The stress, the urgency, the ingenuity, the sense of wonder. Ridley Scott’s The Martian masters them all. While most space movies rely on sensationalized drama and special effects, this one is different. Don’t get me wrong, the special effects are stunning and the drama is engaging, but neither rules. The scientists are real, NASA seems simultaneously human and political, and the zany solutions and discussions at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) all read as if from the history books of space programs. The Martian is a very human story that is surprisingly feasible and realistic, leaving you mesmerized while watching and for a good while after.
Growing up in Ithaca, New York I attended lectures and demos at Cornell University, hearing firsthand from the scientists behind the Mars Rover designs and Mission Control. Admittedly, I am a bit obsessed with these missions as well as the original Apollo missions. Yet, the movie strikes the perfect balance of keeping the excitement level high while offering enough detail for those less obsessed with the red planet.
The overarching storyline of The Martian, although predictable, has enough convolutions to keep any viewer engaged. Scott opens the film by presenting everyday life on Mars for the six astronauts of the ARES 3 mission. Everything seems routine until a giant dust storm erupts, forcing the crew to abandon Mars. But en route to the launcher, astronaut and botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is impaled by an antenna and blown off into the storm. The remaining crew, presuming Watney dead, abandon him on the cold surface of Mars. Of course Watney is not dead. He is alone on Mars with only minimal supplies and no way to contact Mission Control. When a young engineer at NASA discovers he is alive, efforts to bring him home begin and the usual MacGyvering ensues. You might say The Martian is essentially Apollo 13 set on Mars, but this would miss everything else the movie has to offer.
Matt Damon’s performance is captivating throughout. His emotions ring true throughout the film, celebrating each small success and maintaining a good sense of humor. The moments of loss, helplessness, and despair are also quite genuine, providing us with a very real sense of what it might feel like to be the only person on a planet. Ridley Scott has once again directed a visually superb film. The cinematography is fantastic, effectively alternating between close-ups of Damon that personalize him and wide shots that put him in perspective on the immense Martian landscape. The special effects catch your eye with their awe inspiring splendor. The sounds of the film carefully envelope you for the duration: the score isn’t overly dramatic, there are appropriate moments of silence, and the sound effects are believable.
This film offers a surprisingly strong female cast and women characters who possess sharp intellects and gritty determination. The women take an active role in attempting to bring Watney home, rather than serving merely as attractive accessories. It is the young female engineer Mindy Park (Mackenzie Davis) who discovers the still alive Watney, and without the strong leadership of Commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) the outcome may have been very different. It is heartening to see talented actresses playing such effective roles in a genre that has not always been kind to women.
In spite of its predictable story, The Martian is by far my favorite movie this year. There is a reason why it is still playing in theaters. Visually stunning and narratively engaging, Scott’s attention to detail allows this movie to rise above the normal disaster drama or sci-fi flick. The Martian creates a believable near future and fully immerses us within this world, avoiding the usual pitfalls of “the will to survive against all odds” story. Is this movie sensationalist? Without a doubt. But by embracing the scenario fully it is able to move beyond the drama into a realistic depiction of a possible future.
Grade: A- There is a reason this movie is still in theater long after it was first released. Go now, it is a must-see on the big screen.
Rating: PG-13. If you are a kid under 13, please don’t ask your parent for guidance in the theater.
The Martian, 20th Century Fox Runtime: 142 minutes