There goes Matt Damon getting stranded on a foreign planet again.
Damon had a brief, but memorable role in Christopher Nolan’s brilliant Interstellar as an astronaut alone on a distant ice world. In The
Martian, he plays an astronaut left behind during a manned mission to Mars.
At least he’s getting closer to home.
But The Martian is far from a rehash. Based on a novel by Andy Weir, this is a superb film adaptation that stands on its own as an incredibly
memorable and original film.
Indispensable to the film is Damon’s magnetic performance as Mark Watney. Damon carries the film without another actor to play against for
most of the film’s running time. Watney records video logs and speaks into surveillance cameras placed throughout his makeshift home, a
small habitat that houses basic living quarters and supplies.
Despite dire circumstances, The Martian is incredibly funny, with Watney constantly making hilarious observations and exclamations.
Because it isn’t an outrageously transformative or melodramatic role, many may look past this performance, but it is as good as any you will
see this year. Damon creates a supremely likable character, and there are a few startling moments when we see the toll of his trauma bleed
through his determination and improbable sense of humor.
Watney is incredibly resourceful, finding inventive means to make water, sprout potatoes, or use hexadecimals to communicate via NASA’s
decommissioned Mars Pathfinder. It’s an intoxicating blend of science and pop entertainment; and the portrayal of Watney should garner
serious love from the scientific community. Here’s a super-intelligent scientist (Botanist, technically) who is funny, likable, and only able to
survive because of his problem-solving abilities and academic prowess.
There’s something very powerful and rare about that last point. How many times in a blockbuster are mathematical equations and scientific
know-how the key weapons of a protagonist? Watney must use all of these to merely survive.
Science, humor and genuine thrills are superbly woven together by screenwriter Drew Goddard, who injects a personality and energy into
the film that many lazy adaptations sorely lack. He also isn’t afraid to challenge the audience with scientific jargon and concepts that most
(myself included) will barely comprehend.
Goddard proves to be a master of seamlessly integrating exposition into his screenplay without ever boring.
Meanwhile, director Ridley Scott delivers his best film since 2005’s Kingdom of Heaven: Director’s Cut. Credit largely goes to Goddard’s
outstanding screenplay, but also to Scott for getting out of his own way in terms of storytelling. This is a rare film in the venerable director’s
recent filmography that doesn’t emphasize production design over character or plot.
Scott’s exceptional visual style is still on display here, but it doesn’t feel at all like the film’s raison d’être.
There are some breathtaking shots of Martian landscapes, and Scott makes great use of surveillance footage and immersive POV shots.
Master cinematographer Dariusz Wolski’s photography is absolutely outstanding, whether his director demands verité handheld styles or
The film is also exceptionally edited by Pietro Scalia, striking a great balance between Watney’s isolation, NASA’s efforts at rescue back on
Earth, and the crew that was forced to leave him behind.
Watney’s crew is led my Jessica Chastain (Another Interstellar alum) and features an entire supporting cast of silly, lovable characters
played by Michael Peña, Kate Mara, and Sebastian Stan.
Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Kristen Wiig are all very good as the NASA team working to bring him home, as well.
Sean Bean has a small role as the mission’s flight director. And that’s perhaps most notable because there is a random reference to The
Lord of the Rings that fans of that series will find particularly amusing considering Bean’s role in those films.
With a production as accomplished as The Martian, one could point out Harry Gregson-Williams’ score as a minor disappointment (Especially
considering some of his outstanding work on previous Scott films), but his music works quite well and has a few very strong moments
among its mellow and appropriately isolated sections.
One genuine annoyance, however, is the decision to have characters read messages they are typing out loud. I know text is difficult for
mass audiences to comprehend, but it just sounds stupid having actors slowly read out sentences when no one would actually do that. Not
to mention it flies in the face of an otherwise very intelligent plot.
There also might be a bit too much in the way of goofiness in the NASA sequences. Donald Glover’s silly character, for instance, seems to
have been pulled straight out of a different film.
It’s also hard not to compare The Martian to the exceptional ‘space’ films that we’ve gotten over the last couple of years in the form of
Gravity and Interstellar. It isn’t quite as innovative or imaginative as those films, but The Martian is still an outstanding entry in the genre,
wonderfully straddling the line between popcorn fun and highbrow entertainment.
How many films are simultaneously thrilling, scholarly, funny and beautifully designed and shot? Add in an exceptional performance from
Damon, and The Martian stands as a fantastic, crowd-pleasing film that falls just short of true excellence.
* * * ½
(out of four)
Directed by: Ridley Scott
Written by: Drew Goddard
Starring: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig,
Jeff Daniels, Michael Peña, Sean Bean, Kate Mara
Cinematography by: Dariusz Wolski
Music by: Harry Gregson-Williams
Released: October 2, 2015; 141 Minutes