Film Review: THE MARTIAN
Starring Matt Damon, Jeff Daniels, Sean Bean, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Michael Pena, Kate Mara, Donald Glover, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie, Benjamin Wong
Directed by Ridley Scott
Screenplay by Drew Goddard
Based on the book “The Martian” by Andy Weir
Produced by Simon Kinberg, Ridley Scott, Michael Schaefer, Aditya Sood, Mark Huffam
Cinematography by Dariusz Wolski
Edited by Pietro Scalia
Music by Harry Gregson-Williams
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Interestingly, coincidentally—and in one of those public relations boosts that film industry officials could only hope and pray for—officials at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) announced on Monday, Sept. 28, 2015, that “New findings from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) provide the strongest evidence yet that liquid water flows intermittently on present-day Mars. Using an imaging spectrometer on MRO, researchers detected signatures of hydrated minerals on slopes where mysterious streaks are seen on the Red Planet. These darkish streaks appear to ebb and flow over time. They darken and appear to flow down steep slopes during warm seasons, and then fade in cooler seasons. They appear in several locations on Mars when temperatures are above minus 10 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 23 Celsius), and disappear at colder times.”
Four days later, on Friday, October 2, 2015, an assuredly bouncing-off-the-walls 20th Century Fox is scheduled to release nationwide “The Martian,” Ridley Scott’s new, instantly-classic science-fiction outer space and mostly-Mars-set entertaining, epic movie that quickly and easily can be confidently labeled as one of the best films so far in 2015.
As the cliche goes, but it’s apt to repeat in regards to this particular instance, you just can’t pay for better publicity, public relations, marketing and advertising than this series of coincidental and complimentary events.
However, it’s also interesting to note that “The Martian” would likely have succeeded on a largescale manner whether that NASA announcement was made four days before its release or not. And it’s a sure bet that “The Martian” will indeed be a huge blockbuster—and it’s only fair that the film is a huge hit, because it deserves the success. That’s because “The Martian,” with always confident, assured, steady and wonderfully positive, crowd-pleasing and optimistic direction by an invigorated Ridley Scott and a pleasing, always-likeable Matt Damon leading a varied, talented all-star cast that shines in every scene, succeeds on all operating levels and completes its movie mission with nothing but success at the production, direction, acting, writing, themes, science (fiction and fact), editing, entertainment and special effects levels.
“The Martian” is the perfect opening act for the fall 2015 prestige, or exceptional, serious and intelligent, film season. This film, it should be noted, recalls the recent equally-excellent and classic science-fiction film “Gravity” from Alfonso Cuaron in 2013; Ron Howard’s science-fact classic “Apollo 13” from 1995; “Silent Running,” the 1972 science-fiction classic from Douglas Trumbull; Boris Sagal’s 1971 “The Omega Man,” and, although not on a sci-fi level, Robert Zemeckis’ 2000 also-classic “Cast Away.” Elements of each of these films, in terms of story, atmosphere, science, space, the over-riding message of perseverance, and other similar themes, can be seen in “The Martian.” And that’s only a good thing—that’s a great group of films to recall while watching a movie. “The Martian,” though, it must be noted, completely stands on its own as a compelling, moving, upbeat and life-affirming, modern-day sci-fi classic tale and film.
Matt Damon turns in a strong performance—yet, at the same time, a laid-back, down-to-earth (no pun intended), accessible and completely understated performance—as NASA astronaut, scientist and botanist Mark Watney, who, in the film’s opening scenes, is presumed dead and left behind on Mars by his fellow crew members due to a literal perfect storm of dire, deathly and doomed circumstances that prompt his crew’s needed quick liftoff from their current Mars exploration mission. Alas, Watney is not dead, he survives the storm, and he is left stranded on Mars. And it is up to him—and only him, as initially, his communication is cut off from Earth and his crew–to use all his scientific, academic, botanical, ingenuity-based, imaginative, intuitive, creative and intellectual training, education, knowledge and skills to survive until a possible rescue mission can save him–and to survive, period, with a limited supply of food, water, electricity, supplies and other life-sustaining equipment.
This challenge of survival staged amid scenes of the ultimate worst-case scenarios is always interesting, always fascinating, and always challenging, intriguing, suspenseful and gripping—no matter how many sci-fi, horror, war, zombie, post-apocalyptic, and even action films exist where we see the same scenario arise, over and over again. The idea of watching people who are literally alone battle creatively and smartly against mysterious, difficult, deathly circumstances always poses the same questions, but those basic questions are, again, always intriguing, interesting and entertaining: How will I survive? How will I fight the often-unpredictable, often-unknown circumstances of either an alien world, or a horribly, bizarrely-changed Earth world? How will I fight unknown alien, human, zombie, toxic creatures or other types of bizarro, psycho, scary organisms? What about the basics—food, water, shelter, clothes, warmth, medicine? Indeed, how will one survive alone in a harsh, cold, unforgiving world?
What would you do to survive in such circumstances?
Fortunately for Watney, the lead character in “The Martian”—and the actual martian referred to by the title, as there are no aliens in the film—he does have several missions’ worth of food, shelter, water, ships, and other supplies and equipment on Mars to work with. However, all of those supplies are limited—including the food, water and air in a previously-established Martian outpost. The supplies are not limitless, and Watney has little to work with to keep himself alive. Again, it is up to his various skills as an astronaut, scientist and botanist to figure out to keep himself alive as long as he can. The bulk of the film is simply, but also intricately, an always-fascinating exploration and journey of one’s man ingenuity, hard work, intellect and perseverance to simply work out a much-needed survival plan.
Damon, much like equally-talented fellow actors Bruce Dern in “Silent Running,” Charlton Heston in “The Omega Man,” Tom Hanks in “Cast Away” and “Apollo 13” and brilliant acting performances by Sandra Bullock and George Clooney in “Gravity,” uses his myriad talents as an actor to carry lengthy—but not too-lengthy–passages of the film by himself—and that’s not easy for even the most accomplished actor. To maintain an audience’s—and a film’s—interest by anchoring numerous scenes literally by yourself requires several depths of acting skills. And Damon pulls off all of them in “The Martian.” Like Dern, Heston and Hanks before him, Damon demonstrates equal parts happiness, sadness, disappointment, depression, desperateness, determination, delusion, fatigue, elation, reflection, revelation and resolution.
Damon’s performance—despite the presence of a varied, talented, supporting all-star cast—carries the film, from start to finish. He is to be praised for giving an outstanding, always-watchable and, as noted, understated and likeable performance, infused with needed humor and insight. It would be easy for some actors to rise to grandiose levels in some scenes of the “The Martian” or to play these scenes on a wider, broader, more emotional scale—and, considering the circumstances, that would have been acceptable—but Damon, buoyed by Scott’s optimistic direction and Drew Goddard’s equally-optimistic screenplay, plays things realistically, humanely and humbly, and that ends up elevating the film in an unexpected manner. While audiences would expect Watney to collapse, cry, whimper and appear to give up, that’s just isn’t part of this film, this story—or Watney’s character.
Watney demonstrates heroic, impressive—and, as noted, life-affirming–fortitude, resilience and determination to not let various setbacks well, set him back. He keeps trying, keeps forging forward, keeps on working and seeking and thinking to find another solution to whatever problems arise—and that is just incredibly rousing, upbeat, winning and inspiring. To sit and watch this man work out his problems, one after the other, alone, secluded, destitute, on a planet millions of miles from Earth and any other human, is just an incredible inspiration. Again, think of the same feelings that arose watching Dern’s, Hanks’ and Heston’s characters in the aforementioned similar films. That same feeling is present throughout “The Martian,” thanks to Damon, Scott and Goddard’s ever-faithful belief in optimism, dogged determination and, again, perseverance.
Scott directs this mostly-solitude-oriented case study of one man’s mission to survive on an epic scale, infusing Watney’s work with absolutely stunning Mars backdrops of breathtaking vistas, horizons, skies full of stars, foreboding and scary storms; bright reds and oranges and rusts and browns and ambers in a color scheme that always reminds the viewer that Watney is on a faraway, distant, alien world; and a swift, well-paced and well-timed cadence that never slows, never bores and never ceases to be gripping, surprising, mysterious and suspenseful. Scott also clearly directed Damon—and the entire cast—to portray real human beings, with attendant quirky characteristics, foibles and problems, but also to portray generally smart, intelligent, likeable and professional human beings. It’s so nice to see a cast of people portray characters who are actually highly intelligent, smart, studied, educated and professional. That’s not new with science-fiction or science-fact based films, of course, but it is a fresh change from so many films where there are so many unlikeable, moronic, horrible characters and characterizations. In “The Martian,” the characters are smart, and they use their smarts to not only save Watney, but eventually to save Watney’s crew in their ship.
Goddard adapted his positive, upbeat screenplay from Andy Weir’s hit book of the same name. Goddard also chose to portray most of the characters as smart, intellectual, educated and likeable people. But, for the sake of including conflict—any good story has to have some type of conflict, or the plot suffers, most of the time—Goddard did include a somewhat cliched, typical, stuffed-shirt politician-style NASA administrator character, Teddy Sanders, played courageously by Jeff Daniels. Daniels is given the film’s only really unlikeable character, and he does a good, thankless job of playing the smirky, politics-conscious, image-conscious, public relations-conscious Sanders. Sanders is, as Sean Bean’s NASA scientist and mission commander character Mitch Henderson calls him, a “coward,” and Daniels pulls off the portrayal of the unpopular, stuffy, hated, starchy, political officeholder.
Meanwhile, the rest of the cast is to be commended for portraying, as noted, a quirky, colorful and fun collection of intelligent, even intellectual, NASA scientists, physicists, engineers and astronauts. Leading this crew of obviously very-educated and studied academics is an energetic, fiery Chiwetel Ejiofor as Vincent Kapoor, the Mars mission’s main leader, supporter and backer back on Earth. It is Ejiofor, along with Henderson and the Watney’s outer space crew leader, who must fight on Earth and in space the political and scientific battles of survival for Watney and Watney’s crew out in space. Kapoor and Henderson repeatedly butt heads with Sanders, along with a staff of equally intelligent engineers and physicists—and each of these characters, much like Watney on Mars, must use their academic and scientific skills to also work out a plan to bring home Watney and his crew in their ship.
Despite the emphasis on science, “The Martian” is never boring, never slow and never uninteresting. That is a credit to Scott, Goddard’s screenplay, and the talents of the cast, which also includes Kate Mara, Donald Glover, Kristen Wiig, Jessica Chastain, Michael Pena, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie and Benjamin Wong. All of the cast members bring an enthusiastic, likeable energy to their portrayals. Rarely has a film showcased so many actors playing positive, likeable, smart people!!
Audiences do not have to know, understand or even believe the science that these actors’ characters throw around in frenzied, time-essential scenes amid computers, papers, laboratories, offices, control centers, equipment, machinery, chalkboards and equations. It’s not the actual understanding of the science—heck, it could be all made-up jibberish and phony words and completely idiotic mumbo-jumbo whatnots and gizmos and make-believe gadgetry—and some of it likely is—but, rather, what matters is the pure enjoyment, excitement and suspense of watching these intelligent professionals work together under incredibly stressful, dire, dangerous and clock-ticking-away circumstances to save their astronauts on Mars and in space. A good analogy would be the similarly optimistic, upbeat and human- and humane-oriented situations that the crew of the Enterprise seemed to work on and solve in the myriad “Star Trek” series episodes. The actual science, on one level, didn’t matter—of course, much of it was made-up nonsense—but what did matter is the basic fact that, time and again, these intelligent explorers and scientists worked together as a team for the greater good of everyone—not just their crew, but the universe’s crew, too. And no one can argue with those scenarios—either in regards to real life, science fiction, science fact, or a science-fiction film.
Supporting the gripping, suspenseful and positive direction, writing and acting is breathtaking cinematography by Dariusz Wolski; swift—but not too-swift–editing by Pietro Scalia; always-beautiful—whether it’s on Mars, in space or back on Earth—production design and art direction; and, naturally, dazzling, also-breathtaking, inventive and also-always-beautiful special effects, from myriad effects companies, including George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic. The effects ably present a mysterious, unpredictable Martian world that is at times beautiful, scary, frightening and foreboding; an outer space that is distant, empty, scary and also beautiful; and Earth sets that aptly portray believable scientific, academic and political settings. Kudos must go out to the literally hundreds and hundreds of special effects artists who worked on “The Martian.”
Scott, Goddard, the film’s producers, Weir, Damon and the cast all worked together in “The Martian” to present a basic overall theme, message—and lesson—of, essentially and basically: Do not give up, no matter what. Keep on trying, and keep on living, fighting and working, to live to fight another day. That message of determination, hard work, ingenuity, smarts, intelligence, science, research, academics and—once again—perseverance in the end provides “The Martian” with an overwhelming aura of optimism, positivity and hope.
And hope for the science of real-life space exploration, too. When a film called “The Martian” is released four days after an announcement from the real-life NASA that it appears that water is present on Mars, that shows the continual importance of science-fiction films as they relate to science-fact.
“Our quest on Mars has been to ‘follow the water,’ in our search for life in the universe, and now we have convincing science that validates what we’ve long suspected,” said John Grunsfeld, astronaut and associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, in NASA’s real-life announcement on Sept. 28. “This is a significant development, as it appears to confirm that water–albeit briny–is flowing today on the surface of Mars.”
Imagine what this discovery would mean for future real-life astronauts like Watney, who could very well find themselves possibly stranded on Mars, with only their skills and smarts to help them survive. This discovery could mean life or death for future Mars explorers.
“The Martian” celebrates life in the universe among humans, but, on an entirely different intellectual level, the film also celebrates the search for other life in the universe.
One can only imagine what film audiences one-hundred years in the future will think about “The Martian.” Who knows—maybe some of those filmgoers will be watching the film in a safe, secure—and water-filled–outpost on the surface of Mars.