Review: ‘The Martian’, A Man Alone

The Martian final poster

The Martian | Ridley Scott | October 2, 2015

If you were stranded in a remote location, what would you do? Try to survive for as long as possible? Give up and die? Find a way to contact the rest of humanity? One kink, however: the remote location is Mars.

The Martian presents audiences with the quandary of Mark Watney (Matt Damon), the lone survivor of a heavy dust storm on Mars. He was part of Ares III, a manned mission to Mars, and the rest of the Ares team made it off the planet in one piece, thinking Mark dead. So it’s up to Mark to survive until the next NASA mission arrives using his botany and engineering skills and the supplies left behind.

As someone with an appreciation for scientific accuracy and science fiction, it pleased me to no end that The Martian hewed much closer to plausible science fact than the rest of the genre when it comes to space travel. That’s thanks to the novel by Andy Weir, which was for the most part faithfully adapted by writer Drew Goddard. The written logs in the novel are replaced with video logs, so there’s more showing than telling – if you overlook unnecessary text reading and Watney’s occasional narration and thinking out loud. The explanatory science is also breezed over a bit, but there’s enough of a mix of showing and telling to get the point across (how Watney manages to fertilize Martian soil, create water, and travel for prolonged periods of time in one of the remaining vehicles). Watney’s sense of humor in the face of possible peril helps. Additionally, there was a little more prefacing of the storm and Watney’s initial survival in the film (with a gripping surgery scene reminiscent of one in the noir He Walked By Night), as well as an epilogue that felt hopeful yet slightly unnecessary.

(from left) Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Sebastian Stan, Kate Mara, and Aksel Hennie portray the crewmembers of the fateful mission to Mars.

As for the rest of the cast, the character development is about as much as in the novel – both in regards to the rest of the Ares crew and the NASA and JPL ground teams scrambling for several months to find a way to bring Watney home. Captain Lewis (Jessica Chastain) is the most developed of the Ares crew, as she internalizes most of the blame for leaving Watney behind, but Martinez (Michael Peña) is a close second, thanks to his banter with Watney. The NASA and JPL crew, meanwhile, has Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a head engineer, facing off with Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels), the head of NASA. They’re backed up NASA PR head Annie Montrose (Kristen Wiig), Ares III mission leader Mitch Henderson (Sean Bean), analyst Mindy Park (Mackenzie Davis), astrodynamicist Rich Purnell (Donald Glover), and JPL head Bruce Ng (Benedict Wong), among others.

I initially had my qualms about the adaptation based on early casting announcements. The novel had a diverse cast, in terms of gender and ethnicity, and the casting seemed awfully white. Some of that may have also been my reading of the novel – as well as the white-washing of Exodus: Gods and Kings, Scott’s last film. Still, it was satisfying to see a half-diverse space-bound team (Chastain, Kate Mara, and Peña), as well as a mixed ground crew at NASA and JPL – all highly competent, too. My two big gripes here, however, are the reworking of Kapoor and Park. Mindy, in my mind, was totally white-washed, and Kapoor (Venkat in the novel) was Americanized and made the son of a Hindu and a Baptist, compared to what I perceived as more of an Indian-American background and up-bringing in the novel.

As for other gripes, the transitions between the Sols on Mars, the days and months on early, and the travel time on Hermes get a tad jumbled; it’s a little clearer in the novel. Watney’s survival and journey on Mars is a little less dramatic on-screen, but I would guess that was cut from the script for time constraints. (Yes, a nearly 2-and-a-half hour movie with time constraints.) The 3D, while atmospheric, is about as useful as the 3D in similar movies, such as Gravity and Prometheus. It helps to add depth to settings (the surface of Mars, as well as the Hermes station most notably) while slightly enhancing the feeling of being present in the film – so more subtle than aesthetically pleasing. Also, while the use of GoPro cameras for the journal entries worked, the use of GoPros as helmet cameras was a little jarring, given the movement and mounting.

In the end, The Martian is an optimistic thrill ride, filled with the hope and science of space exploration, and it’s a return to form for Ridley Scott, who’s going on to direct, among other features, Alien: Paradise Lost, dovetailing the Alien franchise with Promethus – as if it wasn’t clear enough.

Rating: 8.8/10