Ladies and gentlemen, I can’t possibly overstate how badly we need this movie to work.
We desperately need this movie to break box office records. We need it to storm the Oscars and get some serious nominations, if not outright wins. We need this movie to be good enough and memorable enough that everyone’s referencing, quoting, and talking about this film for at least the foreseeable future.
Why? Because we so badly need more intelligent and thought-provoking works of hard science fiction. We need to inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers, not to mention filmmakers. We need to encourage Hollywood to take more chances and spend more money on great material that doesn’t necessarily come with worldwide brand recognition.
And last but not least, after a decade of flops, we need proof that Ridley Scott is still worthy of his reputation as a master filmmaker.
With all of this in mind, when I say that The Martian met my expectations, I want you to take that as incredibly high praise.
The premise is a simple one: Matt Damon plays Mark Watney, one of the first astronauts to set foot on Mars. Unfortunately, Watney is separated from his team when a freak storm blows through, and he’s marooned on a desert planet. Which means that everyone on Earth — and I do mean EVERYONE — is stuck trying to find a way of bringing Watney back home safely while he figures out how to be the first living creature known to science who’s ever survived on Mars indefinitely.
To get this out of the way, I sadly haven’t had a chance to read the source material, though nothing would please me more. I’ve heard from many trusted sources that Andy Weir’s debut novel is a mind-blowing work of hard science fiction that’s a delight to read, though I don’t know that for myself just yet.
What I do know is that the screenplay was adapted by Drew Goddard. I should hope that name sounds familiar, since he was the man who directed The Cabin in the Woods, and also co-wrote that film alongside frequent collaborator Joss Whedon. In that film, Goddard showed the ability to convey extremely complex and esoteric ideas in a coherent and economical manner, and he was also able to balance comedy with tension in such a way that the two complemented each other beautifully. Also, Goddard is indisputably a full-fledged geek. So basically, he was the absolute perfect choice to write this screenplay.
I was not the least bit prepared for how funny this movie is. There are a lot of laugh-out-loud moments to be found here, mostly by way of Watney’s sandpaper wit. It also helps that the soundtrack consists pretty much entirely of old disco tunes, which are comically sunny and upbeat by their nature. Moreover, the disco songs are an anachronism that help keep the film grounded — they’re retro and familiar songs being played in a futuristic and unexplored setting (see also: Guardians of the Galaxy).
Something I can’t possibly stress enough about this film is that in spite of the life-or-death stakes and the soul-crushing isolation that come with the premise, it isn’t all doom and gloom. On the contrary, the film never ever lets us forget that the only reason why Watney is in so much trouble is because he’s on Mars! He’s surviving on an alien planet all by himself, and that would be success enough, but he’s only surviving because he’s making all of these discoveries and inventions, doing things that have never been done before in the history of an entire planet. And if that’s not fucking awesome, tell me what is.
This brings me to another reason why the film works so well: Because it’s made to feel like we’re right there with him. And I’m not just talking about the dazzling 3D visuals or the jaw-dropping production design. More than all of that, Watney’s calculations and experiments are done in such a way that we the audience are made to feel like we’re solving a problem along with him. Which leads us to feel smarter and so much more satisfied when he figures it out. Not only does that make for a better movie, but it makes for a more convincing demonstration of why science is so cool. And that isn’t even getting started on the math and engineering that NASA is doing back on Earth, all of which is also shown in great detail.
Every single scrap of science in this movie is presented in a way that’s plausible enough to be real, complex enough that it really would take rocket scientists to figure out, and yet accessible enough for everyone else to follow along. It’s the perfect formula for convincing moviegoers — especially younger viewers — that given the time and motivation, maybe they could figure out how to do the impossible and push us further as a species.
That said, the presentation is hardly perfect. Though the narrative moves at a brisk pace through 140 minutes, and though the editing shows some remarkably clever ways to speed things along, there’s no getting around the fact that this narrative is supposed to unfold over several months. This means that certain developments that should take days or weeks are conveniently compressed into a few brief moments, and the plot does occasionally stumble as a result.
My personal favorite case in point concerns a certain maneuver that’s apparently so complicated that it required a direct uplink to the fucking NASA supercomputer for several minutes, just to confirm the mathematics involved. Then everyone afterwards says that they’ve made sure the math checks out, and I’m sitting there asking “How?!”
Incidentally, that maneuver comes to us by way of Donald Glover’s character, whose sole function in this entire movie is to come up with that maneuver. And he’s not the only character who acts more like a plot device than an actual person — the Chinese characters come immediately to mind, as do the NASA engineers played by Sean Bean and Mackenzie Davis. But on the other hand, these characters are being played by Donald Glover, Sean Bean, and so many other incredibly talented actors.
(Side note: I had no idea who Mackenzie Davis was before this movie, but she’s got a surprising amount of range. I hope we get the chance to see more from her before long.)
Of all those in the supporting cast, it was probably Watney’s team members that got the most development. We do get a few glimpses into the family lives and favored recreations of the characters played by Jessica Chastain, Michael Pena, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, and Aksel Hennie. And it was absolutely imperative that these characters all have some degree of depth, because that lets us buy into their to-hell-and-back loyalty toward each other. And of course, it gives us a reason to emotionally invest in the outcome, or we wouldn’t care if they died while trying to get Watney back.
The truth of the matter is that any development time given to the other characters would have taken away from developing Mark Watney, and he of course has to take priority. Plus, there’s the fact that every single member of this cast is more than talented enough to imbue their characters with more personality and depth that what they were given on the page. A fine case in point is Jeff Daniels, playing a character who so easily could have been dragged through the mud as the villain of the piece. Yet even he is clearly shown to be a reasonably pragmatic man with clear and valid justifications for everything he does, even in those few times when it might mean sacrificing Watney for the good of a mission that may be so much greater than any one person. And shit, I haven’t even gotten started on the work that Chiwetel Ejiofor and Kristen Wiig put in.
Really, when you get right down to it, all of the supporting characters are presented as tiny little facets of a single greater character: Humanity. The human race is its own character in this movie. The entire plot is about every single one of us coming together — across every kind of sociopolitical boundary in existence — in the name of something greater. This is about the wonders that we can discover, the obstacles we can overcome, and the marvels we can create when we set ego aside and focus all our energy toward solving one problem at a time.
As for Matt Damon, what do I really need to say? Guy’s a seasoned pro, with the ability to stay cocky and charming even as he puts himself through the wringer, but you knew that already. I’d put his performance here in the same class as Sam Rockwell in Moon, without any hesitation, and I mean that as a huge compliment.
All that’s left is to talk about Sir Ridley. Is this enough to say that Scott is back on his directorial game? Still too early to say. The guy’s got a lot of inertia to overcome, after all. I’m also left to wonder how much of this movie’s strengths are due to the screenplay, since this is easily the best script Scott has directed in quite some time. That said, there’s no denying that the action scenes are superbly presented, and I’m sure he deserves a lot of credit for the film’s ingenuity with regards to camerawork and editing.
But more than that, there’s a scene early on in which we see Watney tending to a garish wound, and I couldn’t help remembering that it was directed by the man who made one of the most iconic sci-fi gross-out scenes in cinema history. Come to think of it, Alien was a claustrophobic sci-fi movie with horror elements and a very pessimistic outlook on humanity, while this movie is a claustrophobic sci-fi movie with comedy elements and a very optimistic outlook on humanity. I’d be interested to try the pair as a double feature sometime.
To repeat my opening point: I know there’s no real way to predict which movie is going to make a billion dollars and become the next great cultural touchstone, but please, please let it be The Martian. And not just because it’s an optimistic film that encourages scientific interest and general faith in humanity while treating its audience like sentient adults. No, I would implore you all to see this movie because it’s just that damn good. It’s well-written and superbly cast. The drama is great and the comedy is marvelous.
Go see this movie and pay for every premium you can. Not just because it’s a gorgeous, smart, and entertaining movie that’s worth every cent, but because we need to send a message. If you want more movies that are this creative, this intelligent, this inspiring, and this incredibly well-made, then vote with your dollars and go see this movie. Please. I can promise you won’t regret it.