The Martian (2015)

The Martian movie review
Photo Credit: The Martian / 20th Century Fox
When I saw The Martian's trailer I was reminded of how wildly popular Andrew Weir's book was. Its cover of an astronaut whirling in red smog was ingrained in my mind because it consistently popped up on GoodReads account. The other thought I had was if I would be able to sit through 2 hours of Matt Damon. He's not a particularly unlikable celeb for me, but my family can't stand his movies or off-screen personality. Their intense dread made me apprehensive and question if I should gamble on seeing it. Despite my ideas about what the movie would be like, I still took a chance.

With The Martian, director Ridley Scott did what he failed to do with his most recent film Prometheus to deliver an engaging, entertaining story. A NASA crew are forced to evacuate their mission on Mars even after one of their own is presumed dead. Having instead survived and waking up to a barren hostile planet, their fellow man Mark Watney must forge ahead with knowledge, optimism, and limited supplies to send a signal to Earth. The story splits between Watney and his numerous attempts to make potatoes out of manure among other things, and NASA sending aid to rescue him.

Watney is one of those roles that could've been severely miscast. He's thoroughly sarcastic which makes his survival humorous despite how grave his situation seems. If the script had called for more of his wit, it could have made him annoyingly arrogant and removed our sense to rooting. This was the kind of thing I worried about: would Damon be self-indulgent with the comedy? Those worries were quickly squashed as his humor is generous without being excessive; it keeps Watney grounded from becoming a too-larger-than-life personality. He's trying to make the best of what he has, but his best weapon is optimism and hope. Watney is intelligent, hardworking, and determined; he needed to be likable too. And, Damon pulls off a good-natured performance.

"I don't want to come off as arrogant here, but I'm the greatest botanist on this planet."
My only qualm with the other half of the story is a slight one. On the one hand, Watney is doing everything he can to persevere. On the other, it takes more screentime than what feels necessary to establish how much NASA wants to ensure his rescue. Right after Watney is declared dead, the NASA Director (Jeff Daniels) and Mars Mission Director (Chiwetel Ejiofor) immediately focus on operating their new mission while making themselves look politically correct. His apparent death is a tragedy, but frankly, nothing NASA hasn't handled before and nothing NASA needed right now after dealing with government and public scrutiny. At first, a lot of NASA's efforts are based on politics, maneuvering what they can feed the press, and so on. Story-wise, it's refreshing and realistic.

However, the downside of this realism is the contrast between Watney's every effort to stay alive versus NASA's employees coming across as unsympathetic. NASA is a business and program just like any other, but I felt that the lack of personal attachment towards Watney didn't sit right. Since we don't get a look at Watney's personal life, how his family is dealing with his apparent death and then resurrection, his only contact is this program and the powers-that-be. Eventually, NASA launches into full swing and works tirelessly in maneuvering every plan for Watney's recovery. But for me, it just takes a little too long, and it made me question whether or not they were genuinely invested in his well-being.

It's interesting how Scott and his production team took what we know or assume of Mars' surface, and gave the film the visual vitality. Watney travels outside of his bright white dome into a sandy blanket of reds and oranges. When he's finally able to make contact with Earth and NASA's control room, a lot of the tones for Earth are stark blues and whites; it feels colder and more distraught than Mars, which comes across as warmer, even hot. Watney is making a home-away-from-home. He's able to explore and admire the landscape with his rover just because he can; he grows crops on a planet that doesn't grow food out of his own ingenuity; there is nobody to answer to or take commands from, which gives him a lot of freedom. But there is still that desperation to get to EarthThe way the film is framed casts focus on a singular entity across a vast, empty horizon, similar to the book cover. It's layered with peace and solitude but also pictures how high the stakes are. He has to make it here, even if it's temporary.

What really makes The Martian work is knowing its limitations. In the wake of trending space movies, it doesn't try to stuff our faces with one man's exploration of time, space, and love through the universes via heavy symbolism and 'science'. I still appreciate you Interstellar. Nor, does it throw us to the brink of space vying for one person's nearly impossible survival. I absolutely love you Gravity. Scott's film stands by itself by bringing back a quality to cinema that I think has been missing for a while - nothing, not even space is going to stop humanity from uniting together for a cause, from supporting and rescuing one of our own. Sometimes in a sea of space movies where people are thrown to the unpredictability and hostility of a frontier we love to dangerously explore, it's just nice to see no one got left behind.

Rating: ★★★
Have you seen The Martian? What are your thoughts?

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