Synopsis: During a manned mission to Mars, Astronaut Mark Watney is presumed dead after a fierce storm and left behind by his crew. But Watney has survived and finds himself stranded and alone on the hostile planet. With only meager supplies, he must draw upon his ingenuity, wit and spirit to subsist and find a way to signal to Earth that he is alive. (From IMDb)
Review: Movie genres go in cycles. First there were a lot of gangster films, then westerns, romantic comedies, superheroes, family dramas, space operas, and then the cycle starts over again. Currently, Hollywood is producing a lot of superhero and space films. Alfonso Cuarón created Gravity in 2013, Christopher Nolan debuted Interstellar last year, this year Ridley Scott brought out The Martian, and JJ Abrams reimagines Star Wars in December. Both films have the common theme of Matt Damon’s character being stranded on a desolate planet with little-to-resources. This is one of the best films Scott has directed in recent years. For a while he was the king of pop science fiction films; iconic hits include Alien and Blade Runner. The Martian diverges from theoretical science-fiction to hyper-realism. Forty years ago a manned mission to Mars was still in the realm of impossible science fiction. However, given current space exploration trajectories and scientific advancements, a manned mission to Mars is more a matter of when not if. Though, I do not know if a manned mission will occur in my lifetimes. Regardless, Scott’s film presents a plausible scenario.
At the most basic level, The Martian makes science cool. Scientists are, generally, depicted as socially awkward nerds in most movies and television shows. In this film Scott celebrates brains over brawn, though both intelligence and physical strength are required for survival on Mars. Mark Watney, the hero, is a botanist by trade, not a commonly depicted career choice in Hollywood. After watching this movie you might experience an urge to dig out some old biology textbooks or start growing potatoes. The drama comes from solving a nearly impossible scientific problem, not taking out an intergalactic threat with laser beams. Science has not looked so cool in a while. Interstellar was a more philosophical take on space travel; The Martian is the technical representation.
The Martian does not possess an antagonist, unless Mars’ environment counts. There are no multi-limbed green extraterrestrials or overreaching corporate mining companies to provide conflict. Instead, the conflict comes from having to test the limits of human endurance and ingenuity. Scott and his team tried to foster a sense of adventure, they present space travel as an exciting and fascinating concept. After all, the moon landing is ancient history by now and the American space program has been rotting for several years now. Space exploration is almost a bad punchline at this point, remember the impressive Space X explosion a few months ago? I cannot remember the last time a rocket was launched without incident on the first try. This film sort of reawakens interest in space exploration. After all, space is the last great frontier.
Mark Watney, the main character, becomes stranded on Mars after a freak storm separates him from the rest of the crew. The rest of the film alternates between three subplots: Watney trying to survive on Mars, NASA trying to save him, and his crew mates mourning his death. A majority of Watney’s subplot focuses on the melancholy of surviving on a desolate planet with any rescue mission several years away. But he manages to find some humor in his situation, such as declaring himself the best botanist on Mars. It provides an interesting case study into the psychology of being alone and trying to persevere in the face of almost certain death. Matt Damon does a fantastic job portraying a man who is both deeply depressed at dying on Mars and ecstatic over his scientific accomplishments. In the hands of a less skilled actor, I think the film would have flopped. The screenwriters infused the character with the right mix of sarcastic wit and intelligence. And Damon draws the audience in with an engaging performance.
Back on Earth, the NASA team tries to hobble together a rescue plan as quickly as possible. Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kristen Wiig, Sean Bean, and Mackenzie Davis hold down fort as the brains behind the Earth rescue planers. It takes a long time to stitch together a plan, which stretches the bring-him-plot to a little over the two-hour mark. The bring-him-home plot is a long recycled narrative cliché, its draw lies in the cast and presentation. Thankfully, the supporting parts were well cast and given enough dialogue to stay interesting. Though they sometimes display a disturbingly low level of urgency. However, the film is well edited and the pacing never feels off.
Jessica Chastain, Sebastian Stan, Michael Pena, Kate Mara, and Aksel Hennie play the crew of Ares III. (A brief nod to the Greek god of war, Ares, whose Roman name is Mars) They show up at the beginning of the film to provide context and then show up again towards the end to bring closure to the film. They all put in good performances, none of them had a lot of material to work with. But none of them came across as unbelievable, which I believe is a mark of good acting. Overall, The Martian is an excellent realistic space exploration movies. The acting is spot on and the plot never drags, which is a feat considering there is no traditional villain. I highly recommend this film.