As a musician and writer with a below-average grasp of astrophysics, I’ve always believed that everything is better and cooler in space. Taking a coffee break may be nifty, but a coffee break in space? Now that’s something worth bragging about!
The Martian aims to support my well-researched and objectively accurate opinion about the awesomeness beyond our atmosphere. Based on the book of the same name by Andy Weir, The Martian is about Mark Watney (Matt Damon), an astronaut and botanist on a manned mission to Mars who, after a major storm, is left stranded on the fourth rock from the sun. Believing him dead, his crew members left without him, leaving Watney in a major pickle. The communications equipment on the team’s martian base was damaged, and Watney has to find a way to reestablish communications while surviving until a possible rescue can be performed.
Right off the bat, I like the “smallness” of The Martian’s story. Sci-fi films often exhibit “large” stories that span planets, galaxies, and even planes of reality. 2001: A Space Odyssey, Interstellar, Avatar, and Star Wars are prime examples of “large” sci-fi. The Martian, on the other hand, has a very narrow focus. Yeah, a huge part of the film’s story is getting a spaceship from Earth to Mars, but at its core, The Martian is all about Mark Watney’s struggle to survive and escape, finding a way to grow food on Mars, travel safely throughout the hostile martian landscape, and get in touch with NASA. There’s something refreshing about The Martian’s focused and single-character-driven story.
It helps that Mark Watney is utterly endearing. Lines like, “Mars will fear my botany powers,” and “I’m gonna have to science the sh*t out of this,” shape Mark Watney into a lovably dorky goofball. Plus, Watney has an entertainingly morbid sense of humor, making jokes about his seemingly hopeless situation. Matt Damon’s portrayal of Watney feels earnest and believable, and he definitely looks the part. He’s buff and handsome enough for a viewer to believe that he’s an astronaut of above-average attractiveness, without looking outrageously sexy, like an Abercrombie & Fitch model in space (if any of Abercrombie & Fitch’s higher-ups are reading this, get in touch with me, I’ve got a great idea for a new ad campaign).
The directing is strong as well, with an occasional Lawrence of Arabia feeling, as sweeping shots of the bleak Martian landscape hammer home Watney’s impossibly awful situation. Much of the film’s story is told through a video journal that Watney keeps, detailing his survival efforts. It gives the film an odd and interesting pace, as the audience often learns of events after they’ve transpired, as opposed to watching the film’s events unfold as they occur.
But not every feature of The Martian is flawless. Without going into specifics (can’t risk dropping spoilers), the ending of the film detracts from the otherwise tight focus on Mark Watney that pulled me in so powerfully. While other characters appear throughout the film, as scientists at NASA and Watney’s crew members do their damnedest to save his life, there’s always a strong sensation that Watney’s story is distinct, and occurrences apart from his tale exist solely to strengthen the story of one man struggling to stay alive on Mars. But in the film’s closing act, Watney’s crew members start getting in on the action, far more so than in the book of the same name. Like I said, I don’t want to risk spoiling anything for folks who have yet to see the film, but I have to at least bring up that, in the end, The Martian abandons its closely personal focus on Watney. It’s not a deal-breaker, but it’s a weak point nonetheless.
Though the film loses some steam towards the end, The Martian still stands as a well-written and well-acted thriller. Matt Damon is a great Mark Watney, Ridley Scott’s directing is spot-on, and the film’s obsessively intense focus on its main character is refreshing for the genre. Grab a few friends, pop on over to your local theater, and check it out. The Martian is truly out of this world
*All images from Fox