THE MARTIAN, this week’s release, is directed by Ridley Scott, who has had a less than stellar recent cinematic record, and stars Matt Damon, who, conversely seems to be in every great movie being released. Will THE MARTIAN make science sexy again, and bring Ridley Scott success again?
THE MARTIAN is the ultimate story of shipwreck. Threatened by a sudden and very dangerous storm, the crew of a Mars mission starts packing up to head for safety when debris causes astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) to shoot out into the planet’s inhospitable landscape. He’s presumed dead and left behind. Alone on Mars, Watney has to figure out how to survive long enough to be discovered and rescued. His most precious commodities are hope and optimism, with inventiveness and problem-solving close behind.
This film is filled with action and suspense, as they race to save Watney before he starves or dies in the million ways one could when trapped on a lonely planet light-years away. It’s also very funny, with Damon’s self-effacing realist of a character joking to himself to stay positive as he attempts to survive.
What makes THE MARTIAN so exciting is the way it allows scientific reasoning to be so thrilling and suspenseful. For once, math, physics, and even botany usurp the spotlight over the ubiquitous explosions, car crashes, and superhero muscle-flexing to which film audiences have become accustomed. Make no mistake, director Scott and his able cast and crew keep interest high. This is particularly impressive given a large part of the film features Damon alone, talking to himself, reworking problems that continue to plague him and threaten to kill him off before his rescue. The actor has found in Watney a perfect role, inspiring in his determination as he just finds a way, or rather hundreds of ways, to stay not only alive but hopeful.
On a more health-conscious note, it was heartening to see the weight loss so integral to the character’s experience was not expected of Damon by Scott. Requiring that kind of extreme and dangerous physical change is too much to ask. Notice the shots of Watney’s emaciated body didn’t include the his face. Damon himself reported it was Ridley Scott’s decision, a choice which deserves to add a bit of respect for the director, who sometimes speaks before thinking.
The co-stars, from the crew that feel they’ve abandoned one of their own, to those back on Earth trying to get the astronauts back safely, are all not only believable, but Scott finds ways to connect us to a wide range of characters without spending much time on them. Jessica Chastain as the ship commander Lewis, and Michael Pena as astronaut Martinez, are stand-outs, as are Chiwetel Ejiofor and Jeff Daniels as NASA scientists and officials.
The fashion of practical effects and real sets being a la mode continues. In THE MARTIAN, much of the film uses real environments and physical effects, as exampled by the Mars storm, where Scott had powerful fans blowing sand and debris at the intrepid actors, who struggled to breathe. They all said they bonded over shooting challenging scenes such as this one together, since they were able to communicate with each other via headsets inside their suits, but could hear little else! No doubt this aided in creating the feel of genuine cameraderie between the members of the astronaut crew.
Though comparisons to the movie CASTAWAY are inevitable, the powerful message of self reliance in THE MARTIAN comes at the perfect time, and will resonate with those struggling in their own lives. It may be Sci-fi fiction offered up by the privileged Hollywood elite, but the question it suggests to its audience comes from a genuine place: “if a man trapped on Mars doesn’t give up, why should I?”
The Martian is that rare film that both thrills and inspires, so much so that i’m sure it will be seen repeatedly at the theater and at home for years to come. Congratulations, Ridley, with The Martian, you’ve rescued yourself from a Mars-like barren box office wasteland.