By: Peter Lalush
These days, it seems like science-fiction falls into one of two categories: super-serious (“Gravity”) or super-ridiculous (“Guardians of the Galaxy”). Which is why a film like Ridley Scott’s “The Martian” is such a breath of fresh air. It’s scientifically accurate and rather serious, but with an offbeat sense of humor that doesn’t at all feel forced.
In this film based on Andy Weir’s novel of the same name, a crew of six astronauts are on a mission to Mars, but are forced to evacuate when a freak storm threatens to destroy all their equipment. In the process, astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is left behind and presumed dead. However, Watney is in fact very much alive, and is forced to use all of his survival skills (plus a few talents that come surprisingly in handy) to stay that way until help arrives. Meanwhile, on Earth, NASA must pool all of their resources in order to figure out how to get Watney back home.
“While he can seem a bit generic at times, he remains a fully sympathetic character that viewers will really, really want to survive.”
It sounds pretty grim, but Watney’s portion of the plot is driven by a series of video diaries he records in order to keep his morale up and let whoever finds them know he survived. Watney’s sense of humor is what keeps this movie so upbeat. Whether he’s professing his hatred for his commander’s all-disco music collection, sheepishly admitting that one of his ideas for survival was terrible, or working out a plan in the middle of a hopeless monologue, he’s able to keep the mood light and face his grave situation with a wink and a smile, thanks to screenwriter Drew Goddard’s (faithful) adaptation. Watney’s situation feels all too real, though, and the audience never has any reason to stop rooting for him. While he can seem a bit generic at times, he remains a fully sympathetic character that viewers will really, really want to survive.
This isn’t just Damon’s movie, though – back on the ground, there’s a disparate cast of characters doing their damnedest to handle the Watney situation. The NASA director (Jeff Daniels) and the Mars mission director (Chiwetel Ejiofor) repeatedly clash over publicity and whether to launch a new mission, with the NASA spokesperson (Kristen Wiig) acting as a voice of exasperated reason. Meanwhile, Jessica Chastain, Sebastian Stan, and Michael Peña are among the five remaining astronauts on their way back to Earth. The choice to only give half of the spotlight to Watney really highlights the rest of the effort to get him back home in a simple yet effective way.
One of the most incredible things about this film is that none of it seems outlandishly sci-fi. We’ve never really launched a mission to Mars, but everything feels so real, and the viewer comes away from the film thinking that the entire story could easily have happened. A few of the plot points feel like one-in-a-million coincidences, but never so often that the viewer questions the story’s plausibility. Enough things go wrong that the audience never gets the inkling that Watney’s survival is all luck – and indeed it isn’t.
In terms of appearance, “The Martian” is beautiful. The production design is a mix of both the futuristic and practical that keeps all of the Mars mission equipment and transportation within that “that could definitely have happened” boundary. Mars itself mainly takes a backseat to the interior of the habitat, but even when Watney leaves the habitat, it remains somewhat understated and desert-like – not unlike a desert on Earth. It’s obvious that Watney is far from home, however, as everything is just red enough for the audience to know this part of the story definitely isn’t on Earth, but not too red that it seems cartoonish or unrealistic.
“The Martian” rightly deserved all of the hype it deserved upon its release. It’s pretty, it’s well-written and well-directed, the cast is diverse and are all perfectly suited to their characters, but most of all, it feels so incredibly realistic. A bit of it can feel coincidental at times, and Mars itself can occasionally take a backseat to Watney’s one-liners, but none of this detracts from the film at all. See it – you won’t be disappointed.