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Lately, there’s been a trend of scientifically optimistic films, particularly ones involving space travel. The Martian is a welcome addition to this upward trajectory.
Based on the online-serial-turned-book of the same name, written by Andy Weir, The Martian tells the story of Astronaut Mark Watney, a member of the third manned mission to Mars, who is left for dead on the red planet after the rest of his crew is forced to evacuate. With limited supplies and no communication with Earth, Watney must channel his scientific mind and what resources he has into surviving until help can arrive.
The film, written by Drew Goddard (The Cabin in the Woods, Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and directed by Ridley Scott (Alien, Blade Runner) faces the unique challenge of taking a book that is half scientific explanation and problem solving and half sardonic humor and turning it into a blockbuster film. The humor survives impeccably, the dialogue remains just as witty and funny as the source material. And what else would you expect from a frequent collaborator of Joss Whedon’s?
The science takes a slight hit. It’s certainly still there, and the film is still very smart, but while the book, due to the advantages of being a book, takes the time to really tell what exactly is being done, the film just sort of goes ahead and hopes you will keep up. Clearly, having a limited runtime and being a visual medium, there was not going to be an in-depth explanation of the mathematics of seeding Martian soil with dehydrated feces, but a few more asides about what specifically is going on would have been nice. That said, the science is still all there, and I fully expect there to be more than a few members of the next generation of scientists turned onto the subject by this movie.
The cast is, for lack of a word, stellar. Despite being about a man being stranded alone on another planet, the film has rich supporting players. And while they are understandably a bit underwritten, due to the number of balls being juggled, the actors take these roles and inhabits them fully. From the crew (Jessica Chastain, Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan and Askel Hennie) to the ground crew with NASA (Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Sean Bean, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Mackenzie Davis, Donald Glover and Benedict Wong), every single character who appears on screen is a completely realized person.
And, of course, let’s not forget Matt Damon as Mark Watney, serving his second consecutive year stranded on another planet in a movie. Whereas the rest of the cast fills their roles, Damon elevates it. Not only is he the funny and charming scientist that makes it a joy to watch him fight for his life, but he brings a pathos to the role, the lack of which was a prominent complaint of the source material. Granted, he is aided by being in a format that is both third person and visual, but Damon still brings the character of Mark Watney to another level. We get to see how difficult it really is for him to carry on through this ordeal, how he struggles to cling to levity to keep him going. This all exists as subtext in the book, but Damon brings it to life, all without ruining the optimistic core of both the story and the character. “I guess you could call it a ‘failure’, but I prefer the term ‘learning experience’.”
That said, the stakes of the film feel a little lower than they could be. Sure, Watney is stuck in an absurdly inhospitable environment, but he masters that environment with ease. He suffers fairly few setbacks, despite the film’s two and a half hour runtime. Unlike a movie like Cast Away, which has a viscerality to the struggle to survive, Watney finds a problem, faces it, and takes care of it. That’s not to say that this still is not interesting and compelling, but it did not quite have as much impact as it could have.
The Martian is a rare film, one that should be cherished and encouraged we need more films like it. Films that go in interesting and new directions, ones that encourage the future. Here’s hoping that The Martian is only one of many.