The Martian (2015)

Bring Him Home.

Nuh, I say ‘leave him there!’ He tried to get Cooper killed on the ice-planet, remember! Similarities aside, this is not the story of Matt Damon’s character from Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (2014). Filmmaker Ridley Scott is certainly no stranger to when it comes to science fiction, having directed cult-crowned hits Blade Runner (1982) and Alien (1979), but after re-dipping his toe back into sci-fi waters with 2012’s love-it-or-hate-it Alien prequel, Prometheus, it’s great to see Scott delving back into the genre in which he clearly excels.

Running at a lengthy 141 minutes, The Martian — Scott’s faithful adaptation of Andy Weir’s popular 2011 novel — wastes no time as the picture opens on a manned mission to Mars with a small multinational group of scientists, including NASA botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon), stationed on the desolate red planet. When a dangerous storm threatens the lives and safety of her crew, Commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) decides to abort the mission. After an escape effort that goes awry, Watney (the lowest ranking member of his squad) is left behind on the dirt-red sphere and presumed dead. Now, with only limited resources at his disposal, and the next planned mission nearly four years away, Watney must draw upon his own inventiveness, brawn and spirit in order to survive whilst trying to figure out a way he can signal Earth and let them know that he is still very much alive.

The Power Rangers make contact with Zordon.
The Power Rangers make contact with Zordon.

When judged against recent science fiction flicks, The Martian lacks the technical ingenuity and excitement of say, Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity (2012), but isn’t as perplexing or as taxing as Nolan’s Interstellar, which places it somewhere in between the above-mentioned titles. You see The Martian is, in essence, a movie about micromanaging, physics and engineering, with Watney attempting to live out his day-to-day life with the limited supplies he has on the fourth planet away from the sun. Like most underdog stories, viewers fundamentally know that Watney will survive (heck, we even saw it in the trailer), but it’s a matter of how he’ll survive that makes The Martian a worthwhile experience. Thankfully the sharp screenplay by Drew Goddard, The Cabin in the Woods (2012), sticks closely to Weir’s source material, balancing urgency and desperation (over the course of a lengthy two-year time frame) with a light and playful mood in the way of its disco soundtrack (which includes the likes Gloria Gaynor’s ‘I Will Survive’) and its spirited dialogue with lines such as ‘I’m gonna have to science the s@#t out of this,’ working to its crowd pleasing advantage. Furthermore, rather than sticking to the book’s narration through Watney’s inner-thoughts, Goddard has opted to present the marooned astronaut’s ramblings through a series of video diaries in which Watney records and documents his progress, a sound alteration that’s more suited to the medium of film.

Given The Martian’s calculation-based dialogue and heavy techno jargon, the key to the picture’s success lies in its precision casting. Matt Damon, The Bourne Identity (2002), clearly steals the show with his tour de force performance as the good-humored, wise cracking Mark Watney, nailing all aspects of his character, from his wit to his intelligence, whilst exhibiting his everyman charm and general likability. Damon’s solid charisma aside, viewers are given little insight into what actually makes this guy tick or what drives Watney to push forward when alone in isolation — all we know is that he hates disco music and is pretty darn good at his job. Anyhow, the Mars mission team is equally as well rounded with the ever-reliable Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty (2012), leading the Hermes Spacecraft and Kate Mara redeeming her one-note performance from this year’s box office failure Fantastic Four (2015).

Matt really wants your forgiveness for his destructive behavior in 'Interstellar.'
Matt really wants your forgiveness for his destructive behavior in ‘Interstellar.’

Back on Earth, over at NASA, Jeff Daniels, from television’s The Newsroom (2012), does a solid job as Teddy Sanders, the guy who’s basically in charge of getting Mark home, Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave (2013), nails his part as Vincent Kapoor, the director of the calamitous mission to Mars, while Kristen Wiig, Bridesmaids (2011), plays it semi-serious as NASA Spokeswoman, Annie Montrose. Then there’s the ‘bang on’ casting of Sean Bean, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), as the somewhat unconventional Mitch Henderson, whose prime focus is the safety of the astronauts up in space, with Bean’s name essentially driving home an amusing Lord of the Rings gag.

As one would expect from such a big budget production, the flick looks terrific; shot in Wadi Rum, Jordan — with its red colored desert — and Budapest, which has one of the biggest sound-stages in the world, the production design by Arthur Max, Gladiator (2000), is sleek and glossy; although almost everything in the film is scientifically accurate and essentially based on ‘fact,’ certain objects have been modified to look ‘cooler’ for the flick. Elsewhere, the costumes by Scott regular, Janty Yates, Prometheus (2012), are stylistic and authentic, particularly the spacesuits with the actors’ faces clearly visible for the most part. Alas, the 3D here isn’t anywhere near as pioneering as that of Gravity, with its subtle depth rendering the result basically pointless, but for The Martian, special effects aren’t really the focus, as the picture seeks to reignite viewer’s excitement for all things nerdy, whilst highlighting the importance of the human spirit, dexterity and team work.

‘Uh ... yeah ... we’re gonna need a bigger boat ... ’
‘Uh … yeah … we’re gonna need a bigger boat … ’

Despite its many number-crunching elements and somewhat predictable problem/solution cycle, Ridley Scott’s The Martian still makes for a thoroughly great entertainer — I for one can’t imagine anyone downright ‘hating’ it — as the picture is a refreshingly fun, smart sci-fi ride and a well-crafted piece of modern cinema. With its lively cast, lavish design and genuine moments of humor, The Martian is a celebration of the ‘geek’ and an ode to modern science, one that explores a ‘different’ kind of super power — brainpower.

Who knows, the flick could inspire the next wave of astronauts and botanists. If only I were young again!

3.5 / 5 – Great

Reviewed by Mr. Movie

The Martian is released through 20th Century Fox Australia