The Martian (2015)

12 Oct


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“The Martian” has an intriguing premise: an astronaut is left behind on Mars after a fierce storm caused his crew to believe he was dead. Now he’s alone and stranded on a desolate planet and must rely on his skill, inner strength, and wit to survive and find a way to contact Earth. From there, it’s a question of whether or not he can leave Mars and get home.

One of the biggest pleasures of this science-fiction drama, based on the novel by Andy Weir, is the humor that allows itself within it. It’s relatively realistic and believable in its science (at least, for me—I’m not a scientist) and its dramatic moments are warranted and very effective. But at the end of the movie, it’s easy to realize it was still a lot of fun. The film has a sense of humor, with a clever, sharp script, which requires the characters to say many witty lines of dialogue.

Some examples:

  • “Mars will come to fear my botany powers,” states astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) when he realizes he has to “grow food on a planet where nothing grows.” Luckily, he’s a botanist.
  • “They say once you grow crops somewhere, you have officially colonized it. So, technically, I colonized Mars. In your face, Neil Armstrong!”
  • “I’m going to have to science the shit out of this.”
  • At the time NASA officials finally realize one of their astronauts is stranded on Mars, one of them (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor) wonders “what this does to a man psychologically.” The immediate cut back to Mars results in probably the funniest moment in the movie (which I will not reveal here).

I wasn’t surprised by this welcome comic angle to what would otherwise be just a tense, dark sci-fi thriller when I realized who wrote the screenplay—Drew Goddard, who wrote and directed the delightfully entertaining “The Cabin in the Woods.” However, I was surprised to find it was directed by Ridley Scott, who has made films such as “Alien,” “Blade Runner,” and “Prometheus,” neither of which are as cheerful or even as adventurous or hopeful as “The Martian.” I still like those movies, but I kind of appreciated this change of pace more.

And that’s really what it comes down to, more than the movie being humorous—it’s hopeful. The main character is an optimist. Even though he’s trapped on a desolate planet with very few resources on hand, he simply states, “I’m not going to die here.” So he does everything possible to make sure everything’s going to be fine (and also that he believes it himself). Even when things are at their darkest and he starts to doubt himself, he knows that it’s better to die fighting than not try to survive. I admire stories that show how a lone survivor in a dire situation copes with seclusion (like “Cast Away,” “Gravity,” “127 Hours,” “Touching the Void,” among others), and “The Martian” has a real good share of challenges, both internally and externally, and they’re all captivating.

The film cuts back and forth from Mark’s experiences on Mars to the many attempts of NASA on Earth seeking to find a way to save him. A month after mission controller Vincent Kapoor (Ejiofor) and NASA director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) made the news of Mark’s death public, they do become aware of his survival, and they find ways to communicate as they race to find a solution to the problem. This is, of course, after stick-in-the-mud PR director Annie Montrose (Kristen Wiig) mentions how bad it would make NASA look if they announced they were wrong about Mark’s death—nice sense of priorities there. (Commentary!) The film also cuts to Mark’s crew in space (played by Jessica Chastain, Michael Pena, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, and Aksel Hennie), as they realize what’s happened as well and have to make a choice to either defy authority to turn around and go back for Mark or continue straight on to Earth and hope for the best.

Another statement about the humor—it’s low-key. The film doesn’t lose sight of the urgency of the situation at hand, but it also knows to lighten up at times, which I greatly appreciated. But the main reason it works perfectly in a story that would otherwise be a dark, deep, depressing exploration of a man’s awareness in a remote area is because these characters feel like real people. Many of the things they say feel like what most of us would say, even the one-liners; in fact, especially the one-liners—most of us like to joke in order to relieve ourselves of some stress at times. (I know I do.) The scenes in which Mark expresses himself in his video logs leave opportunity for this humor to shine in particular. Even in the scenes set on Earth, even though they’re not widely comedic, they are played with a relaxed susceptibility.

I could relate to Mark easily; he feels like a real, likable, easy-going person and not merely a plot device. A lot of credit for that goes to Matt Damon, who turns in one of his truly best turns in a long career of strong performances (right up there with “The Departed” and “Good Will Hunting”). He shines brightly in a movie in which he’s allowed to, having only himself to work with. He has to portray every emotion imaginable in this ordeal—fear, optimism, enjoyment, hopelessness, anxiety, agony, whatever…and he does it all brilliantly. There isn’t a false note in this performance at all.

Of course, I can’t talk about a movie set on Mars without talking about the look—Mars looks suitably unwelcoming as is expected, the special effects are top-notch, and the visuals are nicely done. What else can I say? But then again, what all do I want to say? The effects aren’t the focus of the movie, which is always a refreshing change of pace for a sci-fi film.

I mentioned “The Martian” in my “2015 Review” post. I said, “With this and the new Star Wars film, maybe now we’re moving toward an era where our sci-fi blockbusters can have characters most of us optimistic wiseasses can actually relate to.” What I meant was, if these movies can continue to have their characters say things most general audiences would say if they were in the same situations, that makes the characters more relatable and therefore more sympathetic, and therefore they make us more willing to care for them. Keep this up, filmmakers of mainstream blockbusters, and we’ll be out of a cinema slump that people on the Internet claim we’re living in. (By the way, guys, that’s not true—just keep looking for movies like this one.)

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