“[T]his is a film destined to please a crowd”
Ridley Scott’s new film The Martian does not mess around with buildup or anything in the way of expository drama; it gets right to the point and recognizes why you came to see it. It opens with Ares III, NASA’s manned mission to Mars, experiencing a treacherous storm upon arriving on the red planet. Debris is flying and visibility is next to nothing, and before the astronauts (Jessica Chastain, Michael Peña, and Kate Mara) can take off, fellow astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is struck by a flying antenna and presumed killed. The group takes off with the notion that Watney is dead.
Following NASA head Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) making the announcement of Watney’s death, we see that Watney is indeed very much alive on Mars, albeit slightly handicapped after being impaled in the stomach by the antenna. Watney now has to essentially operate on a field of landmines whilst acting as a scientist MacGyver to try and sustain life on Mars, a place where presumably nothing grows and anything can go wrong at any time. In addition to monitoring water reclamation, oxygen, and atmospheric levels, he winds up growing an array of potatoes with the help of the feces of him and his crew and makes a small home for himself. It will over four years for another manned mission to rescue him, but NASA headquarters, comprised of Sanders and assistants like Vincent (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Annie (Kristen Wiig), is determined to bring him back home in a timely fashion.
Headquarters is also struggling with the idea of telling the surviving members of the Ares III mission that Watney is alive, which ignites a fiery ethical side to the film’s story. With that, The Martian is essentially a gigantic teamwork exercise where everyone feels human, which is a pleasant attribute for Scott, whose recent films have really lacked in the filmmaking craft and humanization elements. Scott’s visual effects and grandscale directing usually never fail, but when these become the focus and human characters and the little touches (the science, the cause-and-effect relationships, and the narrative interest) become secondary or gravely shortchanged, then there’s a real issue with his films on a macro level.
The Martian, even with its nearly two and a half hour runtime, remains consistently interesting because it’s a generally optimistic film, surprisingly enough. Watney is a wisecracker a lot of the time, even in the face of certain doom, and seeing NASA’s constant efforts to bring him home show a certain diligence on their behalf (though I take every Hollywood film based on true events with a grain of salt) works to make this film surprisingly hopeful. Then there’s the roundtable of rich performances here; aside from Damon, who does solid work being the only actor on-screen in his scenes for his sheer honesty mixed with vulnerability, Daniels and Ejiofor work off of each other incredibly well together here.
Consider the scene following Ares III’s escape from Mars during the storm, when Watney is still presumed dead; the two consult one another about what to do with Watney’s remains whilst subsequently trying to find a way to turn it into a more positive, caring PR display by sending another mission out to recover his corpse. This is a perfect scene in the way that it shows the way corporations and organizations balance humanity while considering their bottom-line, and who better to play figures in those pivotal positions of power than Daniels, who’s work on The Newsroom has gone on to be acclaimed, and Ejiofor, who, much like David Oyelowo, will likely win an Oscar in the next ten years.
Aside from a reliance on montages instead of actual exposition, The Martian‘s biggest problem as a film is the fact that we simply do not get enough time with Watney alone. The audience can never get a strong grasp on a relationship with this character simply because we’re never allotted enough one-on-one time without the intrusion of mission control. We needed more scenes with Watney ostensibly helpless, trying to farm, or simply trying to get by on what little he has to surround himself and the film doesn’t do that.
The Martian also makes fairly strong use of its 3D elements, using it as a tool of immersion rather than a gimmick that works to add a surcharge to already high movie ticket prices. Consider the storm scene, which completely floods the screen with indiscernible debris and disarray; the scene is only emphasized with the benefit of 3D and makes the experience that much more horrifying, being that, like the characters, we can barely see a thing.
Above all, this is a film destined to please a crowd; in addition, it also keeps its pathos down considerably, doesn’t do a whole lot of pandering to a crowd anxious to see action, and never loses sight of its deeply human and remarkable story. It also reaffirms the value of logical problem-solving in the face of a truly unexpected, and granted unprecedented, time of tumultuous uncertainty. It’s a low-key triumph made on a nine figure budget.