Cinematic Review: The Martian (2015)
The film universe has been on something of a space kick over the last few years - Two years ago, there was Gravity. Last year, we had Interstellar. This year's entry is The Martian, directed by Ridley Scott - a return to form for one of the masters of sci-fi.
The Martian is, in fact, about human astronaut Mark Watney being stranded on Mars. During a mission to the red planet, a severe storm interferes with a space mission's exit, and Watney is stranded on the planet, presumed dead. With the conditions on Mars, Watney has to think on his feet and make due unless he wants them to be right. Watney is beyond the point of doing anything for a mission, he needs to figure out how to eat for survival on a planet with no food, no water, no oxygen and extreme temperature changes. The film tells a concurrent story as NASA discovers Mark is in fact alive and has to work in order to bring him back alive - especially after he becomes a hero in the eyes of the public. Similarly, Watney's original crew is called upon to assist in the rescue.
With The Martian being released less-than-a year after the aforementioned Interstellar,(in a addition to space themes, both movies even have similar cast members) comparisons feel inevitable. While Interstellar is a good film, it is flawed - suffering from being didactic, having a forced twist, and showing the fingerprints of the films it wanted to be. I bring this up because while that film is starting to feel more like a B, The Martian is a solid A. Although he has shown success in non-sci-fi films such as Black Hawk Down and American Gangster, films such as Alien and Blade Runner have earned Ridley Scott a reputation as one of the masters of science fiction, and he is back in top form here.
Calling this film science fiction is somewhat borderline since the film does function within real science as the film attempts to answer how a man would need to survive if stranded on Mars. (Conversely, I have been told, dealing with REAL science is the true definition of science fiction and everything else is fantasy, so let's not split hairs.) He has to figure out how to grow food, resorting to growing potatoes inside his space station. He has to figure out how to balance staying alive in extreme cold with being able to use his vehicle. Just watching how this character functions in these extreme conditions is one of the draws of this film. There are moments where things go wrong, and we see the danger he faces on another planet as he has to scramble to regain oxygen after his helmet is damaged.
Although the film juggles multiple characters and tells concurrent stories, The Martian never feels overbearing or convoluted. Nasa's team on Earth is also faced with realistic dilemmas of wanting to rescue Mark but having to balance their budget, crew's work hours, and simply how to communicate with Mark. Scott's eye for detail is shown throughout the film as many of the shots on Mars are positively gorgeous. Scott also knows when to show instead of tell and let the action of the film speak for itself. Allowing the action to play out on its own allows simple scenes such as Watney trying to return to his station all the more suspenseful. Also, despite the films two-hour-twenty-minute run time, the film is pretty breezily paced and nary a moment is wasted. When the movie needs to be emotional, Scott knows how to hit that note as well. When Damon laments the loss of his potato farm, we feel his pain. After all, this is not just some thing he is proud of - that is his food supply.
What also makes The Martian work is its human element (Yeah, expect that joke in a lot of reviews for this film). One might expect a film like this to have a tone similar to maybe Cast Away - a good drama about a man stranded and isolated. However, Ridley Scott and company show off their funny bone in this film. While not laugh-a-minute like A Fish Called Wanda or Young Frankenstein, there are some genuinely funny moments - some of which are laugh-out-loud hysterical.
The humor works in this film because instead of contrived sitcom jokes that feel like they need a laugh track, The Martian goes for humor that feels natural. Matt Damon's Mark Watney is pretty snarky and jokey. This works as it helps establish his personality - he is someone who instead of cracking under pressure, jokes around to keep himself sane. He kids around about his pride for his potato farm and being stuck with only disco music to listen to. With his sly wit, Watney becomes a likable and endearing character. One truly hilarious moment is when the NASA crew has to translate Watney's message as he shows his frustration at being stuck on Mars with a slew of profanities. The humor also helps establish the relationship Watney has with his fellow astronauts. When they joke around with each other, we see that these people are members of a team who know each other and have a rapport.
On that note, with so many characters and so much story running around, the film still takes the time to develop these characters' personalities and the actors fill out their roles flawlessly. Much of the film is on Matt Damon's shoulders as he handles many scenes by himself, letting his enjoyable personality and snark shine though. The normally comedic Kristen Wiig channels her comedic energy into a NASA scientist who is a little too on edge. As NASA head Teddy Sanders, Jeff Daniels is believable as a man who wants to do the right thing, but still thinks in business terms. Donald Glover is enjoyably goofy as a nerdy scientist who aids the mission. Sean Bean plays a character who survives to the end... Hmmm, maybe this film IS a fantasy. If there is one nitpick, the film does juggle a few too many characters and some of them can feel a little lost in the shuffle.
The Martian is rated PG-13, but this is not the kid friendly fare of Ant-man or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (Both of which should have been rated PG, but I digress). There are some bloody scenes as Watney has to remove a broken shard. The f-word is used on multiple occasions. (I have to tip my hat to the filmmakers for getting around the limit by having the word be mouthed but not heard a few times.) Also, Matt Damon shows his bare behind. Hey, women and gay men need a show too. So parents might want to think twice about taking the youngsters to see this one.
In conclusion, The Martian is an excellent piece of cinema that blends sci-fi, action and comedy. The film is both a terrific character study and mesmerizing visual piece. The Martian stands as not only a good film for now but simply one of the best films of the year.
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