October 13, 2015 by Zack
If we ever had an astronaut on Mars, I’d want it to be Mark Watney. Actually, nevermind that. I’d want it to be Matt Damon. Like in many “lone survivor” films, an appealing lead is vital. And here, Matt Damon absolutely owns the film and makes a somewhat agreeable film into a piece of outstanding entertainment. Fleshing out the attractive cast is the always faithful Jeff Daniels, Chiwitel Ejiofor, Kate Mara, Jessica Chastain, Sean Bean, and…Kristen Wiig.
The story, based on a 2011 novel by Andy Weir, is about a group of astronauts on a planned mission to Mars that gets thwarted by a major martian storm, sending them back to their ship to leave the planet. During the storm, Watney (Damon) gets whacked with a piece of equipment that partly saves his life, and his crew has left him behind. Being a botanist, he finds that he can grow his own food with the crew’s excrement, and ration food long enough for a rescue mission–he hopes. Meanwhile, the news has leaked back to planet Earth that there was a problem with the mission and someone was left behind. That story doesn’t sound enticing, and the head of NASA (Daniels) begrudgingly concocts a plan to help Watney out. The crew on board their ship Hermes initially does not find out about Watney’s fate, as Daniels’ character Teddy Sanders believes that they will want to go back and rescue him–putting all of their lives in potential danger.
So you have three subplots going on: Watney’s survival on Mars, NASA’s attempts at rescue and sending him supplies, and the Hermes crew once they do inevitably find out about Watney still being alive. Commander Lewis (Chastain) feels the most guilt about leaving him behind, being former military, but also knows the risks involved in rescuing him. The rest of the crew, including fellow astronaut Rick Martinez (played well by the always reliable Michael Pena), want to go after him and get him back.
NASA’s Mars mission director, Vincent Kapoor (Ejiofor), also wants him to be rescued. Ditto for the flight director played by Sean Bean. The outside influences try to force Sanders’ hand, but he stays on course with the plan to send a probe full of supplies to last Watney another few years before another manned space mission can be executed.
Meanwhile, Watney plods along. At first he cannot communicate with NASA, but then finds a way through an old device that was part of a 1996 mission. He has a few missteps, and he has a few catastrophes. It feels at times like “Cast Away” or “Moon”, “Gravity”, or “Silent Running” (which bears some similarities). But one thing that those films share that is missing in this script, by Drew Goddard, is a little more depth in Watney’s character. While Damon is outstanding, he is…who he is. I’d have liked to see some scenes of him feeling his loss, his isolation, like Hanks in “Cast Away”. He does have a will to live, which is a big theme in the film. It could be the most inspirational movie to be released that wasn’t based on a true story–that feels like one. Up until maybe the last 15 minutes, the film feels like it’s depicting something that really happened. There’s a lot of cheeky dialog, modern mannerisms and throwaway lines (that’s Goddard’s style, after all). But my favorite thing are the 2 references to old Infocom games: “Zork 2”, and “Leather Goddesses of Phobos”, which provide Watney with his only source of entertainment. That is, of course, besides Commander Lewis’ extensive disco collection, much to the chagrin of Watney.
The film is breathtaking, directed by the always reliable Ridley Scott–who is a visual master. It has a lot of tension, even though most of it is predictable. Again, the mark of a great filmmaker. Nothing ever feels out of place, and you do get caught up in the story, pulling for Watney and enjoying his wit as well as his perseverance. Some of it gets a little cutesy, but it’s forgivable. “The Martian” delivers what it promises. Its tagline is “Bring him home”. And this film certainly does.