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