I’m a space geek. Some people think NASA and space exploration is an ungodly waste of time and money and I’m one of those people who think those people are an ungodly waste of time and money (I’ll let that settle). The Martian by Andy Weir was 2014’s best book, fantastic science fiction and I have been vocally concerned at its rush to the screen by Ridley Scott. Ridley, long one of my favorite directors, hasn’t connected in about a decade, so even with favorable reviews, I went in a little nervous. No need. This is Scott’s best picture since 2001’s Black Hawk Down, one of the best science fiction films in recent memory and one of the best films of 2015.
The basic premise of The Martian is simple, but brilliant. We pick up in the middle of a series of manned missions to Mars (presumably in a world where we didn’t stop exploration….yes, I’m going to be preachy sometimes) and the Ares III crew is conducting soil samples when a storm hits. The crew desperately make their way back to the launch vehicle to abort the mission when debris hits crew botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) apparently killing him and his crew mates are forced to abandon him as they head back to Earth. Except Watney didn’t die. The debris damaged his bio-readings, but he wakes up very much alive and very much alone. He has the habitat, a rover and his brain, and he’s got to use them to figure out a way to stay alive long enough for someone to reach him.
Essentially Apollo 13 meets Cast Away; Damon has to hold the action by himself for a large portion of the film talking to the ship’s log and slowly going crazy stuck with nothing but his crew mate’s disco music for entertainment and potatoes he’s growing for nourishment. Setting up all of this takes a bit of time, but it’s vital groundwork for what becomes a dual storyline of NASA’s desperate attempt to try to figure out how to save Watney and Watney’s will to survive through countless disasters in hostile terrain. The biggest compliment I think I can pay the film is that it feels as realistic and grounded as Apollo 13 did; the difference being one is fact and the other entirely fiction.
This film is a perfect example of how F/X should be used. They’re in every shot, but you never find yourself goggling at the F/X because they simply aid in telling the story. Mars is gorgeous. Scott makes the desolate Red Planet a character in the film: Mark’s adversary. It’s literally trying to kill him, but at the same time, Watney is awed and fully aware of his unique place in history and exploration as he struggles to survive. It would be easy for the film to be super grim, but The Martian was also a book with a really great sense of humor and Drew Goddard’s adaptation of the screenplay keeps that throughout the film. Watney’s coping mechanism is humor (something with which I can relate) and there are some very funny moments in the film. Damon delivers a convincing, heartfelt performance, and the combination of script, F/X, and his grounded performance make this feel more like a true adventure than sci-fi.
That being said, don’t go into this film with your stupid hat on, because Andy Weir’s book, which is densely grounded in hard science, is not dumbed down one iota for the screen. If you like the movie, I still encourage you to read the book because there’s so much going on and it’s so brilliantly thought out, that it’s almost impossible to get the full scope of Watney and NASA’s actions just from a single viewing. Additionally, the film is already 2.5 hours, so some of the adventures Mark has during his long trek in the rover are cut from the film. This is totally necessary, and he goes through more than enough onscreen, but just know he had to get through even more in the novel.
Ridley Scott has been frustrating me for a decade, but he came through on this. It would have been easy for it to have become bloated, out of control or totally confusing (especially when multiple plot threads start rapidly converging in the film’s last third). He keeps it under tight control and I thought set up some of the best shots of his career. Really unique angles and vistas that you’d never expect out of a director 77 years old. I’m so glad that he has this on his resume to balance out the last decade’s drought and cement his place as one of the great directors of our time.
He has a dream cast to work with, so deep that even roles with only a few minutes of screen time warrant great character actors like Mackenzie Davis (Halt and Catch Fire) and Donald Glover (Community) who darn near steals the film in about four minutes of screen time as an astrophysicist who comes up with a huge save on NASA’s end. Chewitel Eijifor, Jeff Daniels, Kristen Wiig, Sebastian Stan, Sean Bean, Jessica Chastain, Michael Pena, Kate Mara, and more combine to make up the rest of Watney’s crew and the teams at NASA and JPL (Jet Propulsion Labs, space noobs) working on his rescue. The Martian has one of the best and deepest casts of any film you’ll see this year. It all culminates in a fantastic rescue effort, and if I have a few nitpicks, they can be overlooked. This is a must-, see film, period.
It’s sad, to me, that this IS science fiction. Why aren’t we exploring? Why haven’t we already been to Mars? No one’s set foot on the Moon since 1972, for crying out loud. I get it. Believe me I do. Times are tough, and I’m more painfully aware of that than anyone, but this is who we are as a species. We’re explorers. We climbed hills and mountains, crossed seas and oceans and then looked to the stars. In doing that we pushed the boundaries of what we thought was possible, known science and bettered ourselves through the ventures. Humanity needs a horizon to look toward. We’ve stopped, and the last few decades haven’t been better for it. I wanted desperately to be an astronaut when I was growing up. However, I was then told math was involved as well as tight spaces and I’m above-average height…..so I write instead. I hope this film captures imaginations and encourages more development in space exploration. Preachiness over, but I did warn you it was coming. Now stop reading this and go watch a great film.