You know, it isn’t easy being this salty. Seeing a mediocre or bad film usually leaves me a little leeway, with so much to criticize I can normally focus on the most glaring of the glaring issues, and avoid having to get too embroiled in serious analysis. While there are times when a film is really bad that reviewing it feels like beating a dead and currently putrefying horse, on the other side of that coin is Ridley Scott’s “The Martian,” adopted by a novel written by acclaimed author Andy Weir.
Our story begins somewhere in the near future, amidst the swirling, dusty chaos of a Martian sand storm. Our hero, Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is impaled by a piece of radio antenna in the frantic escape sequence and the rest of his crewmates, assuming him dead and running out of time to reach their orbiting spacecraft, must depart and leave him for dead. However, he doesn’t die, and in the ensuing months, he must struggle to survive on an alien planet while the members of his crew, the staff at NASA and an ensemble cast of engineers and astrophysicists struggle to communicate with him and find a way to bring back their abandoned comrade.
The film adeptly captures the feeling of what it must like to be truly alone, the brutish and beautiful Martian landscape, tinted red by a distant sun, reflects Watney’s isolation and determination, as he struggles to secure our most basic of necessities day in and day out. His fellow astronauts and NASA engineers face their own isolation, wracked with the guilt of leaving one of their own behind while facing the daunting challenge of reaching someone 140 million miles away.
Watney’s determination is actually quite fitting. Sandra Bullock’s character in “Gravity” always came across as surprisingly inept during her screen time, as NASA specifically grooms their staff to have a cool head even in the direst of situations. Damon fully channels these qualities in his immense screen time, doing his best despite all the gut punches of fate the universe throws at him, keeping his sanity with some well-written gallows humor in the face of impossible odds. The levity in the dialogue deserves notice, as the audience needs a pick-me-up in the film’s darker scenes. If all that impaled by an antenna and left for dead business from earlier sounds unsurvivable, you really have to see the punishment the screenwriters heaped upon poor Damon.
Aside from its narrative heft, the film shows a superb handling of its exposition, sound editing and camera work. Most of Watney’s plans for surviving his day-to-day interactions are conveyed via on-screen video diaries, most of which are never meant to be seen by any of his surviving crew during his dwindling lifetime. It works in the context of his character however, as he accepts that anyone who may learn of his struggles will arrive years if not decades after his death, and he leaves his notes as a sort of autobiographical epitaph, doing double duty by giving voice to his internal monologue while also explaining his scientific reasoning to the audience.
The soundtrack features a mix of both diegetic and nondiegetic music, be it Watney listening to the stations supply of disco music during his daily routine, or the dulcet tones of David Bowie’s “Starman” serenading the NASA staff as they prepare for their hail Mary rescue mission in a montage that was my personal high point of the film. The cinematography, as previously mentioned, shows a great amount of concern for the audience’s mind and stomachs, as it avoids the mortal sins of harsh jump cuts or shaky cam, favoring instead long panning shots that really show off the unobtrusive CGI and the cruel beauty of the Martian Acidalia Planitia.
The film manages to dish out both levity and melancholy, with one scene leaving me particularly bleary-eyed. Without trying to spoil anything, Watney leaves his final thoughts to his former captain, asking her to tell his parents he died for something “greater than himself” if he never makes it home. If anything, this is the central theme of the film, as space exploration is humanity’s last physical frontier, and the life or death of one man doesn’t amount to much in the pursuit of scientific advancement. Then again, the life of one man amounts to everything.
There is a lot more praise that I left out, but there’s only so much I can say about this terrific film in the space I have. I fear that anything I write won’t ever do justice to this movie’s artistry, and focusing on any more detail, no matter how large or small, will only spoil the film’s other wonderful surprises for any potential moviegoers. Just remember that I don’t give high scores lightly, yet there was never a doubt in my mind that this film deserved its perfect ranking.
I’m glad that’s over with. Now I have to watch something awful to get my groove back.
Rating: 5 stars