Review: The Martian

The Martian (2015)
Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kristin Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Sean Bean, Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Donald Glover. Written by Drew Goddard (based on the novel by Andy Weir). Directed by Ridley Scott.

U.S. astronaut Mark Watney is stranded on Mars, presumed dead by his team who has aborted its mission and fled the planet. Watney figures his best shot for rescue is to rendez-vous with the next mission in four years, but he’s only got one year’s worth of food. What follows is a classic man vs. the elements survival story, but with the added element of serious problem-solving with life-or-death stakes.

Survival stories are great, but they tend to be one physical challenge after the next. In The Martian, Matt Damon plays a man confronted not only with literally alien terrain on a planet where he is the only human, but with a succession of seemingly impossible puzzles. In the face of one such problem, he explains in the video journal he’s keeping that he needs to “science the **** out of this.” Damon is a pleasure to watch as always, but the problem-solving by Watney, NASA, and the rest of Watney’s team perked me up and had me riveted through each of (so far) three viewings of this movie.

Damon is unquestionably the film’s greatest strength, but there’s a lot more to recommend it. The planet itself is a mind-blowing beauty to behold, mostly stoic and still, but menacing just by not being Watney’s home. The score by Harry Gregson-William is fantastic, communicating the stillness and loneliness of space while giving enough room for Damon to emote without manipulating the audience. This is what a film score should do.

Acting by others in the cast is solid. Jessica Chastain, Donald Glover, and Mackenzie Davis (whom I had not heard of until now) put in especially good performances. I keep forgetting how much I like Jessica Chastain as an actress.

Some viewers might think not enough is explained in this science-fiction: there are a lot of never-defined acronyms and some of the science is shown without any elaboration, as when Watney performs some surgery on himself using surgical tools I don’t think we’ve seen before. I’d argue that the film explains enough, and any more would bog things down. The film finds a good balance here, although I can see why some would disagree.

A very good film, one I will probably have to purchase because I can’t see myself tiring of it.


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