Movie Review – The Martian
Matt Damon (The Bourne Identity and Good Will Hunting) stars as Mark Watney, a botanist who is part of a six-man mission called Ares III, which is exploring and studying the planet. He’s lost in a sand storm and is presumed lifeless. The other five astronauts have to evacuate and begin their long journey back to Earth, a journey that takes months.
Once Mark realizes this, and with the communication tower destroyed in the storm, his only option is to try to survive for as long as as he can. He knows that the next mission, Ares IV, will arrive in four years, so he has to figure out a way to stay alive for four years on a planet that cannot support human life. It’s just about him trying to make food and water in the ultimate of deserts.
There’s also a scene of him trying to maintain his shelter and heat, as well as dealing with the loneliness and the isolation. As such, other critics have compared this to two of Tom Hanks’ films, and it’s almost as if Apollo 13 and Cast Away came together and had a baby. Looking back over 30 years, however, this film could be a mashup of several titles. The contrasts as well as the similarities to numerous projects are pretty sizable, from Brian De Palma’s Mission to Mars (2000) to Duncan Jones’ Moon (2009).
Because all those contrasts and similarities are fairly present in my brain, the stuff on Mars became rather boring to me. From an educational standpoint, it’s nice to see Mark teach us about botany, the fundamentals or even origins of rocket science and even maritime law, as Mark spends a lot of time talking to himself or to the video cameras, narrating a log or electronic journal. It’s nice, but it goes on for too long in this movie without much drama.
There’s not much drama in that there is not much of any conflict. Whatever internal conflict that Mark might have had is easily dismissed early. It helps not to bog the film down in depression, but it also frees the film from much excitement. He has a few hiccups in his attempts to survive but never does it feel like he’s ever really struggling. Even later in the film when his full-figured, muscular frame is reduced to a svelte and lean body, still one never feels worried for him.
The screenplay by Drew Godard only is ever dramatically interesting when it’s back on Earth. A chunk of the story takes place within the halls of NASA at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, and Jet Propulsion Laboratories in Pasadena, California. There are debates that occur about what to do and how to do it, up to and including whether to rescue Mark at all.
It comes down to a tête-à-tête between Jeff Daniels who plays Teddy Sanders, the Director of NASA, and Sean Bean who plays Mitch Henderson, a NASA supervisor. They go back-and-forth and have a kind of tug-of-war. They each at various points take risks and gambles, and seeing them as well as the various characters in the mix is intriguing.
Chiwetel Ejiofor as Vincent Kapoor, the Mars mission director, Kristen Wiig as Annie Montrose, the NASA spokesperson, and Donald Glover as Rich Purnell, a NASA astronomer, are all excellent in their small doses. The other five astronauts from the Ares III mission are played by actors who are also excellent in their small doses.
Jessica Chastain co-stars as Commander Melissa Lewis, the veritable captain or leader of the Ares III mission. It’s funny because Chastain also co-starred in Interstellar (2014) with Damon. They didn’t have any scenes together, but, at points here, the two perform similar beats as in last year’s space adventure. Damon isn’t villainous this time around but his character here is almost exactly the same as in Interstellar. Whereas Chastain isn’t Matthew McConaughey’s daughter this time around, she’s instead tantamount to McConaughey’s character in Interstellar almost exactly.
Kate Mara plays Beth Johanssen, an astronaut and technician, but her character is almost exactly the same or functions very similarly here as she does in the recent Fantastic Four. Michael Peña plays Rick Martinez, an astronaut, navigator and ex-military, but his character is almost exactly the same as his character in Fury (2014). The other two astronauts, Sebastian Stan as Chris Beck and Aksel Hennie as Alex Vogel, are more background.
Eventually, director Ridley Scott does engage in some outer space sequences. Scott’s previous films about astronauts, Alien (1979) and Prometheus (2012), have pretty much remained inside the ships or grounded on some planet, mainly because the antagonist was monstrous creatures. Here, the antagonist is terrestrial space, so what Scott does here, like his protagonist in many instances, he does for the first time and sadly he can’t compare or even come close to the visceral and immersive sequences in Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity (2013) or even the creativity and excitement of the death-defying, mid-spin interlock in Interstellar. Whether it’s people or vessels floating in the void, Scott is simply not impressive here.
This film is thrilling to a point and its science-thumping and science-proselytizing are admirable, but it falls short of previous works and recent, space adventures. I would recommend several episodes of Star Trek or Star Trek: The Next Generation over this, but it could be somewhat satisfying to someone needing something visual put in front of them.
Three Stars out of Five.
Rated PG-13 for some strong language, injury images, and brief nudity.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 22 mins.