The Martian puts the fun into being stranded hundreds of million miles from home.
The MartianDirector: Ridley Scott
Cast: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sean Bean
Studio: 20th Century Fox
US Release Date: 2016-06-07
Watching a botanist struggling to survive in a harsh environment does not sound like a premise full of laughs. It becomes even more gruelling when the botanist in question also happens to be an astronaut stuck alone on the surface of Mars. It’s hard to top an inhospitable planet for punishing environments.
Given this is where The Martian starts, by all rights it should be tough viewing. The biggest surprise about Ridley Scott’s latest venture into science-fiction, one majoring heavily on the science, is that it’s not such a grind after all. Quite the opposite. A relentlessly upbeat adventure emerges, a surprising and not unwelcome development.
The set-up is as simple as Mark Watney’s workarounds are ingenious. A NASA mission living on the surface of Mars encounters unexpected weather conditions and is forced to abort. As a storm approaches, Watney is hit by flying debris that breaches his suit. No life signs register for him, and working nearly blind, the rest of the team are forced to give him up for dead. They fly off, leaving a battered and bruised Watney, miraculously still alive, to somehow make contact with Earth and overcome a series of impossible problems in order to survive long enough for a rescue to arrive. It will be a while.
From that hopeless position, Scott, screenwriter Drew Goddard, and an almost perfect cast, deliver a rousing and frequently hilarious film. Much of this falls on the shoulders of Matt Damon, cast to perfection as Watney. His everyman appeal and dry wit are employed to great effect in a role that sees him ponder almost unsolvable problems without ever succumbing to despair. He digs around in faeces to become the first farmer on Mars, creates an explosion while manufacturing water, plays with plutonium to heat himself, and thinks up smart communication shortcuts to make the most of limitations. A steady stream of problems are pondered and eventually batted away, all while Watney uses that ever dependable film device of a video log to crack jokes, practice camera poses, and deliver deadpan and ridiculous monologues.
It helps that the DIY science on display feels real. This is author Andy Weir’s doing. He did such a good job NASA has openly embraced his novel. There’s still a way to go to translate that to screen, and the film strikes the right tone for the most part. Instead of shoving Watney through the wringer, The Martian turns him into a comedian. This not only subverts expectations; it allows him to demonstrate his series of brilliant workarounds without boring casual views. It’s a great display of populist filmmaking laying out complex developments without dumb analogies.
It helps that Watney isn’t forced to carry all the weight alone. As the story progresses, a growing collection of NASA figures join the cast. The core team back on earth are NASA chief Theodore Sanders (Jeff Daniels), Mars Director Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), Mission Director Mitch Henderson (Sean Bean), and Media Relations Director Annie Montrose (Krisen Wiig). Out in space Watney’s team, led by Commander Lewis (Jessica Chastain), grow in importance as well. Others jump in along the way as needed. They are hardly more serious, working off the same tone as Damon. The entire cast, barring Donald Glover who over-eggs it a little as the astrodynamicist who saves the day, gets every note right.
Visually the film matches the path laid out by Watney and co. Scott has a deserved reputation as a great sculptor of alternative worlds. Here he goes for bright colors and clear lines. It’s not a particularly distinct look but it’s suited to the story, and there’s a certain grandeur in the dusty Mars scenes, shot in Jordan. The same approach carries over to the technology. Set a couple of decades further on from our own, it’s clean and crisp without feeling like too dramatic a departure. NASA work in slick, clutter free environments. Everything looks like Apple jumped aboard to design space exploration gear.
As The Martian wears on, however, it starts to tilt a little too heavily towards peppy fun time Watney. Its greatest strength becomes a weakness as the main character glides through disastrous predicaments without any real sign of concern. Only on a couple occasions does the enormity of his position come through, particularly when he first receives a message from Earth. Following Watney’s lead, everyone else keeps things upbeat. Back in NASA HQ, even though frazzled, they don’t forget the jokes. It’s fun but it doesn’t give the impression that much is at stake.
What's particularly pleasing about this story is its refusal to bow to standard tropes. Watney has no desire to get back to reunite with family. He composes a final message for his parents and that’s about it. He loves what he does and wouldn’t change it. This is the best of humanity on display, working hard to fix problems for a greater goal. To tie him down with smaller concerns would detract from the grand ambition of the NASA Mars project, an ambition Watney clearly shares.
A little more peril, or at least a sign that Watney wasn’t just on an extended adventure holiday, might have moved The Martian up a notch or two. Instead, it stops at pleasingly smart blockbuster. In amongst all the welcome glorying in our ability to pull technological rabbits out of carbon fibre hats, that’s good enough.
The Blu-ray and DVD 2-disc release comes with an audio commentary from Ridley Scott, Drew Goddard and Andy Weir, deleted scenes, and a number of making of featurettes providing information on elements of the film from writing to set design and visual effects.