THE MARTIAN – The Review
We’re almost a week into the Fall, a time for serious stuff at the cinema, not saucers and BEMs (bug-eyed monsters). Well, hold on to your ray-guns, this isn’t a Summertime sci-fi staple with a much delayed release date. You see, the title character is actually an Earthman, but he’s also an alien since he’s not on his home planet. Huh? And this isn’t a tale set hundreds of years in the future, or is it set “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away” (gotta’ wait another ten weeks or so for that). No, this is set in the very near future (unlike that other star franchise), plus it’s rooted pretty much in the realities of space travel. No warp drives or matter transporters here, so star hopping takes a long, l-o-n-g time. Oh, and this flick’s main setting has been making headlines lately (that loud sigh of relief you may be hearing comes from the Fox marketing gurus). For you see, although Mark Watney wasn’t born on the angry red planet, during this story he is THE MARTIAN.
Excuse me if I sound like a famous beagle author, but…it was a dark and stormy night…on the planet Mars. Said storm is bearing down on the intrepid crew of the Ares 3, the pride of NASA’s exploration mission. As those brave astronauts struggle to return to the ship, the violent wind propels a satellite dish into one of the crewmen with the force of a cannonball. Mark Watney is swallowed up into the dust and darkness. His suit is not transmitting any vital signs. Captain Lewis (Jessica Chastain) must make a very tough decision. Those strong winds threaten to topple the rocket which would strand them there (rescue would take months , perhaps over a year). The only option is to blast off and leave behind their fallen comrade. Back on Earth, mission control gets the bad news. The head of NASA, Sanders (Jeff Daniels), makes the formal announcement at a press conference overseen by public relations director Montrose (Kristen Wiig): the Ares crew has left Mars after the death of Mark Watney. But Watney pulls a Mark Twain and awakes after the storm has past. The dish knocked out his vital sign emitter. Dazed and injured he makes his way to the enclosed lab (the Martian Habitat or HAB) the crew had constructed. He’s got his work cut out for him. The supplies will run out long before Ares 4 arrives, so he’s got to grow some food in the reddish clay-like Martian soil. And he’s got to contact Earth. Thanks to his pluck and some old tech, Watney contacts mission control. Now Sanders has a new set of decisions. Tell the still traveling Lewis and her crewmates (Kate Mara, Michael Pena, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie) of Watney’s survival? Hurriedly construct another rocket? As plans are made on Earth, Watney embarks on a long, lonely quest for survival.
The element that helps this makes this mainly Mars-bound epic soar is the winning performance of Matt Damon. I mean, if you’re going to be stuck on a big red rock then you’d be very fortunate to have him as company. In other films I’ve been struck by the great chemistry Damon has displayed with his co-stars, particularly the actresses (Emily Blunt in THE APPOINTMENT BUREAU, Dallas Bryce-Howard in THE HEREAFTER), so I was pleasantly surprised at how entertaining and engaging he is when he’s, just by himself ,usually talking straight to us as Watney, leaving a detailed video diary. He’s a unique screen hero who uses his intelligence rather than his brawn (or transports or weaponry) to triumph. We believe that he will, as he remarks, “Science the s*#t out of it!”. And despite his obstacles and setbacks never gives in to despair (although he does choke back a few tears). The film could easily get too wrapped up in space jargon, but Damon’s always ready to give this tech heavy story a smile along with a warm, beating heart. It’s a remarkable acting achievement worthy of all the accolades sure to come his way (and isn’t it about time that his screenplay Oscar got a playmate?).
But, despite its title, this flick isn’t a one man show. Damon is ably supported in space and on Earth. On the Ares 3, Chastain plays a decisive leader, although she lets us see Lewis’s agony over having to make the most difficult choice ever. Pena’s does a very entertaining riff on the affable space jockey, the wheel man always quick with a joke to take the edge off a dangerous situation. Mara bounces back nicely from some cinema setbacks as the computer whiz (just as her role in the FANTAST…never mind). Stan is a very courageous tethered retriever while the stoic Hennie surprises with hidden talents. Back on the “big, blue marble” Daniels injects a sardonic wit into the role of the big boss, and verbally spars with the energetic Chiwetel Ejiofor as the new guy who’s not afraid to ruffle some feathers. Just as she proved in DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL, screen comedy queen Wiig can be a great dramatic co-star. Sean Bean gives the team’s NASA rep, a strong, stubborn sense of purpose. And the great Donald Glover brings a manic, child-hood sense of joy as the brain that’s always thinking outside the box.
But the big talent that shoots this story past the stratosphere is the great Ridley Scott, who’s doing his best work in years, perhaps decades. This is a worthy companion to his futurist hat-trick begun with ALIEN and continued with BLADE RUNNER. This space saga never lags, never goes into free fall. And after making his name in lots of terrific TV from “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” to “Lost”, Drew Goddard establishes himself as a major screenwriting talent with this adaptation of the acclaimed novel by Andy Weir. The science never overwhelms the very human elements of this tale. It tells us to use our head, but never ignore your heart. Although it may often play as a modern re-staging of the 60’s cult classic ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS (minus the fantasy beasties), this feels like a truly fresh and original movie experience. Its sense of optimism and wonder soars where the recent TOMORROWLAND, and ,to an extent, last year’s INTERSTELLAR stumbled. Bravo to Harry Gregson-Williams for a subtle music score and to cinematographer Dariusz Wolski for making that alien soil a place of wonder, tranquility, and unexpected danger. Everyone involved are to be lauded for helping to make THE MARTIAN an adventurous, exploration cinema classic that will inspire generations to come.
5 Out of 5 Stars