8 out of 10
The Martian Cast:
Matt Damon as Mark Watney
Directed by Ridley Scott
After the Ares 3 mission on Mars is aborted, botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) gets stranded without his crew, who think he’s dead. Back on Earth, the director of NASA, Ted Sanders (Jeff Daniels), and the others involved in the mission also think Watney is gone until they see signs on a satellite pic that he might still be alive. Using his science knowledge, Watney has figured out a way to survive longer than the 30 days allotted, knowing that it may take four years for another mission to Mars that might find him, if he can last that long.
Like a few other movies at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, the timing for The Martian, the latest film from master filmmaker Ridley Scott, may not be working in its favor, since coming after Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity and Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar is just going to make comparisons inevitable. Like last year’s Gone Girl, I chose not to read Andy Weir’s bestseller before seeing the movie, which may have helped me appreciate the lengths to which screenwriter Drew Goddard, Scott and his entire cast and crew have gone to make an incredibly accessible and commercial film about space travel.
Much of that is largely due to Damon and how he instills Watney with a sense of humor, even though things could certainly get grim when he first learns that he was left behind on Mars by his crew during an emergency mission abort. After the opening sequence that shows the storm hitting the Mars base and the crew, led by Jessica Chastain’s Commander Lewis, taking off from the surface, we spend the next 20 minutes or so watching Marc trying to figure out what he can do. Because Damon recently played a stranded astronaut in Interstellar, it’s a little worrisome that The Martian may feel redundant to what we’ve seen before, even going as far back as Don Cheadle’s character in Brian De Palma’s Mission to Mars.
It doesn’t take long before it switches focus to Earth, where we get to see how they’re reacting to Watney’s “death.” After a while, it becomes far more balanced in terms of how much time it spends on each planet, and we eventually get back to Watney’s fellow crew members, months into their long trip back to Earth on the Hermes, when they’re informed that Watney is still alive, although sending them back would put them all at risk of not getting home.
It takes almost an hour before it feels as if there are any real stakes because Watney seems to always have a solution to everything, making his circumstances seem far more effortless than they should. At least once those stakes are raised, things do get more interesting although never to the point where you doubt that Watney will somehow survive. But Goddard’s screenplay finds a way of keeping every moment entertaining due to the humor that keeps things from getting too dark and grim.
As much as this is a showcase for Matt Damon and his knack for keeping audiences rapt to the screen by his on-screen charm and charisma, the rest of the cast keep the viewer captivated even when Damon isn’t on screen, with Jessica Chastain, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Jeff Daniels being particular standouts. Other characters, particularly the Hermes crew and even Donald Glover as a computer expert, seem like characters that could earily have been played by anyone.
At times, the situations feel ridiculous only because it’s so hard to believe anyone could survive as long as Watney does, let alone what’s involved with the insane rescue attempt. You do end up buying it because the science seems so sound and well researched, who are we to question its veracity? It does stretch on for a bit and there’s a certain point where the scientific techno-babble gets to be too much to follow, but once that’s overcome, the film’s last act is filled with as much real tension as a historical piece like Apollo 13 despite being entirely a work of fiction.
(One quick addition that I watched The Martian in 3D in the exact same theater that I saw Gravity two years earlier and the 3D was almost non-existent and added very little to the experience.)
The Bottom Line:
Ridley Scott’s return to space may defy credibility at times, but it’s a joyous and triumphant tribute to science and the space program that’s consistently entertaining, which should allow it to be a substantial crowdpleaser.