The Martian is a sci-fi drama with heavy emphasis on the science aspect of science fiction, even though it is set primarily on the planet Mars, a planet no human has even set foot on. Adapting a best-selling novel and boasting a loaded cast, Ridley Scott has crafted his best film in years. It’s well-told, terrifically acted, and looks amazing.
Astronaut and botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is part of a manned mission on Mars that is doing a planned month of research on the planet. A sudden, intense storm forces an early evacuation. During this evacuation, Mark is struck my debris and presumed dead by the rest of his crew (Jessica Chastain, Michael Pena, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie) who take off back to planet Earth. Mark, miraculously, is still alive and stranded on Mars. When it is realized that Mark is still alive, NASA higher-ups(Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kristen Wiig, Sean Bean) begin bold plans to try to rescue him. Left to his own devices, hundred of millions of miles away from help, Mark must use the resources available to him to stay alive long enough for a potential rescue.
Mark is a resourceful guy. He is like a cross between MacGuyver, Bear Grylls, and Chuck Noland (Tom Hanks) in Cast Away. He has to live in a habitat that was designed to last a month, with a two weeks of food supplies for six people, and no water on an inhospitable planet. Using his knowledge as a botanist, Mark is able to cultivate a little potato farm for himself, finding scientific ways around not having any water readily available to grow crops by burning hydrogen, despite everything NASA sends into space being flame retardant.
While there is an overarching plan that Mark has for surviving, his initial plan is to try to survive four years until the next manned mission arrives, there is also a good deal of jumping from crisis to crisis and the immediate need for problem-solving when issues arise and adversity strikes.
Back on Earth, there is also a great deal of problem-solving going on, and while they have all the resources and brilliant minds available to them, not all of them are on the same page about how best to go about rescuing Mark, even being unsure about whether to even tell his crewmates, on their journey home, that Mark is alive. The workarounds that they find to eventually communicate with Mark are impressive and executed on-screen brilliantly, the ingenuity of everyone involved makes you appreciate the capacity for what the human mind and science can accomplish.
At times, the film raises moral dilemmas. When it is proposed that the returning crew be used to go get Mark instead of another plan, the question becomes whether one life is potentially worth fives lives. The answer to that question can be different for someone like Ejiofor’s and Bean’s characters who are the ones overseeing the crews and the missions of the Mars program, and Bridges character, the head of NASA, who must weigh that with the potential downside of what they would do to NASA and the country to hear about the deaths of six astronauts instead of one. Thankfully, Daniels’ head of NASA does not come across as a corporate suit who only cares about the bottom line and the P.R.
Regardless of location, whether on Mars or back on Earth, the weight of every decision is felt. Even though there was less tension and immediate visceral impact, it invokes a similar feeling that two 2013 films did: Alfonso Cauron’s Gravity and J.C. Chandor’s All Is Lost. There is a constant, palpable feeling that everything is tenuous and moment to moment for the Mark; even at times when it seems that things are going well only one or two things need to go wrong for it to go really, really wrong.
The film does an outstanding job striking a balance between the big, vastness that a sci-fi movie set in space and on Mars should convey, and the small, intimate character moments for Mark and other characters amidst all of that is going on. In spite of the stakes involved, there are still moments of awe and wonder at being on Mars. And there is just the right amount of humor sprinkled into the story too. There’s also a very cool meta-moment when the film references The Fellowship of the Ring and the council of Elrond, and Sean Bean, who played Boromir, just happens to be part of the conversation. And the film looks exquisite, from the desert-like landscapes of Mars to the scenes set in space with the crew.
The cast gives outstanding performances. Damon is very engaging as the lead, his portrayal of Watney invest you in the character’s story as much as the stakes do. The crew, led by Chastain, are great, initially carrying the weight of losing a friend to the steely resolve of wanting to go get their boy. I want to see Michael Pena in more things. Daniels, Ejiofor, Bean, and Wiig are really good in their roles, with Wiig feeling the most unnatural in a non-comedic role. Donald Glover is given a great supporting role as an eccentric egghead who has a plan for rescuing Mark. Benedict Wong continues to get roles in space movies (Sunshine, Prometheus, this film). Mackenzie Davis has a small role as the NASA employee who discovers Mark is still alive.
There have been a lot of impressive sci-fi space movies made in recent years (Sunshine, Moon, Prometheus, Gravity, Interstellar to name a few), and The Martian feels like the pinnacle of these of films. Ridley Scott has created the best film of the late stages of his directing career here. The story is compelling and draws you in immediately and carries you through to the end of its journey, and it’s got a top-notch cast. It is one of the best films of the year and could be the first real Oscar contender, not just for the technical awards. I could see an adapted screenplay nomination. While there are still a few months left in the year and this has been a plus year from film, I envision The Martian being in my Top 10 at year’s end.
Rating: 4 1/2 out of 5 stars