THE MARTIAN is magnificent. There’s my big, bold statement breaking the page, line one. It is in the class of rare films where everything works perfectly, and works perfectly together. It’s the ‘together’ part that often inexplicably fails, leaving us scratching our head and wondering why a movie made by so-and-so starring what’s-his-name based on that killer novel, could, well, suck. If I knew the magic recipe, the alchemical quality that renders the mix smart, gripping and memorable I’d be a billionaire. But no one really knows, and that’s why even directors like Ridley Scott, when matched with good screenwriters and terrific actors make appallingly bad films (try not to remember THE COUNSELOR). Thankfully he has redeemed himself for the ages with THE MARTIAN.
THE MARTIAN, at it’s core, is a film about ingenuity, drive, fortitude and choices. I’m a sucker for the stories about deeply ethical quandaries, where both choices hold risk and exact a price. Honestly much of life is about choosing the least bad option and hoping for the best. On a philosophical level that sums up THE MARTIAN. Mistakenly left for dead on Mars by his other 5 crew members, astronaut Mark Watney wakes up alone, on the red planet’s surface 128 million miles from home and with no way to launch or rendezvous with his shipmates, who think he’s dead anyway. Watney is played by Matt Damon who, let’s be honest here, we see a whole lot of. Damon is a gifted actor. In fact, I often underestimate him and my expectations prior THE MARTIAN were no exception to my bad habit. Damon is appealing without being handsome. He is funny but not comedic, passionate without being manic, and he has the ability to morph and be fully authentic in a wide range of roles without loosing his innately irresistible and endearing “Matt Damon-ness.” That is why he is perfect as Watney.
In our world at present, we can be alone all day, or for months even, and be connected. We can talk, project our ideas, voice and likeness in real time, anywhere we choose. It’s sort of an alone lite. On Mars, Watney has no way to communicate with anyone, anywhere. It is that total lack of connection (aside of course from fact that the guy is alone on flipping Mars) which makes his predicament paralytically terrifying from the first minutes of the film. The weight of hopelessness is hard to bear, and the experience thoroughly claustrophobic in every way. Watney’s ‘can-do’ attitude is, at times, hard to believe but then again, his will to live is strong and his denial fierce. Fortunately he has both in spades. He also knows how to grow potatoes which a lack of, as we all know, almost wiped the entire nation of Ireland off the globe. If you can grow potatoes…you’re golden. Watney is also smart. Much smarter than basically anyone I know and that helps a lot when you’re alone on Mars.
In all seriousness, because of the singular energy of Damon, and the exquisite editing of the film, his time on Mars never loses the audience for a nano-second. We are with him, even if we fail to understand anything he’s doing. The film unfolds in beautiful parallel lines between what is happening on Mars and what is happening on Earth with NASA’s the heated discussions and valiant attempts to find a way to save Watney. The timing and pace of the film is flawless. The lighting and camera shots in much of the film are vaguely reminiscent of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY and Scott, more than any other director I know, can use light as a design tool; beyond just creating a mood, Scott has mastered a unique gift to actually sculpt and shape a scene, a face, a moment in time, with light. It is his signature modern chiaroscuro. Combined with the magnificent skill of cinematographer Dariusz Wolski (whom I just wrote about in my review of THE WALK) it is remarkably effective in creating, literally, another world for THE MARTIAN.
The film’s supporting cast is notable in its diversity of age, gender and race. It looks like the real world and that is incredibly satisfying. Jeff Daniels as the had of NASA gives his character more heart and soul than we would initially suspect. Chiwetel Ejiofor is compelling – as he often is – and Kristen Wiig holds her own as NASA’s chief of PR. Sean Bean is always a welcome sight and pay close attention for a wickedly fabulous inside joke centering on his character. Watney’s remaining crew members on the ARES mission of Jessica Chastain, Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan and Aksel Hennie are wholly believable and well cast. Donald Glover (no relation to Danny Glover) is worth noting as a young genius at JPL (the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena CA) as is the chief brain at JPL played by Benedict Wong. THE MARTIAN works on so many levels – on all levels really – that regardless of your interest in space, or the exciting nature of the story itself, it is unquestionably worth seeing, and it very well may cure you of your dream of space travel…(5 / 5)
Director: Ridley Scott
Cast: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kristen Wigg, Kate Mara, Michael Pena, Sean Bean
Running time: 141 minutes
THE MARTIAN Movie Review