REVIEW: The Martian (2015)

Has Ridley Scott finally reclaimed his Midas touch? Cal catches up with Matt Damon’s galactic misadventure. 

In the hands of practically any other filmmaking team, 2015’s The Martian would have been an insufferably tedious, self-serious science fiction flick shamelessly manufactured for Oscars. But with a spirited screenplay by Drew Goddard (The Cabin in the Woods, World War Z), and with veteran director Ridley Scott at the helm, The Martian is an incredibly involving sci-fi drama endowed with a welcome sense of humanity. Based on Andy Weir’s 2011 novel of the same name, this film is a godsend, a mix of Cast Away and Apollo 13 which positively comes alive in the hands of Mr. Scott. Smartly-written, technically proficient, emotionally gripping and highly entertaining, it’s an unexpected late-year bright spot. There was a lot of anticipation leading up to The Martian’s release, but considering Scott’s recent track record, there was certainly some degree of apprehension mixed with the hope that the film would be a home run. Thankfully, it’s a masterpiece.

Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is a botanist on a mission to Mars, working alongside an amiable crew consisting of Beth (Kate Mara), Chris (Sebastian Stan), Rick (Michael Peña), Alex (Aksel Hennie), and Commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain). When a violent storm hits and the team are forced to evacuate, Mark is hit by satellite debris and presumed dead, forcing Melissa to make the difficult decision to leave their fallen comrade behind. When the dust settles, Mark wakes up injured but alive, quickly realising that he’s hopelessly alone and might need to wait four years to be rescued. Determined to stay alive, Mark begins strategising and rationing, and even begins to grow crops on the desolate planet to enhance his food supply. Back on Earth, NASA eventually discover that Mark is alive, with chief Teddy (Jeff Daniels) working with top minds to establish communication with Mark and bring their boy home.

The Martian is extraordinarily light on its feet, breezing through a brisk but effective opening segment concentrating on the storm, stranding Mark as quickly as possible in order for the film to get into its groove and focus on survival techniques. It’s gripping to watch Mark employ his ingenuity to ensure his survival, with vignettes alternating between the playful and the sombre; Scott handles the tonal changes with astonishing ease. Perhaps more depth and background to Mark’s character would have been appreciated, but no single frame of the film’s 140-minute runtime goes to waste. The movie constantly shifts focus between Mark, NASA and Mark’s crew who are still on their way home, yet Scott juggles the numerous subplots masterfully, maintaining momentum and a skilful pace from start to end.

Perhaps the strongest aspect of Goddard’s adapted screenplay is its playful sense of humour. Most movies these days adhere to the patented Christopher Nolan approach, i.e. dour drama with serious actors standing around saying serious dialogue in a serious tone. Hell, a number of Scott’s recent movies have even fallen victim to this (Prometheus, The Counselor, Exodus). Standing in stark contrast to this, The Martian is often very amusing, but the comedy is neither forced nor farcical; rather, the laughs emerge organically from the character interactions, heightening that all-important sense of humanity. And since the movie concerns itself with dense science that the average film-goer will struggle to comprehend, the playfulness keeps us interested.

Backed by a generous budget, The Martian is striking from a visual standpoint, with a mixture of sets, digital effects and location shooting to create the illusion of being on the surface of Mars. However, Scott’s direction is also non-intrusive and honest, letting the dramatic potential of the plot speak for itself, even creating a few montage sequences (backed by terrific musical choices) to effectively convey the passage of time. The final act, meanwhile, is a masterclass of photorealistic special effects and tremendous suspense, showing that the 77-year-old director can still create nailbiting set-pieces. There are moments of theatricality scattered throughout – most noticeably towards the picture’s dénouement – that stuffy critics may whinge about, but such moments work in this context. The Martian is a movie, after all, and the climax manages to be entertaining whilst simultaneously being intense and believable. It’s a tricky balancing act, yet Scott pulls it off competently.

Damon deserves a lion’s share of the credit for making the movie work. Especially throughout The Martian’s opening act, large chunks amount to a one-man show, with Scott concentrating on Watney’s day-to-day routine intercut with his constant video logs. But while Damon deserves Oscar consideration, the rest of the ensemble also contribute in a major way – there’s not a dud performance in the bunch. Daniels emanates gravitas as the NASA chief, while the likes of Sean Bean and Kristen Wiig are unexpectedly brilliant in dramatic supporting roles as NASA employees. Bean in particular hasn’t been so alive in years. Meanwhile, Oscar nominee Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave) positively lights up the screen with a charismatic performance as the Mars mission director. Digging further into the cast, Chastain is predictably great, while Kate Mara puts in solid work to help us forget about Fantastic 4. Also noteworthy is Donald Glover in a small but pivotal role as someone who’s key to bringing Mark home safely.

Armchair critics may be able to pick The Martian apart for scientific inaccuracies, but I am not a scientist. What matters is that this movie works on its own terms, as a low-key blockbuster of sorts with intelligence, heart and personality, and it’s not weighed down by pretensions or a sense of self-seriousness. 2015’s Oscar season is officially off to a flying start, and The Martian is going to be a tough act to follow.

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