PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.

Reviews

'The Martian' on Blu-ray: An at-Home Lesson in DIY Space Survival

The Martian puts the fun into being stranded hundreds of million miles from home.


The Martian

Director: 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.

7

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Books

'A Peculiar Indifference' Takes on Violence in Black America

Pulitzer Prize finalist Elliott Currie's scrupulous investigation of the impacts of violence on Black Americans, A Peculiar Indifference, shows the damaging effect of widespread suffering and identifies an achievable solution.

Music

20 Songs From the 1990s That Time Forgot

Rather than listening to Spotify's latest playlist, give the tunes from this reminiscence of lost '90s singles a spin.

Film

Delightful 'Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day' Is Good Escapism

Now streaming on Amazon Prime, Bharat Nalluri's 2008 romantic comedy, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, provides pleasant respite in these times of doom and gloom.

Film

The 10 Best Horror Movie Remakes

The horror genre has produced some remake junk. In the case of these ten treats, the update delivers something definitive.

Television

Flirting with Demons at Home, or, When TV Movies Were Evil

Just in time for Halloween, a new Blu-ray from Kino Lorber presents sparkling 2K digital restorations of TV movies that have been missing for decades: Fear No Evil (1969) and its sequel, Ritual of Evil (1970).

Music

Magick Mountain Are Having a Party But Is the Audience Invited?

Garage rockers Magick Mountain debut with Weird Feelings, an album big on fuzz but light on hooks.

Music

Aalok Bala Revels in Nature and Contradiction on EP 'Sacred Mirror'

Electronic musician Aalok Bala knows the night is not a simple mirror, "silver and exact"; it phases and echoes back, alive, sacred.

Music

Clipping Take a Stab at Horrorcore with the Fiery 'Visions of Bodies Being Burned'

Clipping's latest album, Visions of Bodies Being Burned, is a terrifying, razor-sharp sequel to their previous ode to the horror film genre.

Music

Call Super's New LP Is a Digital Biosphere of Insectoid and Otherworldly Sounds

Call Super's Every Mouth Teeth Missing is like its own digital biosphere, rife with the sounds of the forest and the sounds of the studio alike.

Music

Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.

Film

15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.

Music

Every Song on the Phoenix Foundation's 'Friend Ship' Is a Stand-Out

Friend Ship is the Phoenix Foundation's most personal work and also their most engaging since their 2010 classic, Buffalo.

Music

Kevin Morby Gets Back to Basics on 'Sundowner'

On Sundowner, Kevin Morby sings of valleys, broken stars, pale nights, and the midwestern American sun. Most of the time, he's alone with his guitar and a haunting mellotron.

Music

Lydia Loveless Creates Her Most Personal Album with 'Daughter'

Given the turmoil of the era, you might expect Lydia Loveless to lean into the anger, amplifying the electric guitar side of her cowpunk. Instead, she created a personal record with a full range of moods, still full of her typical wit.

Music

Flowers for Hermes: An Interview with Performing Activist André De Shields

From creating the title role in The Wiz to winning an Emmy for Ain't Misbehavin', André De Shields reflects on his roles in more than four decades of iconic musicals, including the GRAMMY and Tony Award-winning Hadestown.

Film

The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.

Music

British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.

Film

Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.