The Martian Review

Posted: October 6, 2015 by Daniel Simpson (PG Cooper) in PG Cooper's Movie Reviews

martianWritten by Daniel “PG Cooper” Simpson

Ridley Scott is an amazing filmmaker who has maintained a position as one of the most important directors in the business since 1979’s Alien. However there is a growing narrative that Scott’s work has been in decline recently. In the last five years, he’s given us two underwhelming epics (Robin Hood and Exodus: Gods and Kings), a highly ambitious and equally divisive science-fiction film (Prometheus), and a very misguided crime thriller (The Counselor). Personally though, I’ve never really bought into this way of thinking. While all of the aforementioned films are highly flawed, all of them have at least a few interesting things and I wouldn’t call any of them terrible. I’m also a pretty big fan of Prometheus, which isn’t perfect, but gets a lot more hate than it deserves. Moreover, if you like at Scott’s filmography, you’ll find it’s fill of middling patches. As such, I had faith Scott had a few more greats in him, and now The Martian has proved me right.

The film takes place in a near future and opens with a group of scientists doing studies on the planet Mars. Their field work is cut short when a freak storm hits and the group needs to evacuate. During the storm, botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is lost and presumed dead. Team commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) reluctantly decides to leave the plant for the safety of the rest of her crew. Theorizing it would take years for NASA to send a rescue, Mark must find ways to survive on a station designed for only a month’s use, as well as find some way to contact NASA. Though alone, Mark’s plight will soon catch the attention of Earth.

At its core, The Martian is a survival film about an individual trying to endure in a hostile environment. The fact that the protagonist is an astronaut draws comparison to Gravity, but they aren’t actually that similar. While there are some very well-executed visceral set-pieces, most of the thrills in The Martian come from more intellectual problem solving. How does Mark make food on a planet where crops don’t grow? How can Mark extend the range his rover can cover before needing to refuel? What can Mark do to contact NASA and let them know he’s still alive? These types of questions aren’t as inherently exciting as watching someone dodge falling debris in space, but there’s a real suspense to watching Mark face these questions and genuine satisfaction when he succeeds.

The other way The Martian differs from Gravity is in the tone. While The Martian does acknowledge the danger and seriousness of Mark’s situation, it also has a lighter side. Mark himself is a sarcastic character who faces his situation with a positive attitude and a sense of humour. He often finds something comic about the various predicaments he finds himself in and he also speaks in a more casual way than one expects from a botanist employed by NASA. Drew Goddard’s script has a lot of clever comic writing and Scott fills the soundtrack with disco music, which adds to the light tone. In spite of all this however, The Martian still has lots of drama and tension. Scott does not undercut these moments with jokes or disco music, but only uses it in appropriate moments.

In addition to the balanced script, The Martian is able to weave between drama and humour seamlessly due to the excellent cast. Matt Damon is perfectly cast as in the lead role. He’s very believable as an intelligent scientist, he has the star power and charm to handle the humour, and he has the acting chops to nail the dramatic beats. Jessica Chastain also does great work as the captain burdened with responsibility and guilt, but who maintains the strength and intelligence necessary to lead. In addition to those in space, the earthbound cast does great work as well. Chiwetel Ejiofor is very good as a NASA mission director determined to help. He brings a lot of empathy to the part, as well as an intelligence and wit. Sean Bean also makes an impact in a limited role, as does Donald Glover. That’s just the tip of the iceberg though. This cast is stacked with memorable work from the likes of Michael Peña, Benedict Wong, Kristen Wig, Jeff Daniels, Kate Mara, Mackenzie Davis, Askel Hennie, and others. It’s a very impressive cast Scott does a good job juggling the various players.

Being that this is a Ridley Scott production, it pretty much goes without saying that The Martian is very well-executed on a technical level. The art direction does a very good job of capturing a high-tech feel, while not falling to far into science-fiction. All of the technology on display feels like stuff we might actually have and that helps ground the film. I was also really impressed by the visual effects, which did a very good job blending CGI, models, and location shooting. On that note, the cinematography is also very strong with the reds of Mars really popping. The film also makes great use of sound, particularly in a crucial scene near the end. The film’s make-up is also very effective in portraying the conditions Mark is surviving in.

All told, there isn’t really much bad to say about The Martian. If the film is lacking something, it’s the ambitions and ideas of something like Prometheus to put it over the top. However The Martian is so well-made and entertaining that it hardly matters. There can be a tendency for critics to dismiss pure entertainment, but that’s only because of how many subpar films have used the banner of “just entertainment” to excuse their ineptitude. It’s not easy to make escapism on this level, and the fact that this one excels mostly on intellect and problem solving is all the more impressive. With its excellent direction, cast, and script, The Martian is one of the strongest films of the year.

A

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