The 400-Word Review: The Martian

By Sean Collier

October 6, 2015

Alone again, naturally.

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Whenever a realistic, space-focused work of science fiction premieres, a wave of fact-checking articles follows. Astronomers, astrophysicists and anyone else who knows what a quark is are grilled by members of the entertainment media: How accurate was it? Could it happen? What do you mean there are no explosions in space?

No one has ever demonstrated a convincing reason why such questions should matter in a work of fiction, but whatever.

In any case: The Martian seems to be the movie for those who love scrutinizing the science. In this story of survival and tenacity, the problems are technical, not human; more than anything else, Ridley Scott’s beautifully-made film is 141 minutes of problem solving.

Based on the book by Andy Weir, The Martian opens with astronaut Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) leading a crew on an exploratory stroll around Mars. There’s bad news, however: A storm is rolling in, and it’s severe enough that the crew has to get off of the planet in a hurry. The ensuing chaos separates Mark Watney (Matt Damon) from the group; assuming he’s dead and needing to launch to save the rest of the crew, Lewis makes the torturous decision to leave him behind.


Back at Houston, NASA brass — Jeff Daniels, Sean Bean and Chiwetel Ejiofor have key roles — notice that someone is definitely still alive on Mars. As Watney works on finding ways to survive (which initially involve growing crops and harvesting water, no easy tasks on an arid planet), the Earthlings work on ways to bring him back.

Much of the film is propped up by screenwriter Drew Goddard’s efforts to make Watney funny and amiable. Damon, in turn, finds ways to make an incredible amount of scientific monologuing captivating and varied. This is not Cast Away, however; this is a story of ingenuity and plain old engineering, not Watney’s emotional journey. Even on the ship, the drama comes not from expected threads — Lewis’ guilt at abandoning Watney is present, but not overplayed — but from tough decisions about risky rescue plans.

Make no mistake, then: The Martian is a bit dry. I can think of no film that spends more time on the intricacies of potato farming and jet propulsion. Bolstered by gripping direction and beautiful photography by Dariusz Wolski, however, it’s always compelling and sometimes thrilling. And, in a noteworthy divergence, decidedly intellectual for a big-budget production.

My Rating: 8/10

Sean Collier is the Associate Editor of Pittsburgh Magazine and a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. Read more from Sean at



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