The Martian hits a powerful sweet spot: blending tense action, captivating science, and beautiful 3D cinematography into an emotional character story.
When a severe dust storm forces the Ares 3 crew to abandon their mission and evacuate Mars, botanist-turned-astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is struck by debris and separated from his team. In spite of increasingly hostile conditions, Ares 3 Captain Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) attempts to recover Watney but when the botanist's vital monitors go dark, and with the rest of her team still at risk, Lewis makes the tough call - commanding the Ares 3 crew to leave Mars. Hours later, Watney awakens, buried in Martian sand, and critically injured; yet, quick-thinking and an unflinching sense of self-preservation allow the astronaut to deal with the problems at hand.
Faced with unparalleled obstacles to survival and no clear path home, Watney digs in, planning to wait out his stay on Mars until NASA's next manned mission to the red planet arrives in three years. However, even if Watney can endure 1,000 days of isolation on an alien planet, the botanist must also overcome increasingly life-threatening hurdles as well, specifically: where to get food and water. As Watney prepares for an extended colonization of Mars, NASA scientists 30 million miles away begin to take notice of his actions - prompting the space agency to launch a rescue plan.
Based on the best-selling novel of the same name, from author Andy Weir, The Martian was adapted for the big screen by writer Drew Goddard (The Cabin in the Woods) and director Ridley Scott (Prometheus). For decades, Scott has delivered thought-provoking science-fiction stories for big screen viewing and The Martian hits a powerful sweet spot: blending tense action, captivating science, and beautiful 3D cinematography into an emotional character story - one that juxtaposes the wonder (and dangers) of space with an inspiring tale of humanity at our finest, not to mention most vulnerable.
Cinephiles who are also sciencephiles will find suspension of disbelief to be difficult during certain moments of the film but, even though Scott (and Weir) take liberties with science on Mars, The Martian is charming and exciting enough to ensure any transgressions are in service to making a better movie experience.
Taking a cue from similar tales of heroes stranded far from home, determined to survive, Scott imbues The Martian with a sharp sense of humor - to counter balance the horrors of Watney's ordeal. Like Castaway or Life of Pi, Watney's day-to-day routine is a mix of life-threatening terrors, mundane problems to solve, and moments of joy. Scott spends a lot of time explaining high-concept science ideas, equations, and engineering logistics, so that viewers understand Watney's circumstances at any given time; regardless, despite a significant amount of problem-solving montages and heady exposition, The Martian remains rooted in relatable human drama and emotional conflict - as Watney clings to life (and sanity) while NASA scrambles to devise the best (though still risky) plan for rescue.
Damon, for his part, is terrific in the starring role of The Martian. Weir's novel paints Watney as an inventive and humorous protagonist - a likable guy that makes the most of his admittedly bleak situation; as a result, Damon is a smart fit - ensuring that audience will root for Watney out of more than just obligation to the story's main character. Damon positions the astronaut as an everyman (albeit one with a genius-level intellect) - a layered and inspiring, but still fragile, human being who viewers, much like the fictional people of Earth within the film, will want to see returned home safely. It's an intimate performance through which audiences can revel in the joy of Watney's successes - just as every step backwards is a wrenching gut-check.
To that end, Watney's journey is only as strong as the mirrors on which Scott reflects the situation. Sporting an all-star cast that includes brief appearances from such folk as Donald Glover, Kristen Wiig, Sean Bean, and Benedict Wong, The Martian makes masterful use out of its supporting cast. Subtle scenes of character development establish the key players without bogging the film down in B-plots and nearly every single side character contributes to the film (and Watney directly) for a streamlined but still insightful narrative experience.
It's a testament to Scott's success that, even with Damon trapped on Mars, some of the movie's most engaging and memorable moments actually take place on Earth - especially as Ares Mission Program head Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Administrator of NASA Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) weigh the philosophical as well as empirical challenges of recovering Watney. Similarly, the grief, and later helplessness, of Watney's fellow Ares 3 crew members - played by Chastain, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, Michael Peña, and Aksel Hennie - is equally affecting.
Nevertheless, quality performances mean very little without smart filmmaking behind them. For that reason The Martian's success leans heavily on how Goddard, Scott, and Weir utilize their characters rather than simply who they cast. Certain characters are more successful than others, with a few outliers that aren't as layered as others; still, everyone has a thoughtful part to play within the film - paving the way for an exciting as well as emotional finale.
The Martian is playing in both 2D and 3D - along with large-format premium presentations (where available) - and, thanks to Scott's masterful skill at blending near-future science-fiction within a grounded real world setting, the film is worthy of upgraded tickets. Beyond the central character story, The Martian also features inventive sci-fi tech (like the Ares 3 ship) and stunning (though restrained) "action" sequences set in space and on Mars - with 3D visuals providing added immersion throughout. Penny-pinching viewers can get by without the 3D, but theatergoers who don't mind splurging on a premium ticket, shouldn't resist seeing The Martian in a premium format.
For some viewers, Scott's latest science-fiction film isn't likely to provide the same "event" theater experience as Alfonso Cuarón's stranded-in-space movie, Gravity. Regardless, Scott has produced an entertaining rescue-thriller film, that takes cues from classic man vs. nature stories to tell a unique tale of one person's day to day survival millions of miles away as an entire planet rallies to bring him home. Scientists and viewers who choose not to suspend disbelief will find a few hangups during their time with The Martian but, even if atmospheric pressure and gravity on Mars aren't accurately depicted, it's hard to dismiss the stirring story of humanity and triumph that Scott has delivered.
The Martian runs 141 minutes and is Rated PG-13 for some strong language, injury images, and brief nudity. Now playing in 2D and 3D theaters.
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