Movie Review: The Martian

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When an astronaut is accidentally left behind on Mars during a mission, NASA struggles with what to do to ‘bring him home’ alive.

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Ridley Scott, 2015

The crew of the Ares III mission to Mars decide to abandon the mission early when an unexpectedly powerful storm hits their camp. On the way to their ship, botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) gets hit by a piece of the ship and vanishes from view. Captain Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) makes the decision to leave, presuming that Watney is dead. Of course, if he was dead, there would be no movie. Left alone and wounded on a hostile planet, Watney goes about the day to day business of trying to survive (in his words, he’s going to “science the shit out of it”). Meanwhile, after NASA director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) announces to the world that Watney died, engineers make the inconvenient discovery that he’s not as dead as they thought. Chief engineer Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and his team work on how they’re going to a) keep Watney alive, b) get him back to his more hospitable home planet, and c) tell the crew what happened.

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God on high, hear my prayer…

The Martian is a really good movie. If all movie-making was done with this level of care, it would make going to the cinema a treat every time. Taking its cue from its lead character, the film balances heavy subject matter with humour and a light touch. Mark Watney is a gift of a character; he’s likeable, charming and funny, his confidence pulled back from the edge of arrogance with a well-timed moment of vulnerability or humour. There’s a careful balancing act between Watney’s story on Mars and the efforts on Earth to get him back; neither is allowed to go on so long that it becomes boring. The disco soundtrack and Henry Gregson-Williams score maintain the film’s light touch – there’s not a vwoom sound to be heard here, much to the film’s credit. The cinematography is stunning, the Martian vistas gorgeous even as they dwarf Watney’s lonely figure. Though the film has a two-hour run time, it never feels long; it’s both fun and emotionally engaging, allowing the audience the room to ponder bigger questions without sacrificing entertainment. There’s a decent number of filmmakers that could learn something from Ridley Scott’s approach here (including Scott himself, sometimes. Prometheus, anyone?).

The cast is uniformly terrific, too. Matt Damon has rarely been in better form than he is as Watney; he’s eminently personable, which is good, because we spend a lot of time with him. The rest of the Ares crew is played by terrific actors who give even the less developed characters their own personality. Jessica Chastain and Michael Peña acquit themselves the best, Chastain getting the dramatic heavy lifting while Peña gets to be the comic relief again. I couldn’t help wondering what a film with Michael Peña in the Watney role would look like – he’s a terrific, engaging actor, and I’d like to get to see him play a non-sidekick role one day. Donald Glover almost steals the show in a small role as a ditzy genius astronomer. It’s nice to see a fairly realistic scifi that’s so optimistic and science-positive. The film is a really solid piece of filmmaking. Really, its only flaw is that it doesn’t stay with you. It’s a great movie while you watch it, but none of it really sticks; perhaps it’s the lack of surprises, or its very simple, straightforward narrative. Still, you could do an awful lot worse for a night at the movies.

The Martian on IMDb

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