The Martian, based upon the book of the same name by Andy Weir, is a story about hope, perseverance, and survival. The survival film is nothing new. It usually features a strong protagonist who overcomes adversity to conquer an unforgiving landscape. The last prominent example of this (or at least the Man vs. Nature narrative) was 2013’s Gravity, another survival film set in space; however the two films could not be more different. In Gravity, Sandra Bullock’s Ryan Stone survived through a mixture of luck and intuition. In the case of The Martian, astronaut Mark Watney uses the power of positivity and science (AWWWW YEAH!).
Mark Watney’s particular brand of positivity is humor. That’s right, in this year’s deluge of great, yet depressing (and sometimes borderline nihilistic) films comes a story that is equal parts harrowing and funny. Watney, despite nearly being killed during the sandstorm that prompts his team to abort their mission and evacuate Mars, remains calm in the face of his dire circumstances, steadfast in the fact that him being stranded is much better than him being dead. A botanist by trade, Watney quickly assesses a way to grow crops and generate water, effectively starting what will become a months-long effort of survival. Throughout the entire ordeal, Watney’s ingenuous and intuitive survival techniques showcase both his wit and inform the audience as to what kind of person he is. In the face of danger, he’s far more likely to make a joke than to panic and Watney’s infectious positivity makes the moments where he does falter that much more powerful. All of this makes Watney one of the most likable and memorable protagonists of the year.
After it is discovered that Watney did not die in the sandstorm, the film is split between his survival on Mars, his crew on their spacecraft, and the rescue effort being headed up on Earth by NASA. Despite a large cast of characters, each person’s role is clear and the smart dialogue and tight pacing make for an exciting film that never drags. Scripted by Drew Goddard, perhaps best known for directing and co-writing Cabin in the Woods, The Martian is a worthy adaptation of its novel counterpart. Though the science is understandably diluted (an extremely large portion of the book is dedicated to explaining the particulars of chemistry) the amount retained is certainly more than standard blockbuster fare, which is refreshing given the abundance of set-piece driven, whizzbang films that have come out this year.
Though the film is grounded in an excellent script, it is carried upon the shoulders of Matt Damon’s performance as Mark Watney. He makes Watney a guy you’d want to be friends with. His extreme intelligence never comes off as arrogant; instead Watney celebrates science and is thankful for his ability to use it in order to survive a planet that cannot support life (as far as we know). Damon is supported by many actors who make the most of their time onscreen, the most memorable of which being the ridiculously talented Jessica Chastain (A Most Violent Year, Zero Dark Thirty) as Watney’s superior, Captain Lewis, and the equally superb Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave, Love Actually) as Vincent Kapoor, the man heading up NASA’s rescue efforts on Earth. Let it be noted as well that the man, the myth, the legend, Sean Bean is also present and that (SPOILERS) he does not die.
The final piece of the puzzle that makes The Martian one of the year’s best films is its director, the legendary Ridley Scott. No stranger to science fiction (the man did direct Alien and Blade Runner, two of the most lauded science fiction films of all time), Scott reminds us why he is one of the most enduring directors of our age. There has always been a kinetic, tangible quality to Scott’s films, no matter their outlandishness, and The Martian is no exception. He, along with cinematographer Dariusz Wolski (Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, Alice in Wonderland), have created an aesthetically compelling, believable film with impressive effects that can stand side by side with last year’s excellent Interstellar in terms of visual spectacle and storytelling acuity (though admittedly The Martian tells a much more straightforward tale).
Finally, for some reason there seems to be a widely held belief that a director’s skills decline with age. Though some may produce less than sterling work in their later years, it is unfair to generalize and denounce a whole group of people simply due to their age. This year alone offers evidence contrary to that lazy narrative in the form of The Martian and George Miller’s, Mad Max: Fury Road. Artistry and talent are transcendent qualities and good storytelling will always be good storytelling.
That being said, The Martian is a wholly satisfying film that offers a compelling story, wonderful performances, smart humor, and a refreshing level of positivity. Hopefully this film, along with recent discoveries made by NASA (water on Mars!), will help reignite interest in space, interstellar travel, and the amazing, spectacular power of science.