Review Date: 10/13/2015
Rating: 4/5 Peanuts.
In a Nutshell:
An all-star cast, an overwhelmingly hopeful story and a collection of absolutely breathtaking visuals help elevate The Martian from merely ok to a solidly good flick, though it still falls short of truly reaching the stars. (Sorry, that's my only space-pun).
In the interest of full disclosure I’ll tell you now that I read the book The Martian this summer, and yes, the book is better. There’s something about the overwhelmingly positive and resolute tenacity of Mark Watney that is conveyed in the book that just doesn’t quite translate onto film, even with Matt Damon turning the charm up to 11. But I promise you I won’t let that color my review of Ridley Scott’s excellent adaptation overly much. Probably.
The book’s opening line is “I’m fucked. That’s my considered opinion.” And though the film does an excellent job of hiding the foul language that adds a level of honesty to the book, Watney’s predicament is still fully conveyed to the audience. You’ve probably all seen the trailers by now – astronaut Mark Watney is stranded on Mars when a freak storm causes his crewmembers to scrub the mission and leave him for dead. Now, stuck in a habitat meant to last 31 days and with a food supply that will last a little longer than 1 year, Watney must somehow find a way to survive the 4 years it will take for a rescue manned mission to reach him. Fucked indeed.
So in this thoroughly sci-fi twist on what is essentially Cast Away in space, we get to see Mark Watney “science this shit” out of his situation, essentially becoming space McGuyver in an unending quest to survive long enough to find a way home. And I have to say, if we the audience have to be stranded on Mars with only one actor, there are few better than the endearingly all-American Matt Damon. Through a combination of video log entries, talking to himself as he “works the problem” and just generally being a charming presence on screen, what could have been a bitterly dull series of alone on Mars sequences were actually a joy to watch. Indeed, it is Watney’s unending optimism, even in the face of utter catastrophe time after time, that is the theme of the film. This isn’t a riff on director Ridley Scott’s most famous sci-fi epic Alien where “in space, no one can hear you scream” but rather a celebration of the resiliency of the human spirit. Watney’s quips such as “eat your heart out Neil Armstrong” or “I am the greatest botanist on this planet” or “I am a space pirate” demonstrate his unending optimism and ability to soldier on in circumstances which would probably have me curled up in a ball in the corner somewhere waiting for the air to go bad.
Much like the book (sorry) the film breaks up the monotony of Watney growing potatoes and fixing NASA mechanical doohickies by showing us the struggles of NASA’s ground crew to “bring back our boy”. Here too the overwhelming sense of optimism is on full display even just from the idea that the NASA of ~2035 is a well-funded agency that actually does stuff in space. But it is the Earthbound part of the story that really elevates the film from ok to good. Not only is the cast amazing (more on that in a minute) but it really hammers home the message of hope and optimism, from sparing no expense to bring Watney home to the idea of the rival Chinese space agency sacrificing their only serviceable rocket to aid in the rescue effort - eschewing politics and their government’s potential scorn all in the interest of keeping it “an agreement among scientists”.
As I mentioned before, the film benefits from an absolutely amazing ensemble cast. Jeff Daniels does an excellent job channeling his Will McAvoy into Teddy Sanders, the head of NASA, spouting quips with every other breath. Against this dry humor is the decidedly outspoken and energetic performance of Kristin Wiig who plays NASA’s press liaison and the earnestly hopeful performance by Chiwetel Ejiofor who heads up NASA’s Mars program. And I would be remiss not to mention solid performances by Sean Bean (who surprisingly didn’t die in this outing), Donald Glover (perhaps borrowing from Community co-star Danny Pudi’s Abed), Benedict Wong and Mackenzie Davis. Closing the emotional loop of the film, and adding several more great actors to an already incredible cast, are the other crewmembers of the Ares III mission to Mars, who include Jessica Chastain, Michael Peña, Kate Mara and Sebastian Stan.
So if everything up until this point has been overwhelmingly positive, why did I give the film 4 and not 5 stars? No, it’s not because the book was better – though that’s still true! The main issue with The Martian is one that I don’t think the structure of the film would actually allow it to overcome, and yet one that still keeps it from reaching true greatness. Ultimately, The Martian suffers from being a bit too long. Though it doesn’t feel longer than its 2 hour and 22 minute runtime, it certainly doesn’t feel any shorter either, and I suspect subsequent viewings may truly drag. The problem is that the film really needs that runtime in order to pack in all the essential plot points and character development. Any less time and the resolution of the film would feel unearned, and yet I also couldn’t help but feel like the film should have even been a little longer of all things in order to truly hammer home just how long Watney spent on Mars. In a film which spans literally years of isolation, as an audience member it sure felt like Watney didn’t spend too insufferably long on that rock either.
In conclusion, you should absolutely see The Martian. It’s the kind of film that is so rare these days: a big budget, all-star film with obvious talent present in every part of the production that also manages to entertain in a big way rather than skew too artsy and inaccessible. I, for one, am a thoroughly satisfied moviegoer.