Ridley Scott’s The Martian adapts the 2011 Andy Weir novel of the same name where a botanist is forced to find a way to survive on the desolate planet after he is left for dead. With the recent announcement of the high possibility of flowing water on Mars, what better time to review this film?
I haven’t read the novel so don’t know how faithful this film is as an adaptation but when viewing it on its merits as a film it hangs together really well. I had my reservations about it initially based on Ridley Scott’s recent less than stellar output but I’m glad to say I was pleasantly surprised here.
The story of a man in isolation struggling to survive against impossible odds is nothing new in fiction. Just look to excellent examples like Robert Zemeckis’ Cast Away to show that but the simplicity of the story is often what helps it to work so well. Man vs. nature is always a compelling story as it proves fascinating to see how people can dream up creative solutions to unorthodox problems.
The Martian is no exception in that regard with a story that never stops being compelling and a character that remains engaging throughout. This sort of role is perfect for Matt Damon as his on screen persona is often a little cheeky and good humoured in dire circumstances. His Mark Watney is constantly likeable and easy to root for as the film progresses.
I constantly found it fascinating to watch him puzzle his way through the numerous obstacles in his way and manage to increase his food supply while looking for ways to contact Earth to let them know that he is alive. The audience are allowed access to his innermost thoughts and feelings through various log entries he makes for the sake of his own sanity more than anything else. The film never waits long before giving the viewer a little piece of personality from his hatred of disco music to his various thoughts on what it is like to be the only living being on an entire planet. Damon’s charisma goes a long way to making this whole thing watchable.
While around a third of the film focuses on Mark using his wits to survive on Mars a lot of the narrative shifts to the efforts on Earth to bring him home. There is a fairly substantial supporting cast who all talk among themselves to puzzle a way to bring Mark back home. The cast are all great with Jeff Daniels playing the sardonic director of NASA and Chiwetel Ejiofor playing an idealistic figure desperate to help this stranded man out. Sean Bean rounds out this group representing the conscience that prevents them from doing things that would involve being dishonest to the people involved. Other characters come in and out of these scenes but I’d say they qualify as the main figures here.
Using the different locations helps increase the scope of the situation and keeps the tone very light as there are plenty of opportunities for levity among the different characters. The tone is never allowed to become too bleak which I found to be very important for keeping the story engaging.
The other members of Mark’s crew are represented here as they make their journey back to Earth over the span of the film. Jessica Chastain plays the firm but fair Commander Lewis with the rest of the crew made up by Michael Peña, Kate Mara and Sebastian Stan. These characters have their part to play in the story but receive the least development due to their role being largely unimportant until later on. The actors do a great job giving all of these characters plenty of personality, so much so that their lack of major development doesn’t really matter.
Using multiple perspectives and locations helps keep the momentum of the story running strong. There are very few lulls and when there are the time is used to help get into the mindset of the people involved so the 2 hour 21 minute running time is used smartly to move things along. I never really found any of the narrative boring and certainly never really felt any lag in the storytelling. Ridley Scott’s direction and Drew Goddard’s screenplay seem to have this whole experience paced pretty well.
When the narrative needs to build tension it does so magnificently. There are quite a few tense moments designed to have the audience on the edge of their seat and every single one of them lands perfectly. Mark is a character who the audience will care about surviving and the many obstacles to that happening feel appropriately significant at the time.
I would say that at times things do seem to happen a bit fast. Maybe it’s just me but I was very interested in the science of what was going on and at times this could be a little glossed over. There is plenty of technobabble to explain what is going on but there were times I felt that things could be slowed down a little to give a little more information about what was going on. It’s rare to say that a film of this length could have slowed down a little bit but this definitely numbers among one of those rare examples. At times it did seem as if there were too many characters to keep track of especially in the Earthbound scenes but this is fairly rare.
According to my research this film was made with close consultation with NASA in order to get as much of the science of space travel and the timescales involved as accurate as possible and it’s easy to see in the finished product. The film pays slavish attention to the scientific detail surrounding many of the solutions to the various problems. I find this refreshing to see an emphasis on science in science fiction.
In many ways this can be seen as something of a recruitment tool for NASA as the light tone and emphasis on science should inspire many a young viewer to hit the books and learn all about the science of space travel. Usually a recruitment ploy like this would seem nefarious but I believe in the space program and it needs more people helping to innovate.
Definitely worth a watch this one. It breezes through the 2 hour 21 running time with little sign of sluggishness anywhere. Let’s hope this signals a return to form for Ridley Scott but I can’t say I’m any more excited for Alien: Paradise Lost.
A moving and engaging character study of a man having to battle against all odds to survive in an inhospitable environment.
Pretty much everything about this film works but a big part of it is Matt Damon’s charismatic performance as the likeable botanist Mark Watney. It’s fascinating to see him puzzle his way through the problems he encounters using science and always entertaining to find out his musings as he keeps a personal log about pretty much everything.
Moving the narrative back to Earth or his crew making their return trip from Mars is a great idea as it stops the story from feeling too claustrophobic as Mark is alone on Mars. The increased scope with multiple locations allows the tone to stay light as people removed from the situation can make witty observations.
When tension needs to be built the film does this really well. There are many moments designed to have audiences on the edge of their seat and the film does a great job of putting these across. It’s a testament to how absorbing the whole thing is that these work so well.
If anything, sometimes the story moves a little too quickly when it might have been nice to slow things down to see a bit more detail on a certain procedure or solution to a problem. Some of the Earthbound scenes could have done with a few less characters coming in and out. These instances are rare but it does happen.
I dare say this film will inspire many a young viewer to learn about the science of space travel and rightly so. My inner science nerd was constantly engaged by the scientific focus of many of the scenes.
This film is definitely worth watching. It’s not necessarily an indication of a return to form for Ridley Scott but it is constantly entertaining throughout.