Mark Reviews Movies

The Martian


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Ridley Scott

Cast: Matt Damon, Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sean Bean, Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie, Mackenzie Davis, Donald Glover

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for some strong language, injury images, and brief nudity)

Running Time: 2:21

Release Date: 10/2/15

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Review by Mark Dujsik | October 1, 2015

The Martian is for folks who like their science-fiction stories to possess as much science as fiction. There's a lot of discussion of physics, orbital trajectories, rockets, atmosphere, gravity, and botany—yes, botany—in the film, but it's never dull. That's because the science, for the most part, serves the story, although there is a point here at which the reverse becomes true.

The film remains interesting after that, but the narrative becomes less engaging. It exists in a strange realm between telling a story and explaining the practice of theories, in which—depending on the circumstances at any given moment—the theory is the story and vice versa, with a healthy dose of lecturing and explanations of those lectures to boot.

Essentially then, the film, about an astronaut stranded on Mars, is a celebration of ingenuity that eventually arrives at and remains with a fairly ordinary structure. The film finds its greatest success in its most obvious challenge—how to turn a one-man show about survival via scientific problem-solving into something dramatically dynamic—only to stumble upon bigger problems just as it seems capable of conquering that initial challenge.

In other words, the story of astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) and his adventures in practicality is not enough for screenwriter Drew Goddard (adapting Andy Weir's novel), and so poor Mark, already deserted and alone on the Red Planet, becomes somewhat of a supporting character in his own tale. There is, of course, an obvious and practical reason for this. Once the film strands an astronaut on Mars, it becomes necessary to rescue him from there, and since Mark is helpless in this regard, given that he needs the limited technology and resources at his disposal for basic survival, it becomes necessary to bring in other people to solve this problem.

Those characters, back on Earth and in the vessel that brought Mark to Mars, become the focus of film's second and third acts. The way the film delves into the theorizing, planning, and execution of that attempted rescue, with its attention to scientific and political concerns, is admirable. It simply is not as involving as and, in a way, detracts from the immediacy of Mark's life-or-death struggle, as well as the potential to explore how such utter isolation would affect him.

At some time in the future (The film is smart not to specify a date, although we know it's the future from subtle imagery in the background—and the not-so-subtle fact of the premise), the first manned mission to Mars comes to an abrupt halt when a massive sandstorm approaches the team's base of operations. A chunk of debris hits Mark, and under the assumption that her crewmate is dead, Cmdr. Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) orders the crew (Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, and Aksel Hennie) to return to the ship and begin the voyage home.

On Earth, Mark is declared dead, but on Mars, we learn he has survived. In order to stay alive in the hopes that he might be rescued in about four years, he must perform self-surgery, take an inventory of the food supplies in the habitat, find a way to grow the remaining food he needs, and figure out some way to make contact with NASA.

This side of the story is fascinating, filled with little nuggets of scientific interest that Mark must piece together in order to keep himself alive (including the unassailable scientific constant that duct tape fixes everything). How does a person grow food when most of the foodstuffs are freeze-dried? Use the potatoes NASA gave them for Thanksgiving. How does one actually maintain a crop of potatoes on a planet with inhospitable environment? Build a greenhouse, of course. How does one solve the problem of a lack of water? Construct a water-manufacturing device from a rocket. As for the fertilizer, well, Mark produces that on his own.

As portrayed by Damon, Mark is a doggedly resourceful man with an appreciation for the absurdity of his situation. That sense of humor is key to the segments of isolation. Otherwise, we would simply be watching a man think and think—about possible solutions and seemingly inevitable outcomes. Goddard and director Ridley Scott solve the problem of explaining what Mark is thinking by having him speak to a video journal—hoping that maybe someday some people will watch it and especially hoping that he'll be alive to hear about it when they do. Eventually, he does contact NASA (with an ingenious form of communication using only a still camera), and Damon's most effective moment comes as he watches some text come across a screen—the overwhelming feeling of knowing that he is actually communicating with another human being after months of being alone.

The characters with NASA include the organization's director (Jeff Daniels), the mission director (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the flight director (Sean Bean), and the head of public relations (Kristen Wiig). Each of them has his or her own priorities, and they butt heads often in trying to come to some kind of agreement. These scenes keep in the film's spirit of holding science above drama, but something is lost. There isn't quite the same level of scrappy necessity as we get with Mark on Mars, and while the film points out that time has passed, the constant back-and-forth between Mars and Earth lessens the actual sense of that time passing, which would seem to be a vital component of Mark's experience.

The film might lose that sense of immediacy, but it's still more or less a successful tale of trial by fire and survival by resourcefulness. The science of all this is the main character of The Martian, and it's a compelling one in its own right.

Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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