Before The Martian even premiered, people started in with the comparisons to Saving Private Ryan. The comparison makes perfect sense; both films have groups of people undertake a long, harrowing effort to rescue an imperiled Matt Damon. But the two films have something more important in common… they’re both really good. The Martian has most of Saving Private Ryan’s strengths: a stellar cast, a soaring soundtrack, unforgettable imagery, emotional honesty, and an entirely believable tale of survival.
In The Martian, NASA astronaut/botanist/chemist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) works with an expeditionary crew on Mars. An accident during a storm leads his crewmates to believe—incorrectly—that he has died. The crew (Jessica Chastain, Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie) all like and greatly respect Watney, so they take his supposed death very hard, each blaming themselves. Watney finds himself alone, literally the only man on Mars, and he has to use his extremely limited resources to survive on a decidedly hostile planet. Eventually, he regains the ability to communicate with NASA, gaining help from NASA comrades Mitch Henderson (Sean Bean), Bruce Ng (Benedict Wong), Mindy Park (Mackenzie Davis) and Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor). Their boss, NASA head Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) finds himself saddled with the many moral and ethical dilemmas that come with Watney remaining alive and getting off of Mars, most of which put Sanders into conflict with everyone else. Rich Purnell (Donald Glover), a NASA astronomer, eventually has an idea that could bring Watney and the crew home together, but it puts Sanders in a difficult spot.
Matt Damon makes The Martian. Damon takes on an incredible workload as an outer space Robinson Crusoe, and he nails it. The film displays his incredible range, from loneliness to despair to Scott’s perfectly paced comic relief moments. If you told me to expect a hard sci-fi story about a botanist stranded on Mars, I’d probably fall asleep somewhere between “hard” and “botanist.” But Damon brings his character’s encyclopedic knowledge and will to survive right to the level at which the viewer can follow the events and his emotions. His intense acting turns The Martian into the ultimate man vs. nature story.
The rest of the cast feels insignificant next to Damon’s gargantuan contribution, but they hold their own as well. Chastain and Daniels both do a wonderful job portraying the weight of responsibility. Ejiofor (who has usually proven the best part of his films all the way back to Dirty Pretty Things) and Bean (who miraculously doesn’t die in this one) both excel as NASA employees whose remonstrance stems from their sincere conceptions of right and wrong. Glover gets too little screen-time to fully bring his character out of the likable-but-callow-nerd cliché, but he does his best anyway. Peña, Mara, Stan, and Hennie convincingly portray the remorse that anyone would feel leaving a respected friend and colleague behind.
Bizarrely, The Martian feels like one of those “based on a true story” films where the writers show great reluctance to show any of the characters in a negative light. I frequently had to remind myself that the film’s events didn’t really happen. The only real antagonistic human presence in the film comes from Jeff Daniels, and we get a sense that his difficult decisions come from his own responsibility to balance pragmatism, practicality, and his subordinates’ morality.
None of the characters change in any meaningful, permanent ways. I know that sounds weird to say about a film where a man survives for over a year on Mars using nothing but his science knowledge and resourcefulness, but it also feels weird watching it. Mark Watney doesn’t go from arrogant to humble, from slovenly to tidy, from Democrat to Republican. He starts the film as a man of great ingenuity and resourcefulness and ends the same. His intelligence and determination make the film enjoyable, and Damon certainly brings the human element, but the film never gives us any moments that definitively say, “This experience made Mark Watney a better person in X, Y, and Z ways.” Without that, the film almost feels like a feature-length dramatization from America’s Most Wanted or Rescue 911.
Ridley Scott builds the film’s palette around the played-out orange-teal dichotomy, which comes off as an odd choice for such an experienced, trendsetting director. The film generally makes Mars scenes orange (which, I admit, one would expect) and the Earth scenes teal. The use of this fad doesn’t jive with the Ridley Scott we know, who has built a career out of making his own fads. But fortunately, the film still has Scott’s other strengths: the use of set design and body language to add to characterization, the perfectly smooth editing, the subtle tributes to his own influences. (In particular, Hennie reenacts a subtle but really cool nod to 2001.)
In a way, The Martian feels like a revival of hard sci-fi. It would fit right in with Stanislav Lem’s Pirx the Pilot stories. The themes of exploration and survival amidst a ticking clock and a hostile environment evoke sci-fi films in the years leading up to the moon landing, such as Destination Moon, Ikarie XB-1, and Mechte Navstrechu (the beautiful but forgotten Russian film that got mangled into Queen of Blood). But unlike these films, Scott knows better than to make the mistake of ever using spectacle as an excuse to slack on emotionality. The Martian keeps you feeling Watney’s journey every step of the way—every staple holding together his abdomen, the full process of turning human feces into fertilizer, the maelstrom of emotions when he finds new ways to defy death—and even if he doesn’t change much from the experience, you will.Liked This? Share It!