Movie Review: The Martian
By Ben Gruchow
October 5, 2015

All by myself... Don't wanna be all by myself anymore.

Ridley Scott’s The Martian is about as good a cinematic adaptation of Andy Weir’s The Martian as we could have gotten. It takes the equation of its source material, compressing and slightly re-shaping that material to fit into a movie that is smart without being more than moderately invigorating. It exhibits good work from the cast, great work from the effects crew and director of photography Dariusz Wolski, and mostly good work from screenwriter Drew Goddard.

Most of the film takes place on Mars, where botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is struck by an errant satellite antenna and left behind by his NASA teammates during an intense dust storm. He sets up shop in the abandoned station, named informally as the Hab, and from there the equation starts - how to keep himself alive until he can be rescued. It’s not a promising scenario, and much of the pleasure of Weir’s novel was following Watney in detail as he encountered and worked his way through one challenge and setback after another. Much has been made of the story’s scientific components, but I’d like to posit that this matters little to your enjoyment of The Martian unless you’re a stickler for factual accuracy in fiction to begin with. It’s an engaging piece of work regardless of accuracy, tense without sacrificing believability or humor.

The movie gets so much of this right. Especially in its first half, the different elements of the story hum along at a headlong pace that’s not too fast to understand what’s happening and why. The humor in the novel was punctuated and timed well enough so that an equivalent cinematic success more or less just required a straight transcription, but it was a pleasure to see it pulled off here anyway. Watney’s reasoning and methodology with each new challenge is given time to breathe. Mars looks about right - the location photography gives the film a matter-of-factness that’s realistic, even if we can’t really call it very pretty. And the effects and design are never less than convincing; the dust storm that sets the movie’s events in motion is surprisingly effective, and there’s good work done in visually instructing us on the habitat environment and the local geography of the planet.

The sequences on Earth, too, are appropriate; even once it’s discovered that Mark is alive, there are political and strategic risks to consider. What will the public think of a national organization that left one of its own behind on a planet to almost certain death? What would Congress think of that, when it comes time to appropriate funds to NASA? In a time where the prospect of allocating and increasing funding for government agencies that function more or less as intended is certain to encounter debate and postulating from at least one side of the legislative branch, the earthbound characters in The Martian are canny enough to approach the situation and the prospect of rescue from a PR standpoint as intensively as they do from a scientific one.

Kristen Wiig shines here as a public-relations specialist; the actress has a gift for letting a joke come to her and landing it with just the right inflection and timing, and she uses it well with the screentime she has. Meanwhile, we catch up with the crew of the Hermes, which has left Mark behind on Mars to their grief and distress; a conversation by text between Watney and a teammate after the news is broken provides just the right mix of camaraderie and regret.

The Martian must eventually switch gears into the part of its story that deals with a rescue attempt, and this it does satisfactorily. We hit all of the necessary beats, at any rate. Here, though, the seams start to show. Having spent a good amount of time establishing early circumstance with Mark on Mars, the movie must now follow three separate storylines as they careen toward resolution, and it’s really no wonder that each story gets the job done without being fleshed out or nuanced in the same way that the earlier passages did. One gets the sense that Goddard and Scott realized by a certain point that they’d provided all of the character grace notes they reasonably could within a 140-minute runtime, and that a version of The Martian that maintained the book’s attention to detail all the way through would end up running longer than would really be possible for there to be momentum and a cinematically-agreeable structure.

The tone, too, also makes a transition that’s less than what the material deserves: as the clock winds down to the final stages of a bizarre and harrowing rescue expedition, the movie becomes (slightly) more serious, more anxious, more profound. It states these things at different points, authoritatively - but it does not fully earn them, or navigate between the shifts in tone, in the way that the craftiest storytelling does. We have spent so much time with Mark on the surface of Mars, and grown so accustomed to that particular portrayal, that the injection of earnest drama and a more objective and conventional form of risk and stakes isn’t entirely welcome.

The last act of The Martian could have used more sequences like one between Chiwetel Ejiofor’s NASA scientist Kapoor and MacKenzie Floyd’s technician Mindy Park, where they try to guess as to the tone of an exclamatory communication from Watley on Mars. Sequences like this are just as adept at building connective tissue and sinew between the broad character attributes as the sequences from earlier in the film; there are necessarily less of them, but I found myself wondering what a version of The Martian that kept us with Mark on Mars more often, and had the Hermes and Earth drama communicated through electronic communication (which is how he sees it, after all), would have looked like. We would have been deprived of some estimable acting talent, but we would have gotten more of what makes the film work the most, and possibly a more impactful journey by the end.

Still, what we do get is noteworthy and well-made, and it contains a terrific performance by Damon as Mark Watney. The entire edifice falls apart if we don’t have this central figure to latch onto, and Damon makes us believe in the character throughout each new development. We can understand his actions, his reactions both humorous (one such instance, after Kapoor advises him to watch his language due to the public-facing nature of the NASA transcriptions, is one of the movie’s best moments) and dramatic. Watney’s actions toward the end of the film, augmented by makeup and computer effects, carry real weight and catharsis.

Where most big-budget studio films are content to rehash the same adversarial conflicts, hit the same tiring character notes, and bad guys are there because otherwise there wouldn’t be a story worth telling, here is a film that is - like 2013’s Gravity or 1995’s Apollo 13 - secure in being entirely about people working together and with determination to solve a difficult problem on a seemingly-impossible canvas, and succeeds because of that confidence. The Martian is not as good as either of those examples, but it’s a worthy telling of a good story, and that’s not faint praise.