** (2 stars)
d – Ridley Scott
w – Drew Goddard (Based on the Book by Andy Weir)
ph – Dariusz Wolski
pd – Arthur Max
m – Harry Gregson-Williams
ed – Pietro Scalia
cos – Janty Yates
p – Mark Huffam, Simon Kinberg, Michael Schaefer, Ridley Scott, Aditya Sood
Cast: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kate Mara, Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Peña, Aksel Hennie, Sebastian Stan, Kristen Wiig, Sean Bean, Donald Glover
A little over halfway through The Martian, we witness a discussion being had by 5 members of the crew of Hermes, a spacecraft that was sent to Mars for NASA’s Ares III manned-mission, led by Commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain). The discussion concerns whether they are willing to defy orders placed by NASA and breach security in order to save the life of a friend. The discussion is one of rational and systematic thought, deliberated by experienced astronauts (Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, Michael Pena, Aksel Hennie) who know what they are talking about. It is shot and cut in a way that emphasizes its judiciousness, as well as its philosophical subtext, for the question is ultimately not whether one saves the life of a friend, but whether one, under any circumstance, must save the life of another human.
The Martian is Ridley Scott’s 23rd film and it shows him at his most analytical. Based on the book by Andy Weir, and adapted by Drew Goddard, The Martian is not a first-person account of abandonment and survival, but a sprawling canvas of science, numbers and philosophy depicting both the circumstances and consequences of trying to bring someone from one planet to another. It presents its story in a hyperlink manner, connecting various threads and characters as it unfolds. It is altogether syrupy and implausible yet wondrous, objective and somewhat comforting.
The film opens with no nonsense. During their mission, the Ares III crew is hit by an intense storm in which Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is hit by debris and presumed dead. After the crew escape, Watney regains consciousness and uses his knowledge as a botanist to produce food within the artificial habitat used by the mission, antedating that he will need to subsist for at least three years before the next manned mission arrives. He explains this through a series of video logs.
Meanwhile in Houston, Vincent Kapoor, the Director of Mars Missions (Chiwetel Ejiofor) discovers that Watney has survived and along with the Head of NASA Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels), the Flight Director of Ares Mitch Henderson (Sean Bean) and all of NASA’s top men and women endeavor to bring him back, an enterprise that does indeed take years. A breakthrough occurs when young astrodynamicist Rich Purnell (Donald Glover) proposes extending Ares III’s mission and for them to go back to Mars to collect Watney.
The Martian has no villain. In fact, it has no negativity whatsoever. It is unabashed in its willingness to instill a sense of perseverance in its audience. One of the film’s implausibilities is that no one ever brings up the point of how many billions of dollars would most likely be required if something like this ever happened, even though the film gives us a Public Relations Director (Kristen Wiig). I guess money is no longer a problem in today’s world.
Also, despite the charisma of Mr Damon, the Watney character never blossomed to more than a mere device for me. Mr Goddard, who previously co-wrote and directed The Cabin in the Woods (2012), makes him a jokester, which – with the film clocking in at 141 minutes – becomes hard to bear.
Mr Scott and Mr Goddard end the film with a speech about problem solving, implying life is a series of problems that, if solved little by little, taking it one step at a time, existence will not seem like such a scary beast. The more jaded among us will find this simplistic, but its that simplicity that makes The Martian so refreshing, compared to, say, the bombast of last year’s Interstellar. Mr Scott presents everything systematically and efficiently (something he’s had trouble with in the past).
The Martian doesn’t break any new ground but what it’s about comes through acutely, with its cast and director working uniformly with the same intention. The final note I will give you, dear readers, is to avoid, at all costs, watching the film in 3D which, at least in The Martian’s case, is a needless expense.