Only a few years after Prometheus marked Ridley Scott‘s return to the sci-fi space genre, he’s back with an adaptation of Andy Weir’s breakout hard sci-fi novel The Martian (read my review on Obsessive Book Nerd here). The Martian takes a realistic look at survival on our barren celestial neighbor and showcases what humanity can accomplish when unified toward a common goal.
After an unexpected storm forces the abort of a manned Mars mission, astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) finds himself stranded on the red planet. Faced with overwhelming odds, Watney must use his wits and science to survive on the planet long enough to be rescued.
The movie alternates between Watney’s efforts to stay alive on Mars and the effort on Earth to bring him home. Chiwetel Ejiofor leads the team on Earth (made up of a ton of notable actors including Jeff Daniels, Mackenzie Davis, Donald Glover, Kristen Wiig, Benedict Wong, Sean Bean and more) who encounter their own difficulties. This balance prevents the movie from becoming tedious and gives the audience equal time with Watney and his rescue team back home.
Kate Mara, Jessica Chastain, Michael Peña, Sebastian Stan, and Aksel Hennie make up Watney’s crew aboard the Hermes station heading back to Earth. The crew gets ample screen time, yet the movie left me wanting to see more of their cohabitation and missions together. The range of dialogue between the crewmembers as well as a wonderfully understated romance between two of the characters created such an honest feeling of the bond and poignancy aboard the ship.
However, Damon’s performance as Watney could sustain itself through an entire movie. Damon is charming and resilient as the stranded botanist. Throughout the movie, Watney records video logs that are a delicate mix of delightful comedy and personal documentations of the trial-and-error he undergoes. There’s a moment with him in the rover reacting to a screen that packs an emotional punch similar to a notable scene in last year’s Interstellar. However, Damon’s performance in this scene is more effective in the way he takes a more subtle approach. It communicates his overwhelming emotion beautifully.
The tension throughout The Martian is palpable. Each triumph is matched with a potentially fatal catastrophe that keeps the audience pinned to their seat. The film takes an almost docudrama approach to the narrative that steeps the movie’s already authentic science into a more engaging and realistic format. Though the movie exists in an idealistic world where NASA is fully funded, it comes across as so real that it feels like you’re watching an alternate reality.
Much like 2013’s Gravity, grounding the story in such a realistic portrayal of science and technology lends The Martian an abundance of credibility and hopeful optimism. Unlike Gravity however, The Martian doesn’t use its worst-case scenario plot as a vehicle for a somewhat ham-fisted character piece. Instead, The Martian gives viewers a somewhat heavy-handed plea for NASA’s relevance.
In adapting the novel, screenwriter Drew Goddard put just a little too much emphasis on the movie’s central theme that we need manned space missions. Even as an ardent supporter of manned space flight who wholeheartedly agrees with what the movie conveys, I found some of the scenes so on-the-nose that I felt like I was being lectured. The movie would have made a stronger statement had it delivered its message through subtext rather than having characters tell each other just how important space exploration is for humankind.
I can and will forgive The Martian for this transgression on the grounds that the state of NASA and cultural lethargy toward manned missions into space likely makes such overt messages necessary to get the point across. However, there’s a fine line between pleading your cause and creating what some might see as a propaganda piece. The Martian never crosses that line, but it comes closer than I would have liked to see.
At the end of the day however, The Martian is a dazzling love letter to NASA, science, and human ingenuity that makes up for a heavy-handed message with wit and tension throughout its runtime. The imagery of Mars’ vast wasteland is never once boring and captures the isolation of Watney spectacularly well. The sequences with the crew in space are magnificent and stunning. These beautifully designed backdrops enhance the tension as Watney works to survive. The Martian is as edge of your seat as you can get and is a very rewarding experience.