Film Review: The Martian (★★★½)

martian_ver2As a huge fan of Andy Weir‘s novel of the same name, I was just as nervous as I was pumped for Ridley Scott‘s adaptation of The Martian. I’d loved the idea of filmmaker Drew Goddard writing and directing this film version, but when Goddard left (he’s still the screenwriter here though) and Scott took over, I was hesitant. After all, he’s a filmmaker who hasn’t made a great movie in a number of years, and this wasn’t the easiest material to translate. Well, I’m happy to report that The Martian is a terrific flick, one of the best that I’ve seen this year, and a truly faithful adaptation. Armed with one of Matt Damon‘s best performances in a good long while, Scott and company made this an exciting, fun, moving, and scientifically fascinating adventure. Damon is just one member of a strong ensemble cast, while Goddard and Scott make a better pair than you’d ever expect. A few changes to Weir’s book weren’t what I would have preferred, but they’re tiny issues. This is top five of 2015 so far for me, which is high praise, to say the least. Visually captivating, emotionally draining, and with a love of science that will rub off on many, this is something special. The highest praise that I can give The Martian? There will be future astronauts because of this film. I can all but guarantee that. It makes NASA and space exploration about as cool (in a still nerdy way) as it can possibly be.

The premise is simple…what would happen if we accidentally stranded an astronaut on the Red Planet? That human being happens to be Mark Watney (Damon), the botanist on a crew exploring Mars on the latest in the ARES series of missions. When a storm cuts their mission short, commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) has them heading indoors and get set to take off for Earth, but Mark is hit by debris and presumed dead. The crew departs for their ship, the Hermes, and back home NASA reports on the death to the world, with director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) breaking the news to reporters. A funeral is held, but Mark is still alive, merely injured. He heads back to their habitation area and almost immediately gets to work. Speaking to a recording device as much to keep his sanity as to provide a record of his attempt at survival, he has a laundry list of things to do. Chief among them is not starving, so he starts by figuring out how to grow food on a planet where nothing grows. As he calculates how to stay alive and perhaps even contact NASA, all done with a sarcastic sense of humor, back home the organization notices his movements on Mars. Beyond the public relations snafu, as expressed by Annie Montrose (Kristen Wiig), they have to decide how to and if he can be saved. Venkat Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) heads up the task while decisions are made about what to tell Lewis and her crew. It all builds toward an attempt at saving Mark, but can the incredible odds be overcome?

m1If you’re expecting this just to be the Matt Damon show, you might be disappointed, as this has a broader focus than something like Gravity. Think closer to Apollo 13, honestly. That being said, Damon is great, probably putting forward his best work in perhaps a decade. He’s funny, determined, heroic, and someone you just root for in a big bad way. The original text in the book and the script do some of the work for him, but without someone like Damon to pull it off, the movie doesn’t work. You need to ache for Mark Watney to live, and Damon gets that out of you. It’s not the type of role that wins an Oscar for Best Actor, but it definitely puts him somewhere in the conversation for an Academy Award nomination. Damon is miles ahead of everyone else, purposefully so, but most everyone gets a moment or two to shine. Jessica Chastain essays a strong female leader, which is always welcome in Hollywood, someone who is dealing with guilt over a hard decision she knew she had to make. It’s not especially showy, but Chastain is as reliably good as you’d expect. Jeff Daniels is pragmatic and sarcastic, but a steadying presence at NASA, while Chiwetel Ejiofor gets to geek out in an enjoyable way. Daniels and Ejiofor are our main secondary characters, so their dramatic gravitas goes a long way in keeping you from missing Damon when he’s not on the screen. Kristen Wiig isn’t just comic relief, though cursing is a big part of her character, as she gives another side of the situation some time in the sun. Also on hand in notable roles are Sean Bean as the one who trained the crew and is most actively advocating for one plan of attack, as it were, along with Donald Glover as a NASA nerd who might have figured out the key to saving Mark, and Michael Pena as a Hermes crew member closest to Mark. There’s also Mackenzie Davis, Aksel Hennie, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, and more, with everyone helping make this a success, even if Damon is the one who shines brightest.

You could argue that Ridley Scott hasn’t made a truly good film since the days of Black Hawk Down, but he’s sure made one here. His direction balances the comedy and drama weaved effortlessly through the script by Drew Goddard (who keeps the tone from Weir’s novel), while also expanding the scope. Scott has a luscious visual palate courtesy of DP Dariusz Wolski and a nonintrusive but engrossing score from Harry Gregson-Williams to aid him, but something just clicked with him. His confidence level is up, he’s having fun, and we see the evidence of why he’s considered one of the best directors out there. Goddard would have done something just as interesting had he directed, but his screenplay is still top notch and hopefully a player in the Best Adapted Screenplay field. I doubt that Scott winds up with a Best Director nod, but if he did score that nom, I wouldn’t mind one bit. He controls the pacing brilliantly over the course of slightly more than two hours and twenty minutes. The small issues I have with the flick include a tacked on final scene, an omitted obstacle for Mark on Mars, and a change in something during the climax, but all are effectively enough done in The Martian that it’s just my love for the book making me nitpick.

Without question, The Martian is one of the best pieces of cinema so far this year. It’s enthralling popcorn entertainment, but also a tribute to willpower and a love letter to science overall. It treats its audience with intelligence, but never winds up going over your head with its jargon. That’s a hard thing to pull off, but Goddard and Scott do it. If you think this sounds like a good movie and a showcase for Damon, believe me when I say it’s even better than that. This is a flick I will undoubtedly have on my year end Top Ten list. The Martian is one of 2015’s crowning achievements so far and an absolute must see film.

Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!