The Martian (2015) / Sci Fi-Adventure

MPAA Rated: PG-13 for some strong language, injury images, and brief nudity
Running Time: 141 min.

Cast: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jeff Daniels, Sean Bean, Benedict Wong, Michael Peña, Kristen Wiig, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie, Mackenzie Davis, Donald Glover
Director: Ridley Scott
Screenplay: Drew Goddard (based on the book by Andy Weir)

Review published October 3 , 2015

A NASA mission finds a group of scientists and astronauts on the surface of Mars collecting info and samples of the native soil.  Their mission ends prematurely when a major dust storm flings rocks and other debris around, causing the crew to head toward their spacecraft to leave the area, leaving behind a fallen team member, Mark Watney (Damon, The Monuments Men), who has been presumed to have died during the storm.  Only Watney doesn't die, though he is quite injured, but manages to make it back to the Mars station for a bit of healing and contemplation on the fact that he is now stranded with no means of communication, and likely to die when one of his many precious resources (food, water, air) runs out.  About four years out from the next expected mission to Mars, Watney decides he's going to use his training in botany and engineering to try to not only figure out a way to extend his chances of survival as long as he can, but he's also going to have to find a way to let those on Earth know he's still alive on the hopes they'll come back before it's too late for him.

The Martian is based, relatively faithfully, on a 2011 novel by software programmer Andy Weir, originally published in serial form on his website online before going into eBook form on Kindle, then finally selling the book rights to a publishing company for its eventual release in book form.  The versatile Ridley Scott (Exodus: Gods and Kings, The Counselor), who took over the reins when screenwriter Drew Goddard (World War Z, The Cabin in the Woods) dropped out due to scheduling conflicts, returns to the genre that he seems to have done some of his best work, science fiction, and has delivered a thoughtful and entertaining take on the Weir work that allows us to understand exactly what's going on in the story without a good deal of the overhead of the novel, which goes through the scientific aspect of Watney's process on how to save himself, sometimes in painstaking detail.  Despite the dire circumstances of Watney's plight, as well as the seriousness of NASA missions and the PR debacles they can sometimes provide when missions go awry, Scott keeps the tone of the book, adapted by Drew Stoddard, as surprisingly light and sarcastic in its humor throughout, which is often used by Watney as a defense mechanism in order to keep the overwhelming direness of the situation from getting him down.  

On that front, Watney could have easily been portrayed as growing increasingly lonely, morose and cynical about his situation, but, refreshingly, he comes across as resourceful and generally optimistic that solutions to every problem should be explored with vigor until you absolutely run out of solutions.  We get insights into his thought process from a video diary he is keeping, detailing to an unknown audience that may potentially find it after he might be long gone, that he is indeed still alive and well, and all of the things he has tried to do in order to stay alive just long enough for someone to come back and rescue him.

It's also as good looking a film as you'd expect, and quite adeptly presented from a technical level. Some may be reminded of Gravity in its setup , if we were also shown how it affected the people in mission control in Houston at NASA who are trying to come up with solutions on how to get their stranded astronauts home.  It will also remind some of Cast Away in the way it actually plays out, if we followed someone who always kept his cool, never succumbing to anguish or despair, if mixed with another Tom Hanks vehicle, Apollo 13.  Though Scott is an auteur of renown, and generally stamps most films with some strain of his own style, you'd never know it from the way The Martian plays out.  It's a film that is obviously made by someone proficient with their craft and competent at delivering action sequences, but it is a movie that is definitely made for wide release audiences and not for the art-house cinemas.  It's intelligent without being esoteric, and sticks very closely to the plot and spirit of the Andy Weir novel, sans a lot of the step-by-step technical explanations.

The solid and charismatic Matt Damon is excellent as the intelligent, resourceful everyman Watney, doing a 180-degree turn from another more recent interplanetary castaway he portrayed in Interstellar (which also featured Jessica Chastain).  Though there are moments of heartfelt feeling from time to time, the film is not as emotionally stirring as you'd expect, into really going for tearjerker moments so much as to command your attention, and occasionally make you chuckle from the choice bits of comic relief sprinkled throughout, much of it at the expense of the 1970s disco collection, left behind by the commander of the original crew, that provides the only music he has to listen to while he works to keep himself alive.  The supporting cast is impressive, and full of solid actors all around, but none of the roles other than Damon's is explored fully to make as lasting an impression.

While not particularly weighty or extensively psychological, there is an underlying message of hope in the film that seems to be a theme to the audience that, no matter what, we should invest in science as the key to get us out of our current situation in which we ourselves are growing increasingly susceptible to our own distinction if the planet continues its current trend toward climate change, depleted resource's, and shortages in food, water, or clean, breathable air.  Perhaps its a bit Pollyanna to draw too strong a link between a man finding a way to survive on a planet without basic human necessities and our own plight on Earth, but it's definitely something one can't help but ponder, as we see some of the world's greatest minds rolling up their sleeves and coming up with solutions -- some successful, others disastrous -- regardless of the political considerations that often get in the way of genuine progress. That it does so relying on a global effort to pool resources to come up with solutions is the real distinguishing factor for the piece, which suggests that if humanity is going to find a way to get out of our predicament of potential extinction, we're going to have to do it together, all for one and one for all.

Though largely a science-based story, The Martian is designed with an eye toward entertaining general audiences of every variety, even those not predisposed to enjoying sci-fi flicks. Humor, special effects, attractive (and talented) actors, and good action sequences bolster the story above the rudimentary rescue mission situations, but it also manages to stay smart even when situations are intentionally stripped of scientific jargon the book contained that might lose many traditional multiplex viewers.  It's like the thinking person's popcorn movie, and that's as rare to find in Hollywood as there is life sustaining elements on Mars, but just as essential.

Qwipster's rating:

©2015 Vince Leo