Like the astronaut the film is named for, The Martian is very focused and practical. It doesn’t match the ambition or spectacle of Gravity or Interstellar, but The Martian is a no-nonsense science fiction film that knows exactly what it needs to do. Director Ridley Scott and screenwriter Drew Goddard adapt Andy Weir’s fantastic book with the same grit and humor of the writing style and keep it close to earth, resulting in a satisfying film full of awe.
Survival stories are one in a million, yet what makes The Martian different is that Mark Watney is literally thousands of miles away on Mars. There’s little human drama, not many tears, despite the fact that this situation is life or death and couldn’t get much more dire. Matt Damon brings Watney to life with the same sarcastic wit of Guardians of the Galaxy’s Starlord but with the practicality of Macgyver. He’s a brilliant protagonist, never wasting any time as he awaits rescue on the red planet.
While reading “The Martian,” I was surprised to see that Mark wasn’t the only main character. The trailers gave that away, but the supporting characters in The Martian are doing just as much heavy lifting as Mark. It’s an ensemble piece with a stellar cast despite being about one man. The way everyone unites around bringing Mark home gives the film a sense of community. We have three main camps: Mark on Mars, the Hermes crew in space, and the NASA crew on earth. These three different perspectives make the film never feel repetitive, as I couldn’t imagine being stuck with Mark for 150 minutes.
The Martian is a love letter to space exploration, and it shows. The film is an impressive craft, with strict attention to detail and scientific accuracy. Every character gets to shine, whether its the devoted Hermes Commander Lewis (Jessica Chastain, always magnetic), to the behind the scenes work of satellite specialist Mindy Park (Mackenzie Davis). Apart from a miscast Donald Glover as the eccentric Rich Purnell, the supporting cast is terrific, especially Chastain and Chiwetel Ejiofor. I also wanted to especially give a shoutout to the score from veteran Harry Gregson-Williams, which creates tension yet keeps the pace steady the entire way through; add The Martian to the list of sci-fi films with impressive scores.
Still what I love about The Martian is its ability to balance all of these elements without feeling overlong. It’s a long film, to be sure, but I never grew tired of any individual element. Sure, the script could use a few less sci-fi cliches – I can’t stand when a character says “in English, please” to any technological talk – but The Martian wisely avoids the pitfalls of other survival stories. I recently saw the film Everest, another survival film of a different nature, and it was a mess of a film. What sets these two films apart is that I actually cared for Mark Watney. He made the best of a bad situation, and its his engineering and botany skills but also his attitude that got him back home in one piece. The Martian is a smart film made for smart moviegoers with an impressive cast and awe-inspiring 3D moments, overflowing with character.