by Coop Cooper
“Gravity” took an admirable stab at creating a realistic space drama in 2013, and while I found it to be a near-perfect film in terms of photography, acting and effects, it seemed to leave some people cold. Some disliked having to watch one character act alone through most of the film, while others decried its unrealistic scientific aspects. Whatever the case, Ridley Scott’s “The Martian” seems to avoid a few of those problems and while I found it no better than “Gravity”, it sure proves that Scott hasn’t lost his touch after directing the space fiasco that was “Prometheus”.
Adapted from the bestselling novel by Andy Weir, “The Martian” stars Matt Damon as astronaut Mark Watney who is abandoned and left for dead on Mars when his crew loses him in a dust storm and has to make an emergency evacuation from the planet. With no means of communication and a limited amount of supplies, Watney must use his skills as a botanist to create water and grow food in order to hang on to life. When NASA finally figures out he is alive, the agency and his crew en route to Earth in the Aeres III must come up with a plan to bring him home alive.
What sets this film apart from “Gravity” is the long timeframe of the plot and how it bounces the story from Watney to NASA and to the crew on the Ares III. The narrative deftly jumps amongst these three settings, which makes the story feel like it’s moving along quickly even though much time passes between these cuts.
Damon carries the majority of the film acting alone, which only the most accomplished actors could pull off. If Damon was going for an Oscar this year, this was probably his best bet, but I suspect his performance here could be forgotten when the prestige pictures start appearing in the next month or so. His only regular communication is with the viewer whom he addresses in his video diaries where he explains his plans for staying alive and how he is dealing with these situations emotionally. This never feels like a crutch or a time waster and it helps deliver some much-needed exposition and character development. This also allows for running jokes as he gets to complain about how long its been since he ran out of condiments for food or how the only music he has to listen is the disco music left behind by his mission commander, Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain).
On the NASA end, we have Jeff Daniels playing the head of the agency who has to make some difficult decisions that may undermine Watney’s chances. There is also Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sean Bean and Benedict Wong who serve as problem solvers and decision makers who are willing to sacrifice anything to save Watney. Unfortunately, Kristen Wiig appears as a NASA bureaucrat who can’t seem to play it straight long enough to prove she wasn’t completely miscast for the film. Up in the Ares III, Oscar winner Jessica Chastain proves she has the chops to play a mission commander as expertly as she played a CIA operative in “Zero Dark Thirty”. Michael Pena once again appears the comic relief – but a lot more toned down than his performance in “Ant-Man” – and I almost didn’t recognize Sebastian Stan who played the Winter Soldier/Bucky in the “Captain America” films. Perhaps audiences recognize him more easily when he becomes the next Captain America (it’s going to happen, you’ll see).
I’ve come across several articles about how a potential mission to Mars and the reality of space travel holds up in “The Martian”. It would seem the film got a great many things correct and some of the things it didn’t get right could either be explained away as minor details or by future leaps in technology we have yet to make. There are a few serendipitous moments that are hard to buy, but then again, we only need to remember the true events of Apollo 13 to realize that miracles of survival in space do happen.
There are a few other elements about this film that stand out. One involves the idea that everyone on Earth is following what is happening to Mark Watney and is rooting for him to survive and return, even though he can’t see it. Even adversaries like China makes an investment in his wellbeing by launching a probe to resupply him with food and other necessities. By the end, the whole world is watching and holding its breath along with the audience and that makes it all the more exciting.
The “Martian” is a fine survival-in-space film, a rare genre that isn’t always uplifting. For similar films I would recommend these: “Robinson Crusoe on Mars” (1964), “Marooned” (1969), “The Cold Equations” (1996), “Apollo 13” (1995), and of course “Gravity” (2013).
4 and ½ out of 5