As we headed into the theater on Friday, my fiance turned to me and asked, “So, is The Martian just Castaway on Mars?” Although the connection seems obvious, I think the emphasis on community in the film gives it a lighter tone and many fun characters to keep the plot going.
In The Martian, astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is on a mission to mars with fellow scientists Commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain), Rick Martinez (Michael Pena), Beth Johanssen (Kate Mara), Chris Beck (Sebastian Stan), and Alex Vogel (Aksel Hennie) when they are forced to make an emergency departure during a massive storm. A piece of equipment hits Watney, severing his communication with the rest of the crew. In a gut-wrenching decision, they presume him dead and continue with their evacuation. The rub is that Watney is still alive, and now he’s stranded on Mars and has to figure out how to grow enough food to last him until the next Mars mission arrives in about four years. Then, he has to figure out how to get the rover to travel the long distance to the next mission’s landing site so he can hitch a ride home. Meanwhile, a satellite specialist at NASA, Mindy Park (Mackenzie Davis), has discovered that Watney is still active on Mars. NASA, represented by Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels), Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), Mitch Henderson (Sean Bean), Rich Purnell (Donald Glover), Annie Montrose (Kristen Wiig), and others, must figure out how to get him home, and whether or not to tell the crew that they left him behind.
Often, space adventure films’ big draw is their special effects. The Martian was released in 3D and had many cool moments for effects, but, honestly, they did not stand out to me because the characters and the plot were so strong that they kept me engaged for the entire 241 minutes. That in itself is a feat, but in addition, The Martian has a fun mixture of clever humor, silly jokes, and intellectual problem solving. This may be a controversial opinion, but the disco soundtrack was also one of my favorite parts. It demonstrates the film’s commitment to portraying the connection between the characters, even as one of them is stranded alone on a foreign planet. Finally, the way in which the film makes a character out of Pathfinder was effective to both depict the intimacy between astronaut and equipment on dangerous missions and how lonely Watney was. Similarly, the use of the camera logs allows Watney to have someone to talk to, but the technology was used judiciously.
The biggest drawback is the obvious and predictable pattern that the screenplay falls into. Although I enjoyed seeing how Watney figures out how to use science to overcome each major threat to his survival, and seeing NASA figure out how to bring him home, the film quickly clicks into a rhythm of introducing a problem and immediately following it with the epiphany that solves it. In an otherwise strong screenplay, I think varying this pattern could have made it even better by delaying some gratification for the audience and building tension a bit more.
The Martian could have ridden entirely on the charisma of Matt Damon, but fortunately it did not have to. The ensemble cast does a wonderful job, even featuring actors in roles that are unexpected for them, such as Kristen Wiig as the very serious PR rep for NASA. The chemistry between the members of the crew is especially appealing. That said, Damon is at his best in this film, both comedically and dramatically. His character has a clever sense of humor that Damon delivers well. I was most impressed by his performance when he is fixing his own injuries as he discovers he has been left behind, and toward the end of his time on Mars as he deals emotionally with relief, fear, and physical fatigue.
Although The Martian falls back on some storytelling crutches, it is fun to watch, skillfully acted, and has a satisfying but not corny ending. I rate it 4/5 stars.
The Martian was directed by Ridley Scott and written by Drew Goddard based on the novel by Andy Weir. It runs 141 minutes and is rated PG-13 for some strong language, injury images, and brief nudity.