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The Martian

Theatrical Review


20th Century Fox; 141 minutes

Director: Ridley Scott


Written by on September 22, 2015 




If the last few years are any indication, Hollywood has a revitalized interest in turning their head towards the vastness of space. Rather than a focus on alien-occupied science-fiction, we’ve seen a string of major-budget fall releases that question our place in the universe and the boundless exploration therein. The latest in this category, Ridley Scott‘s The Martian, lacks the wall-to-wall tension of Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity or the ambition of Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, but for the most part, it’s a rollicking space procedural that depends on some logic, and a great deal of luck.

Adapted by Drew Goddard from Andy Weir‘s originally self-published novel, the story finds Matt Damon‘s Mark Watney as a lone astronaut/botanist on Mars, deserted after his Ares 3 crew presumed him dead when an evacuation went wrong. Despite his miraculous survival — one of the first of many fortuitous occurrences —  this presumption soon reaches Earth, and the world mourns. Meanwhile, a stranded Watney must figure out how to stretch his supplies out for around four years, when Ares 4 may find Hermes returning to his desolate planet.

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While the title indicates a Cast Away-esque sole focus on our protagonist, The Martian packs one of Scott’s biggest ensembles, with much screentime devoted to NASA’s mission to assist Watney. Although no character is substantially fleshed out — this is a mechanical, connect-the-dots journey, after all — each fit into the puzzle, including those on Earth (Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sean Bean, Donald Glover, Mackenzie Davis, and Benedict Wong), and the remaining crew of Ares 3 (Jessica Chastain, Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Henni) who are returning home.

However, it is Damon’s show as the smart-aleck with disco-hating charm. We join in his delight when it comes to figuring out a way to sustain his life through potato harvesting or potentially reaching communication. Thanks to monitoring cameras capturing virtually every angle of his activity, Goddard’s script and Scott’s direction effectively amalgamate these recording logs with the activities taking place. This approach makes for a slick presentation, mixing a documentary feel with Scott’s usual sheen, and always leaving us one step behind the math, but never in the dark.

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Carrying less suspense than the book – the drama is less about wondering if Watney will survive and more about the amusing ways he’ll tell you how he will assuredly do it – each scenario offers up a seemingly unsolvable problem that, without fail, is solved by the end of the scene. Even with mishaps along the way, there is never a tinge of doubt Watney may not persevere — aside from the a riveting finale in which a layer of emotion missing from much of the build-up rears its head.

While this rinse-and-repeat formula for two-plus hours could seem detrimental, there’s enough unabashed optimism and teamwork on display that it’s hard not to be won over. Structured more like Apollo 13 than the aforementioned recent space adventures, this is a film more about watching people excel in their destined craft, with no shortage of against-the-odds cheers from the control room.

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Whereas Ridley Scott’s career has mostly found him executing a certain solemnity, The Martian is potentially the most cheerful and jaunty mode he’s ever been in. We have to imagine this intentionally goes as deep as the casting, perhaps most explicitly on display in jokes about Iron Man and Lord of the Rings involving actors in each franchise. Coupled with Dariusz Wolski‘s vibrant cinematography and Pietro Scalia‘s swift editing, there’s little time to get caught up in the numbers Watney or the rest of the cast throws out, as we’re immediately on to the next scene before one can ponder the calculation.

The film’s overall theme can be best exemplified in a single cut. Ejiofor’s Vincent Kapoor, director of the Mars mission, fearfully sits in the control room and wonders the sheer psychological toll that must weigh on Watney, being the only human on a single planet for years. Cut to Watney and he’s regrettably jamming out to disco, doing the best with what’s at his current disposal. The Martian is far less interested in the adverse, detrimental effects of remote solitude and more about getting through the experience as appealing and engaging as possible.

The Martian opens on October 2nd.


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