Take the best parts of “Gravity’s” solo space mission, “Apollo 13’s” spectacle, “Cast Away’s” marooned one-man-show–and the innovative and improvised science of “Breaking Bad,” have them make a baby, and you essentially have “The Martian.” Based on the novel by Andy Weir, the film follows astronaut Mark Watney; a man stranded on Mars and forced to use his wits to survive after a catastrophic storm makes his crew return to their ship. Not only is “The Martian” one of the best sci-fi films of the year—a title that needs to be saved until we have seen “Star Wars VII”—but it is also the most impressive film Ridley Scott has directed in a decade. It stands firm as a testament to the power of movies, thanks in large part to its star Matt Damon, a stellar supporting cast and a first-rate pace that has the audience on the edge of its seat for the majority of the film. In short, “The Martian” is remarkable in every sense of the word.
The film does what its source material did exceedingly well but takes it to a more realized and visual realm.
The novel reads like a movie script; it has extensive details pertaining to just about everything there is. It also provides witty, sassy and hilarious narration—delivered flawlessly by Damon in the film—that allows insight into the mind of Watney. The nitty-gritty details are something the film cuts due to time constraints; however, the lack of them does not negatively affect the film. In many ways, the two mediums complement each other; the novel details the characters, places and moments in great clarity, while the movie meticulously brings to life the dusty, barren, wastelands of Mars and the incredible spaceship Hermes, with astounding faithfulness to the book. The first rate casting of the movie further allows the novel the come to life on screen.
Even with a cast as enormous as the one the movie features, it never feels overwhelming or claustrophobic. The cast is introduced in a timely manner so the audience does not have to get to know all of the characters at once. Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kate Mara, Jessica Chastain, Michael Peña, Mackenzie Davis, Donald Glover, Kristen Wiig and Sean Bean all deliver stellar performances, though you can argue that some are underutilized. This may be true until it becomes clear that the movie is more of a one-man-show than it tries to be.
There is no denying that Matt Damon delivers a brilliant performance. His hilarious charm exudes off screen and permeates the film, making the audience feel every disaster as if it were actually happening and applaud every triumph, no matter how small. “The Martian” is a clear candidate for one of Damon’s best performances as he fires every one-liner the book has to offer with splendid accuracy. The one problem with Damon’s portrayal of Watney is more of a problem with the character himself. That is, he is just not a deeply written character. Sure, he is wickedly funny and intelligent, but aside from his charm, the audience does not actually know him. There are a few hints to his past and family, but it’s not even clear what led him to NASA in the first place. Luckily, this has little impact on the film. However, it does leave one wanting a little more information on the main protagonist.
The other minor issue I have with both the novel and the film—and I may be turning this review into a character study rather than a review of a survival story—is that we don’t actually get an idea of the immense psychological trauma the film’s events would have on someone in Watney’s position. Watney is stranded for months with only textual communication. He has himself, his plants and “Happy Days” episodes left by his crewmate. The novel does not delve into the character’s psyche entirely—though there are some hints—but nothing serious or significant ever has an apparent effect on Watney’s mental well being.
“The Martian” is the type of movie you must see on the big screen. It is crowd-pleasing, funny and exhilarating. With Matt Damon’s spectacular performance, a terrific supporting cast, impeccable pacing and the “deserted island in space” feel “The Martian” is the kind of sci-fi that is both believable and possible if we put our minds together, fund space programs and teach kids to love science. “The Martian” is a triumph, pure and simple.
Scott may be reached at [email protected]