figure out a way to survive. In essence, it’s “Cast Away” in space. Wait, that was “Gravity.” Okay, this is “Cast Away” on Mars.
Naturally, “The Martian” only works because of Matt Damon’s performance. Damon’s character spends most of his screen time alone, leaving us to watch him figure out how to treat his injuries, make food and water, travel across the harsh Martian terrain and contact NASA. Throughout this process, Watney chronicles his struggle for survival via video and audio logs.
While this might seemed like a forced contrivance à la “Paranormal Activity,” it works within the context of the character and the situation. Still, all of this wouldn’t mean a thing if Damon wasn’t compelling, funny and engaging the entire time. He takes what could have been a simple narration and transforms it into a series of genuine character moments as he performs one scientific miracle after another. While I’m sure plenty of real world scientists will take issue with it, the script sounds smart and realistic enough that any average theatergoer won’t be bothered by anything crazy.
The script is fairly sharp and manages to successfully communicate some seriously difficult concepts of rocket science to the audience. However, I did feel like the movie was hitting me over the head with one particular concept. I could understand this if it involved some outright bizarre minutiae of space travel, but this was something that’s fairly common in many sci-fi movies and even movies outside of the genre. I appreciate the effort to make sure that everything was understood, but sometimes you need to know when to trust your audience, especially when it involves something we’ve seen.
Unfortunately, the movie missteps when it comes to events taking place back on Earth. The nature of the plot and the realistic manner in which it’s portrayed mean that the effort to rescue Watney is a massive undertaking that involves several people in very specialized professions. As a result, this movie has a handful of characters at both NASA and Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The cast is incredibly strong, but that doesn’t change the fact that we spend too much time with them. There are several stretches of time when we don’t get to see Watney at all and the movie slows to a crawl as a result.
That being said, there are strong moments in the scenes taking place on Earth. The most intriguing plot thread is the struggle between Sean Bean’s Mitch Henderson and Jeff Daniels’ Teddy Sanders. As the flight director of Watney’s mission, Henderson is insistent that they tell the other crew members about Watney’s survival.
However, Sanders, the director of NASA, is initially against it because of the stress it might place on the remaining crew members. Would their distress over leaving Watney behind cause them to make a fatal mistake on the journey home? This is just one of the many conflicts between the two characters as Henderson fights for the crew members as people and Henderson fights for them as parts of a larger whole. I have to applaud “The Martian” for not making Sanders a complete villain as they gave him some very compelling reasons for his stance. After all, this movie takes place in an alternate future where NASA’s budget hasn’t been gutted like a fish. It’s Sanders’ job to look at the bigger picture and to make sure that the organization survives this potential PR disaster.
As for the technical side of the movie, the only effect that really stuck out was the Martian landscape. I hate to say it, but I think that after “Gravity” and “Interstellar,” we might be getting oversaturated with visually stunning space effects. Naturally, “The Martian” possesses all the classic sound effect choices of your standard sci-fi movie, such as the “cut all audio as we watch video footage of an airlock exploding.” However, I have to mention that the cinematography is top-notch as we follow Watney and his crew on their travels. In the end, “The Martian” is a movie that does not necessarily rely on effects to make its point.
If we have to be done with this spasm of space-exploration movies, at least it will go out on a high note. Ridley Scott is channeling “Blade Runner” rather than “Prometheus” as he crafts this extraordinary tale about one man’s drive to survive and the knowledge that allows him to do so. It’s a love letter to science that needed to spend more time with its leading man, even if it meant giving up some of the realism that it clings to. After all, what sets this movie apart from similar stories is Damon’s performance, which manages to induce laughter, tears and everything in between — that’s what makes it special.