Nutshell: Out of this world. Grade: A
“It’s been seven days since I ran out of ketchup.”
Botanist Mark Watney is on a mission to Mars. In fact, he’s on Mars, with a whole team of researchers an all-around smart people. Cool, right? But when a massive dust storm sends debris flying, sending him far away from the rest of his crew, they assume he’s died in the storm and head back to their ship. Meanwhile, back on Mars…
The Martian‘s “all alone on a distant planet” story feels like a mix of Gravity and Cast Away, but it manages to stand on its own. The mix of humor, horror, success and fear is skillfully handled by director Ridley Scott, and a cast that balances the gravity of the situation (badum-ching) with a gallows humor and whip-smart attitude that makes the premise believable.
Part of that successful balancing act can be laid at the feet of the cast, who give it their all. But a big part is thanks to Drew Goddard and Andy Weir’s screenplay (based on Weir’s equally excellent novel, btw.) Then there’s the production design and cinematography, which makes the sound stages used look like a real-live distant planet. (In addition, Wadi Rum, Jordan, was used as a “practical backdrop” for the film.) Pitch black dust storms with “dust” the size of hail, potato plants, a huge NASA command center; they all feel real. And I loved the astronaut helmet POV shot at the start of the film. It not only made me feel like I was a part of the crew, it hooked me into the story immediately. While Interstellar nailed the aspects of space and its exploration, The Martian, with its real-world feel, made it easy to think this kind of space exploration was a very real possibility.
Damon is exceptional as Watley, and I wouldn’t be surprised if his name comes up over and over again come awards season. There’s a human touch here, with Watley running the gamut of emotions, rather than the mid-20th-century Stoic Hero trope. His ease at carrying off scenes where he’s the only one on set had me harkening back to Tom Hanks and his excellent work on Cast Away. Damon has that same level of dedication to the character and his surroundings in The Martian.
Meanwhile in Houston — and on board the Ares 3 — an ensemble cast manages to excel without stepping all over each other. Nice trick, considering the caliber of talent here; smaller roles could have been dulled by the star power of folks like Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels, Sean “Yes I’m Still Hot” Bean, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan and Chiwetel Ejiofor. But each character matters, and is given a chance to shine when they need to. It’s also great to see talented comedians Kristen Wiig and Donald Glover “go serious” and do a good job of it. For Wiig, with her work on this film and Diary of a Teenage Girl, she’s really kicking ass on the whole dramatic actor thing this year.
Okay, a bit of a spoiler, but I can’t help myself; The Martian could also be called One Man’s Journey To Embrace Disco. Yep, there’s tons of retro music goodness here. “Waterloo”, “Starman”, “Don’t Leave Me This Way”, “Hot Stuff” and more…yes, you can definitely sense a tongue-in-cheek theme here, and it’s groovy, baby. This music mix serves two purposes; the songs remind Watley of his friends and his home, and their feel-good familiarity helps balance the film when those darker scenes hit. At the end, The Martian is a first-rate mix of happiness, tension, joy and suspense, and at almost two and a half hours the time flies by. Grab your IMAX glasses (yes, definitely, definitely spring for them with this film) and enjoy.
Psst: look out for a LoTR reference in the film when Bean is on screen. Hiccup and you’ll miss it, but it’s good for a giggle.