The Martian is the space age’s Robinson Crusoe, and I am only going with that description because calling this film a combo between two particular Tom Hanks films has been done quite enough times. Directed by Ridley Scott and based on a brilliant novel by Andy Weir, it translates all the humour, excitement, and meticulous scientific accuracy of the novel while adding its own touch of good acting, good music, and superb visual effects. It’s also nice to see that a certain science fiction icon finally got his mojo back.
I want to say I enjoyed the book, which I most surely did, though I must also confess that I didn’t finish it. Why? Well, because I listened to it on Audible and I happen to own a singularly shitty phone so every app I own got destroyed and now I can’t log back in. Just more proof that non-electronic books will always be superior.
Matt Damon, doing his best performance in ages, plays Mark Watney, an astronaut who dies in an accident during a manned mission to Mars – labeled “Ares III” – causing his crew to leave the planet without him in a rush. The only problem is of course that Watney isn’t actually dead, and is now stranded all alone on the red rock with limited supplies and limited possibilities of coming in contact with Earth and NASA, who won’t be able to come rescue him for a certain amount of years anyhow. As Watney states in one of his video logs, his only hope is to “science the shit out of this”. He promptly gets to work and manages to achieve the most damning things, such as creating a garden inside the artificial habitat, with the help of his botanist skills plus some of the Ares crew’s old excrement, and locating the defunct Pathfinder probe from the 90’s to regain his contact with NASA.
The news that astronaut Mark Watney isn’t actually dead takes both the world and his old crew, still on their way home, by storm. Thus we see the people at NASA try their best to orchestrate an elaborate rescue mission within the limited time Watney has, all whilst things continue to go wrong for Watney on Mars and the Ares III crew start making plans of their own to help their old comrade.
There are a lot of characters to keep track off here, but all of them are memorable and well-performed so it shouldn’t be difficult in the slightest. Jessica Chastain plays Melissa Lewis, the commander of the Ares III crew who has an intense love for 70’s music, and additional crew members are played by Kate Mara, Michael Peña, Sebastian Stan, and Aksel Hennie. Back on Earth, there’s Jeff Daniels as NASA director Teddy Sanders, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Sean Bean as two mission directors, Benedict Wong as JLP director Bruce Ng, Mackenzie Davis as a young satellite planner who’s first to discover that there’s someone left on Mars, Donald “Gambino” Glover as an astrodynamicist who serves as a quirky comic relief of sorts, and Kristen Wiig as a NASA spokesperson.
Here’s something that fascinated me: before I saw this film, I spotted a major spoiler on Twitter written by Neil DeGrasse Tyson, in which he stated that this is one of the only sci-fi thrillers he can think of where nobody dies (yes, including Sean Bean). And the thing is, with such a heavy spoiler in mind, I was really astounded by how suspenseful The Martian managed to be in spite of me knowing that no one was going to bite the dust. The stakes and emotions were all still there and I felt for the people involved. Whenever the ground control guys at NASA started cheering over something finally going right, you felt like cheering with them. Any filmmaker who can accomplish such an effect, particularly without mandatorily killing off a bunch of characters one-by-one just to emulate a “threat”, deserves all sorts of praise and Mr. Scott has indeed made himself worthy!
Now don’t get me wrong, I like stories where the threats feel real thanks to the writer/director establishing early on that anyone can die, especially if it’s characters we care about as opposed to ones that are only there to be axed off (it is, for instance, why something like Game of Thrones is so much more intense to watch than, say, a slasher movie) but I still admire how Ridley Scott managed to evoke that same intensity with the use of music, special effects and performances as opposed to a death toll.
This is exemplified as early on as in the first scene of the film, where the Ares mission goes south and Lewis and her crew are forced to leave Watney behind on Mars. The audience, of course, knows that he’s still alive, but the characters do not, and you can actually feel their pain and sorrow as they glance over Watney’s empty chair while their shuttle ascends from Mars’ surface. I knew from that scene alone that this was going to be an exceptionally well-made and exciting movie, high body count or not.
It’s one of the main reasons The Hobbit movies failed so miserably. Even though we as an audience know which characters will survive to be in the original trilogy, Peter Jackson still could have used realistic character interactions, convincing effects, and genuine emotions to make the characters’ peril feel authentic despite all that and make it an exhilarating adventure all the same. Instead he made a movie where Orlando Bloom jumped like Mario on CGI rocks while all the death scenes predictably went to a bunch of dwarfs no one cared about – who only stopped being indestructible when Jackson decided that characters had to be arbitrarily killed off, by the way. He also gave us Ryan Gage in drag so thanks again, Tolkien fandom.
And speaking of book-to-film adaptations that have exactly no idea how to use a lengthy runtime, something that really impressed me with The Martian was how well-utilized that 2.5 hour runtime was. Usually with adaptations that go out of their way to be faithful to the book, one might feel as if the film is trying to cram in too much of what happens in the book, resulting in the finished film feeling far too long. The Martian clocks in at nearly three hours, and not once does it feel like there’s too much happening or that the movie is too long – if anything, The Martian is such an eventful and smart book that the film instead feels too short, leaving out many a great scene from the source material. They left out much of the swearing too but I imagine they wanted to be PG-13 friendly. Sigh.
I do nevertheless regard this film as Ridley Scott’s real return to sci-fi greatness (the less we say about Prometheus, the better). With absolutely smashing performances, lovable characters with legitimately love-fueled interactions, a great sense of humour and drama alike, a knack for scientific accuracy and impressive details, beautiful music, first-rate visual effects (our planetary neighbor never looked so good), and genuine suspense throughout, both in the high-energy action scenes as well as moments like Watney trying to fix a crack on his space helmet with a relatably stubborn roll of duct tape, there is just enough done right in this movie that I shall award it a 5/5. Watch it extremely soon if you haven’t yet.