Movie Review: The Martian
By Matthew Huntley
October 13, 2015
Ridley Scott’s The Martian is a very science-heavy film, although not in the same way Scott’s Alien and Prometheus were science heavy. Those were more “science fiction-y,” if you know what I mean, whereas The Martian has a contemporary, real-life, human science applied to its story, the kind that feels possible, and I’ve no doubt several consultants lent their expertise to Drew Goddard’s screenplay (and the overall production). These same consultants may even be the ones who advised Andy Weir on his original novel.
As impressive and detailed as the technical aspects are, however, their actual accuracy isn’t as important to us as the degree to which the story convinces us they’re accurate. In fact, accuracy plays even less of a role if there are no worthy characters to get behind.
Remarkably, the film manages to come across as both precise and, amidst all its scientific language and events, center around complex, three-dimensional people - people we genuinely care about and to whom we eventually offer our hope, thoughts and prayers. Given the rather straightforward and traditional plot, this doesn’t seem like it’d be all that hard, but because so few movies these days compel us to actually stand up, cheer and cry at the end, we realize achieving such an effect is probably not so easy after all.
What the characters speak about in The Martian and the tasks they perform are literally rocket science, and as such, a lot of it flies over our heads, but that doesn’t make the movie any less stimulating. Why? Because the characters make it clear exactly what has to be done. And even though the central conflict may be as basic as it gets - it really just boils down to a fundamental story of survival - it still envelops us and brings us together. By the end, we feel like we’ve learned and endured as much as the characters, and the empathy the film generates is what makes it special and effective.
The plot: sometime in the near future, a manned mission to Mars, “Ares III,” must suddenly abort its mission and return home because of an accelerated storm on the Red Planet. During the crew’s emergency evacuation, astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is struck by flying debris, ends up lost and is presumed dead. His captain, Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain), reluctantly orders her team to take off without confirming officially. Meanwhile, back on Earth, NASA director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) subsequently holds a press conference announcing Watney’s unfortunate accident and death. Sanders, along with NASA’s head of media relations Annie Montrose (Kristen Wiig), begins the PR engine to save face while mission director Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) wants to quickly move forward with another expedition, salvaging the equipment from “Ares III” as soon as possible. In short, nobody wants to waste time harping on Watney’s demise.
But one of the recurring themes throughout The Martian, and indeed what helps make it more unique, is that nothing is ever as simple as it seems and there are always more problems to solve. This includes the fact that Watney, in fact, survived his accident, which complicates not only his life, but also the lives of the NASA officials and the remaining “Ares III” crewmembers. Why? Because now everyone involved will be forced to make some really hard decisions that will either ensure Watney’s continued survival or lead to his actual death. It sounds strange to write, but had Watney died, it would have made things so much easier.
When Watney regains consciousness, he makes his way back to the HAB, cleans and repairs his wound (which is just one of several scenes that exhibits the film’s incredible patience and attention to detail), and assesses his situation out loud. He begins a video log (which is a clever way for him to keep whoever finds it and the audience up to speed on his actions), describing what he’ll have to do in order to last the four years until “Ares IV” arrives.
This includes, among many other things, making water; growing his own food; staying warm; conserving fuel for his land rover; and traveling the 2,000 miles to the “Ares IV” landing site. Even though everything Watney has to do seems possible, none of it seems simple, but he has made a vow to himself, “I’m not going to die here…Mars will come to fear my botany powers.” Eventually, he re-establishes contact with NASA and suddenly his dilemma is no longer his own. All the executives, scientists, engineers and other astronauts must pull together to try and rescue him.
Goddard’s screenplay relentlessly introduces one hurdle after another as each of the characters struggles with their decisions, be they survival, technical, moral, ethical or business. The fact that the movie allots them time to actually weigh their options not only makes it credible, but also keeps us on our toes as we also think about the pros and cons. Goddard doesn’t write the characters as archetypes, either, with one being the standard “villain,” or another being the “nerd,” etc. Each behaves as people in this conundrum probably really would, and because we can believe and identify with them on such a raw human level, the movie grows more meaningful and complicated as it goes along. It doesn’t settle for easy resolutions just to accelerate the narrative, and even though the overall conclusion remains fairly obvious, it eventually erupts in a burst of well-earned emotion.
The Martian may officially be categorized as “science fiction,” but it’s more of a drama with scientific (and not necessarily “science fiction”) elements. It’s a bold, intelligent and superbly acted film as well as a stunning technical achievement, which is no surprise given that Ridley Scott is in the director’s chair. It takes us on a long, exhausting ride, to be sure, but in this case, that’s a good thing.