The Martian is a gritty, and often amusing, survivalist tale that follows astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) after he is stranded on Mars when his crew is forced to leave without him.
Based on the best-selling book by Andy Weir, The Martian is one of Ridley Scott’s best films in nearly 15 years, and riffs off the best parts of Apollo 13, Cast Away, The Truman Show, and Robinson Crusoe, all the while reminding us how good the seminal sci-fi director can be with the right script and the right story.
It’s a $100+ million dollar film where Matt Damon gets to say that the only way that he’ll be able to avoid dying alone on Mars is to “science the shit out of this”. My kind of sci-fi. Here are four reasons why this film is a must-see:
1. Sci-fact over fiction
Author Andy Weir is a self-described “lifetime space nerd”, and that becomes obvious just a few pages into The Martian. Thankfully Ridley Scott’s film adaptation doesn’t shy away from the science either. According to Scott the challenge for him as a filmmaker was that sci-fi is mostly fantasy, “what was really attractive about this was the total reality of the situation.”
It was this ruthless pursuit of reality that actually led Scott to contact NASA early in production, and it paid off in spades. This film revels in the practical details of inter-planetary travel. As with Interstellar or Gravity, the film is set in the future, but one that is still recognisable — an age when a healthy dose of sarcasm and of botany is a more potent tool for survival than lasers or teleportation.
At its most basic, The Martian serves as a sort of epic homage to the nerd — a deferential celebration of human intelligence in a genre that so often hinges on speed, brawn or sheer midi-chlorian levels (taking notes George Lucas?).
Going with science-fact over fiction was an inspired move and has the effect of grounding the film and making it more accessible. The realism resonates. We’re pulled into the intimate loneliness of Watney’s habitat, we’re burdened by the weight of his ever-insurmountable odds, NASA’s ticking-clock-like scramble to save him has an even greater sense of urgency. The effect? A truly absorbing sci-fi film.
2. Drew Goddard’s deftly handled screenplay
As mentioned above, Andy Weir’s was an exercise in authenticity, and long stretches were spent discussing the calculations Watney would use to figure out how to make water, or map out how long it will take to trek across the Martian surface. While this sort of tedium almost never works in film, Drew Goddard’s punchy screenplay cloaks the technical beats in absorbing character moments, using them to highlight Watney’s sarcastic sense of humour and resilience. This helps to emotionalise the science while the NASA storyline provides a more traditional framing for the film.
While many films (especially sci-fi ones) tease out the destructive effect that isolation can have on a person, The Martian thankfully bypasses this trope by capturing Watney’s days through video logs (done through a myriad of GoPro cameras in the station). However, they’re hardly a framing device and audiences shouldn’t expect Damon to go full ‘Wilson’ with the cameras. Instead Goddard’s screenplay stays close to Watney as he attempts to “science-the-shit” out of Mars in order to survive.
This lends itself to a sharper character study; for instance, a harrowing moment in a Rover following an accident bottles up more emotion than any of the hundreds if logs from Weir’s book. In the scene we witness Watney’s dread, we see his disappointment, and we feel his frustration.
That said, the video logs are a useful addition as it brings a lot of much-needed levity to the material and allows Damon to showcase his character’s amusing observations and snarkiness.
3. Matt Damon: “Mars will come to fear my biology powers”
And while we’re on the topic of Matt Damon, he seems to be having more fun that anyone else on screen – and his entertaining one-man show is as admirable for its laughs as it is for its physicality or emotion. Damon will undoubtedly take the lion’s share of the praise for this film, and it’s well deserved. His A-list charisma and boyish charm elevates the source material and is the jet fuel which propels the whole film forward.
Stranded, injured, and utterly alone, Mark Watney immediately joins a short list of classic on-screen heroes pulled from numerous genres (think John McClane in space) who refuse to lose, and seem to grow larger (physically and emotionally) when they are faced with insurmountable odds. This is a man who manages to make crop farming fun, solar panel management thrilling and the recycling of human waste genuinely interesting. While Andy Weir deserves a lot of the credit for this, Damon is able to sell the science like no-one else could – his uncanny sense of humour earning laughs from the direst of topics.
His kinetic energy also rubs off on the film’s powerhouse cast (Jessica Chastain, Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, Jeff Daniels, Kristen Wiig, and Chiwetel Ejiofor) who all take their respective characters and ricochet across the scenes with snappy dialogue and feisty quirks.
4. Lush cinematography
We have come to expect gorgeous cinematography from Ridley Scott, and The Martian does not disappoint. From the opening sand-storm, to the sprawling deserts of Mars, down to the not-too-distant NASA headquarters, Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski is able to make each scene shine. He’s the perfect match for Scott’s aesthetic and scope, and seamlessly eases audiences between the intimate loneliness of Watney’s station and the wide expanses – both space and land – beyond. This comes as little surprise though as this film marks the fourth straight collaboration between Scott and Wolski (starting with 2012’s Prometheus).
The Martian benefited from restraint, which is not to say that the film isn’t meticulous or beautiful (it is), but rather than Ridley and Co. are dialed back after the undoubted excesses of Prometheus and Exodus. It’s actually quite wonderful to see the filmmaker largely get out of the way of the story all the while showing off some different, muted colours.
The Martian hits a powerful sweet spot: blending beautiful cinematography, captivating science, and tense action into an emotional character study. Everyone involved, both in front of and behind the camera, are at the top of their respective games, and the resulting film is one of the best of the year and Ridley Scott’s best in over a decade. A must watch.
Image source: 20th Century Fox.