The Martian is one of those special sci-fi movies that perfectly offers a deft balance between great entertainment, celebration of human ingenuity, and raw, credible science. Both a feel-good survival drama and spectacular sci-fi adventure movie, The Martian is already an easy frontrunner for one of this October’s best movies, and easily the most unique and satisfying sci-fi movie experience since last year’s equally impressive Interstellar, which The Martian has some tonal and thematic similarities to, even if The Martian is definitely a more light-hearted take on the story of lost space explorers.
Realizing a novel like The Martian for the big screen is no easy task either. The story largely focuses on a lone man being abandoned on Mars, and having to survive entirely on his own wits and scientific knowledge. Fortunately, author, Andy Weir keeps the story interesting with a great sense of accessibility and good humour, and the movie adaptation, which is directed by sci-fi mastermind, Ridley Scott, remembers to do the same.
What could have easily been a dull, arrogant and masturbatory movie made for science nerds and the glory of NASA, instead becomes a movie that even the most unscientific mind can easily invest in and enjoy, so long as they’re willing to root for its charming protagonist, and trust me, that won’t be a problem.
The role of marooned astronaut, Mark Watney is no doubt a challenging one to rise to, since much of The Martian strands him by himself on an entire hostile, uninhabited planet. Fortunately, Matt Damon is more than up to the task, perfectly capturing the same sense of grounded vulnerability that Watney beautifully offsets with a determined, problem-solving mind, and a chipper sense of humour that keeps his sanity well in check.
Much of the source novel is done in an epistolary style that has Watney recounting the detailed science that he employs to survive for extended periods of time by himself on Mars, for far longer than his Hab (read: Glorified camping tent for astronauts) should be able to allow. Fortunately, this device is kept in the movie, though not to the point where it gets in the way of the story. Instead, each scientific moment is chosen very carefully, and Damon does a great job of making the science of the movie digestible, without feeling like he’s talking down to the audience. It also helps that he’s given a superb script to boot, which he realizes with a razor-sharp wit, leading to a lot of surprisingly laugh-out-loud moments, despite the harrowing circumstances for Damon’s protagonist.
Mind you, there is a supporting cast as well, and that comes from two different arms of the story. The first is Watney’s crew in their flying space station, Hermes, which consists of Commander Melissa Lewis, played by Jessica Chastain, chemist, Alex Vogel, played by Aksel Hennie, medic, Chris Beck, played by Sebastian Stan, computer expert, Beth Johanssen, played by Kate Mara, and pilot, Rick Martinez, played by Michael Pena. The second arm of the supporting cast is seen back on Earth, within NASA. This consists of NASA director, Teddy Sanders, played by Jeff Daniels (kind of funny, since Daniels starred in 1999’s My Favourite Martian), PR boss, Annie Montrose, played by Kristen Wiig, Mars Mission head, Vincent Kapoor, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor (this is the one slightly altered character, since he was ‘Venkat Kapoor’ in the source novel, among other changes), Hermes Flight Director, Mitch Henderson, played by Sean Bean, and mousy analyst, Mindy Park, played by Mackenzie Davis. Donald Glover’s science nerd, Rich Purnell also shows up around the halfway point to turn the tide of the movie in a big way.
The movie doesn’t spell out who these people are, but it wisely understands that it doesn’t have to. Instead, it allows their personal effects and dialogue to tell their backstories for them, allowing audiences to quickly and easily understand them all on a fundamental level, simply on account of how they respond to a difficult situation that seemingly has no right answer. Sure, the Hermes crew is probably played more idealistically than they would be in real life, with no debate whatsoever about being heroes when their time comes, but that’s ultimately a pretty minor quibble. Besides, there’s something infectious about their camaraderie, so this is easy to forgive.
The bulk of the movie’s drama outside of Mars however instead comes from NASA, which is the only place where the rescue of Watney runs into any complications, rather than the straightforward altruism and heroism that is portrayed on Hermes. This is where the drama is at its strongest, even amidst Watney’s struggles to survive. After all, as much as Watney faces inevitable challenges, he really only has one straightforward objective; Survive long enough for help to arrive. NASA however has to crunch numbers, consider PR, and do their best to make sure the world is behind them, especially when news of Watney’s survival on Mars inevitably goes viral across the globe, and the world waits on bated breath to see what the organization does next to bring Watney home, or if they’ll end up contributing to his likely doom.
Of course, none of that struggle would matter, had the entire cast of The Martian not been so excellent. Damon is a particular standout, having to shoulder the brunt of audience attention and entertainment single-handedly, and yet making it appear easy. There’s a whole lot of hard science in The Martian, but whether or not that’s your thing is irrelevant, since it’s very easy to get behind the characters, and especially easy to want to see Watney brought home as much as anyone else in the movie itself.
Again, The Martian could have very easily been a boring slog, but it avoids that fate quite nicely. Instead, the story, while uncomplicated on paper, taps into a fundamental element of the human condition, that being the desire to rally behind a cause for the good of one life facing an unbelievable challenge.
The story never really gets more complex than that, but that works to the benefit of The Martian. It’s tightly executed, focused, and doesn’t get distracted by any unimportant details. Yes, there are a lot of details in this movie regardless, but they’re all important ones, illustrating the politics of the people, or the true stakes of surviving on a hostile, uninhabitable planet.
It’s difficult to discuss much of the plot of The Martian without spoilers, since it is a movie that is best enjoyed when audiences don’t know anything beyond its premise, going in. I will say however, if you enjoy the novel that the movie is based upon, the movie follows the novel very closely and faithfully, only making minor alterations when necessary. Only the third act is changed up a bit, but even then, the science and general progression from the book are left intact, barring some added complications in the book that are removed in the movie, for want of keeping good pacing, especially since this movie spans a beastly 141-minute runtime.
A big strength in the story however is that it doesn’t feel as long as it is. The movie does such a great job of keeping your attention and interest that the time appears to fly by, and that’s the biggest sign of a movie that excellently realizes its grand ambition. The plot is very finely-crafted, engaging, emotional, uplifting, and even genuinely fun. It’s actually surprisingly rare that sci-fi movies make hard, grounded science feel genuinely cool, let alone fun, without any dependence on the flexible realm of fantasy, but The Martian does so, in spades!
Ridley Scott may have a more mixed catalogue in terms of quality lately, and his previous return to his bread-and-butter sci-fi genre, 2012’s Prometheus, drew more mixed reception than hoped. The Martian indisputably proves however that Scott is still capable of sci-fi directing masterworks, even without the advantage of Xenomorphs or Replicants.
Scott gives The Martian a fantastic sense of awe-inspiring scale, making Mars itself feel alive. This doesn’t come at the expense of the movie’s humanity however, with Scott wisely pulling back during the logging scenes, and simply allowing Damon to steal the show. You can tell that Scott nonetheless has a strong vision of humanity’s desire to look to the stars and achieve greatness however, in that he gets a lot of superb performances out of the actors, yet also gives them a sense of grounded wit and emotion. Scott is very careful to avoid The Martian feeling stuffy and conceited. Like the source novel, the movie is not afraid to embrace a self-aware dorkiness, and it’s not afraid to find the humour and courage in a situation that seems hopeless on paper, without ever truly swaying from its objective.
The heart of The Martian elevates it to greatness as much as the sets and high production values do. There’s something very real and beautiful about the movie, but it doesn’t come from the numbers or the science. It comes from the humanity, and even when so much of the movie takes place on a barren, uninhabitable planet with just one speck of life currently struggling to get by on it, that humanity is not lost. That simple, and yet infinitely complex idea is something that Scott understands perfectly, and that’s what makes all of his direction throughout shine in The Martian.
Both the movie and the source novel exhibit the running joke that Watney has nothing but disco music to listen to from his commander. Thus, composer, Harry Gregson-Williams took advantage of a great opportunity on this note, and borrowed some wisdom from last year’s mega-hit Marvel blockbuster, Guardians of the Galaxy, which covered its soundtrack with 80’s pop music, against tone and thematic presentation, and yet delivered one of the best movie soundtracks of last year. The Martian emulates this idea by putting 70’s disco music throughout its soundtrack, which also contributes to making the movie feel more fun and enjoyable, and embrace that self-aware geekery. There are still some orchestral tones that help the audience wait with anticipation, but much of the movie is actually silent, letting the empty atmosphere of Mars do the talking. This excellently sells the incredible sense of isolation that comes from being in space, and makes the movie more effectively immersive.
Of course, science geeks will no doubt notice that liberties are taken with sound in space, namely that there is sound in space for want of drama and entertainment in The Martian, while similar space survival movies like Gravity and Interstellar committed more to feeling realistic. The Martian’s science is entirely based on fact, and has been praised by astronauts and science pundits alike for its scientific accuracy in both novel and movie form, but it’s a bit less afraid to dress things up for want of feeling, “Cooler”, as it were. Still, the movie’s commitment to grounded science isn’t in question, and the sense of fun is very palpable, so it’s easy to forgive an audio suite that, while still awesomely powerful and realized, doesn’t concern itself as much with being perfectly true to life.
Even being based on hard, grounded science, The Martian is not wanting for spectacle. The desolate Martian landscapes are realized extraordinarily well, as are the various tools and space gadgets used by Watney and the other astronauts in the movie. NASA was even heavily consulted (this is actually mandatory for movies that wish to portray it in any form) to make sure that everything is accurate, and the commitment to making The Martian feel believable is exemplary, so long as you can reconcile the whole sound in space thing.
On this note, the movie is available to view in 3D, though sadly, not IMAX 3D, due to a deal made by director, Robert Zemeckis with IMAX Corporation for his biopic, The Walk, which releases at the exact same time as The Martian. This would appear to put The Martian at a disadvantage against similar movies like Gravity and Interstellar, both of which had IMAX options (and Gravity had IMAX 3D to boot), but only on paper.
In execution, the movie’s 3D presentation is actually outstanding, even without an IMAX 3D option, and is among the best 3D presentations that has hit the big screen this year! The 3D makes The Martian considerably more immersive, even if it takes a back seat during a lot of the NASA scenes on Earth. On Mars itself is where the 3D is at its strongest, with the lens effect of the video logs by Watney being far more pronounced, and the sweeping landscapes of Mars feeling far more grand and lifelike in scale, stretching seemingly endlessly into the void. Likewise, during the tense space travel sequences, and the initial Martian storm that first leads to Watney being stranded, waves of harsh winds, debris and other such objects get kicked all around the audience with alarming realism, making the more exciting sequences of the movie feel all the more engaging and cool to watch.
If you have any tolerance for 3D movies, I strongly recommend watching The Martian in 3D, as this is where the movie is at its strongest and most effective. The movie is still a visual marvel if simply viewed flat in 2D however, though you lose a bit of the immersion and excitement that is better realized in the 3D cut. It’s not a dealbreaker to see the movie in 2D, but if you really want the ideal way to experience it, you should definitely shell out the few extra dollars for the 3D cut.
The Martian is a triumph in every respect, whether it’s artistic merit, raw production values, scientific credibility, or even its sharp sense of humour. It’s a movie that could possibly be the rare exception of being even better than the source novel, trimming the fat and maximizing the entertainment value on the big screen, especially with the advantage of its incredible 3D presentation. Sure, it’s similar in tone and presentation to other recent (and highly acclaimed) space survival movies like Gravity and Interstellar, but The Martian effortlessly carves out its own niche of scientific ingenuity in the hostile reaches of the cosmos.
On the surface, this would appear to simply be a movie for science nerds, but The Martian is a movie for everyone, and it’s already standing as potentially October’s biggest must-see movie. The performances are fantastic, the story is straightforward, but effective, the visuals are excellent, especially in the 3D cut, and, while the science is grounded and credible, it doesn’t override the very human, very relatable core underneath it all.
As we see the value of one life weighed against extraordinary odds, we, the audience will effortlessly join the characters in the struggle to bring Mark Watney home, whatever the cost. Their struggle becomes our struggle, and any victories they achieve become our victories. The red planet may be the stage of this movie, but it’s not the star. The real star is humanity, specifically, our ingenuity, our will to survive, and our determination to stand behind one another for something greater than any of our individual selves. The Martian reminds us of what humanity has achieved, and is capable of achieving as we look to the stars, even when we are faced with incredible obstacles. The fact that it so fundamentally channels this into a survival story so heartwarming, funny and rewarding is something that will lift your spirits, and unlike so many other movies these days, The Martian will genuinely have you believing in a better tomorrow by the end.
Put simply, it’s a masterpiece of feel-good, awe-inspiring cinema.
- Damon's lovable, funny leading man
- Breathtaking visual design, especially in 3D
- Full of real science made accessible and engaging
- A bit similar to other recent space survival movies