Ridley Scott's "The Martian", starring Matt Damon as astronaut Mark Watney, is a great film. It has earned a place on the list of best films of 2015.
I think the best thing about "The Martian" - if I have to pick one thing, and I am setting this random goal for myself, so I do - is that the sci-fi elements of the story are sure to satisfy die-hard fans of the genre but they are grounded enough to make even non-fans enjoy the experience. Yes, the story is mostly set on Mars, but it doesn't involve weird looking alien species or oddly named undiscovered planets or worlds. All the characters are human and we get so involved in Mark's story, his struggle to survive, that you almost forget he is stranded on Mars.
The story is divided into two different quests, both working together. We join the crew of Ares 2 on Mars as they collect biological samples. A fierce storm rolls in, threatening their vehicle. Martinez (Michael Pena) warns that if the vehicle reaches a certain tilt, they won't be able to use it. Captain Lewis (Jessica Chastain) orders everyone to return to the ship, but a gust of wind causes a piece of equipment to fly directly into Mark. Lewis loses his signal and fears that he is killed. Soon, the crew departs. The next day, Mark wakes up and realizes what has happened. He is alive and has to figure out how to survive with only a facility designed for a short period at his disposal. Eventually, he is able to make contact with NASA. Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Mitch Henderson (Sean Bean), the flight director, begin to coordinate the efforts of JPL and NASA to try to come up with a plan to save Mark. All the while, Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels), the director of NASA, and Annie Montrose (Kristen Wiig), the director of communications, try to assure the public that everything that can be done is being done. Eventually, NASA lets the crew of the Ares 2 know that Mark is alive. Lewis takes a vote and the crew, which includes Beth Johannsen (Kate Mara), Chris Beck (Sebastian Stan) and Alex Vogel (Aksel Hennie) decides to take an active role in helping to save Mark, a decision which increases their mission significantly.
Matt Damon’s Mark Watney is, effectively, alone for most of the film. He decides to record his observations and thoughts with a video blog and this provides our entry into his world. As soon as he recovers and realizes he needs to do something, he begins to solve the problem. He has to make a very limited supply of goods last a great deal longer than originally anticipated. He goes to work and figures out the science of everything involved.
This part of the film is very good and effective at showing one man facing a lot of adversity with a pretty darn positive attitude. As Mark goes about solving the problems, he uses his knowledge and training to ‘science the shit out of this’. Thankfully, the science is presented in a matter-of-fact way – it isn’t dumbed down and it isn’t explained in a lot of detail. It simply is. This helps us to become an active participant in his plight. We are forced to just accept that what Mark does and says is true allowing us to build a bond with him and to become even more involved in his story.
Strangely, there is not a lot of suspense, besides what is inherent in the situation, as Mark goes about his life. Because everything is presented in such a matter-of-fact way, it helps to make everything seem more real and authentic.
Yes, he has a couple of moments that are ‘problematic’, but he even solves those by figuring out the science.
But late in the film, the narrative presents a couple of dynamic shifts in Mark’s story. We watch with almost heart-stopping anticipation as the folks at NASA attempt to rescue the lone astronaut. These plans don’t go off without a hitch and you can feel your heart racing as you watch.
Part of the reason we feel so much for Mark is because of all the time we have ‘lived’ with him and the extraordinary depths Ridley Scott and his writer Drew Goddard (writer/director of “Cabin In The Woods”) have gone to to display his life alone on the planet. Everytime Mark figures out a new solution, we are there with him. Every time Mark faces a new problem, we are there with him as he "science the sh*t out of this". Spending so much time with him makes us invested in his life and everything he faces. When you begin to feel your heart race, you suddenly realize why the filmmakers have shown us so much of Mark’s journey.
The other half of the film depicts the work of the scientists at NASA and the people who run the organization. Jeff Daniels is perfect as Teddy, the director of NASA. At times the ultimate bureaucrat, he also recognizes that there are things that can be done and he expects the people around him to get things accomplished. Daniels shows us a great mix of both sides of this character and makes Teddy more personable and human than most depictions of this type of character.
Vincent Kapoor, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, is the senior man in charge of NASA missions. As soon as he realizes Mark is still alive on Mars, he jumps into action and starts to get the balls rolling to save the astronaut. If Teddy has a battle between his bureaucrat and human sides, keeping his emotions in check, Kapoor almost seems to wear every emotion on his sleeve. But Ejiofor is a very talented actor and makes this seemingly one-note character multi-dimensional.
Sean Bean plays Mitch Henderson, the flight director and he is all emotion. Benedict Wong plays Bruce Ng, a director at JPL who has the unfortunate task of building a rescue vehicle in an accelerated amount of time.
Kristen Wiig plays Annie, Public Relations Director at NASA. Wiig is building an interesting career for herself, filled with staring roles in broad comedies, starring roles in smaller, independent, extremely quirky comedies and small, supporting roles in prestige films. Annie doesn’t have a huge impact on the story, but she has a few key moments which Wiig handles in a pretty great way.
The relationship between Mark and his fellow astronauts is quickly and efficiently established. Later, when contact is reestablished and the rescue plan begins, these relationships come back to the forefront. Jessica Chastain leads the crew as the Captain. The group of actors does a great job of portraying the bond these people have, a bond forged by being together for such a long period of time. There are a few obligatory video messages from home, which are included to show their human side, to show what they are risking by traveling through space. These work, but we have seen bits like this before and these are more or less wasted time.
Scott, writer Goddard and the cast have created a thrilling space opera completely populated by humans. Because we have to work less to learn about a new planet or a new people, we can spend more time with Mark and the others. We can also pay more attention to the science presented. We can also become more involved in this near great film.