With NASA recently announcing that they discovered liquid water on Mars, the red planet is back in the news, which makes the timing of Ridley Scott’s new movie ‘The Martian’, perfect. But while we don’t see any extra-terrestrial life, we do get a boatload of science inter-twined with an engaging personal tale about life on the edge. It’s not quite the reality show that Mars One envisions, but it does make the surface of Mars look like a trip worth making.The question is of course, whether ‘The Martian’ is worth a trip to the cinema.
The story of The Martian is a tale of two fronts. After an accident on Mars leaves Mark Whatney (Matt Damon) on the red planet and presumed dead, the rest of his crew evacuate due to an oncoming storm and head back for Earth. But he survives the disaster, and he’s forced to defy all rational hope and survive long enough for a rescue mission to bring him home. One part of the story follows Mark as he tries to survive, producing food and water and improving the equipment at his disposal, while the other half follows the efforts of NASA in trying to bring him back. The rest of Mark’s crew get some dispersed backstory, but it is fairly limited outside of some token scenes considering their importance to the story.
Some more time could have been devoted to building them up, but it would have bulked up the movie a little too much. Really the focus comes down on Mark, and the trio of Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels), Vincent Capoor (Chitwetel Ejiofor) and Mitch Henderson (Sean Bean) as they battle with the logistics and morality of the rescue back on Earth. Their story is arguably more compelling at times than Mark’s as the dynamics of their personalities and interests clash. It’s also backed by some great acting across the board. There isn’t an evident weak link to be found, and the inter-play between those three in particular makes for some fascinating viewing. In doing so they manage to make the Earth storyline as compelling as the Mars one.
Matt Damon does a great job as Whatney. Given so much screen-time is devoted to Damon acting alone, his charisma and direction was crucial for making us care about his plight, and he delivers. Whereas Sandra Bullock’s character in Gravity annoyed me, Damon is genuinely fun to watch and a truly likable character, ensuring I was invested in the story during the slow moments as well as when his life was at risk. He’s determined, inspiring and genuinely hilarious. In between defying death there are a lot of jokes to enjoy, and Damon makes sure they never fall flat. This is far funnier than you’d expect from a survival film.
It could have been very easy for this film to feel dark, but it’s more about life and the human will to survive, and that positivity does a lot for the film. Across the board from the writing, the acting and the direction it is a hopeful film in spite the situation, and credit should be given for pulling that off. The soundtrack also helps to lift the spirits at times, and it’s always fun to see some odd music choices work because of how they’re incorporated into the film’s story. The pacing is a little choppy, but for the most part it flows well and covers the time periods within the story it needs to cover.
There are two things I can’t specifically address myself, but that might be important for some readers out there. I haven’t read the book, so how faithful it is I can’t definitively say, but my co-pilot for the screening had read it, and outside of whitewashing of a couple of the characters, the film is apparently pretty spot on to the book. There is also a fair bit of science involved, and I’m not in the position to comment on how accurate it is. As someone who isn’t scientifically literate the movie does a good job helping you accept the science presented as being possible, though I can’t speak for those who are invested in that area.
What did throw me a little bit from my immersion was some of the special effects in the space scenes. For the most part the movie is beautiful to look at. Mars especially is expansive and awe-inspiring to take in, tugging at the inner adventurer inside of you. And while the space scenes are also very visually exciting, there were more than a few moments when the movie’s effects felt very flat. I saw it in 2D, so the 3D experience may be different but at times you could tell the ship and the background were separate parts of the same scene. I wouldn’t say I have a keen eye for that kind of detail either, so for it to be so noticeable was rather jarring. It’s still a gorgeous film, as you would expect, but those moments did take me out of the movie at times. It doesn’t match the impact Gravity’s visuals had, which has become the standard bearer for space immersion. It’s still worth seeing on the big screen if only for the shots of Mars, as Ridley Scott capturing the same feeling great westerns do as a cowboy looks out across the vast desert.
The Martian achieves everything it sets out to achieve. It is a hopeful story of survival without losing the tension, and a funny film without taking away from the serious moments. The entire cast nail their roles, and Matt Damon in particular pulls off one of his best roles in some time. This is a far better film than Ridley Scott’s previous space story Prometheus, and a true return to form for the director. Mars certainly has had some great press of late.