Movie Review: “The Martian”

Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jeff Daniels, Kristen Wiig, Kate Mara, Michael Pena, Sebastian Stan
Ridley Scott

Sir Ridley Scott has never been the most emotional filmmaker. Most of the director’s movies have been driven by atmosphere and themes, not so much emotion. But that’s not the case with “The Martian,” a thrilling, human and moving sci-fi picture that is easily the most emotionally engaging film Scott has made in a long time.

Astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is stranded on Mars. After a storm hits during the first human expedition to the planet, Mark and his crew are forced to evacuate. However, he gets hurt and separated from his fellow crewmembers, and they leave the planet without him, presuming their friend to be dead. But the charming “space pirate” and wiseass survives, and he has to find a way to communicate with NASA back home and create more resources to stay alive long enough to be rescued. Thankfully, he’s a botanist – and the best botanist on Mars, according to him – which comes in handy with his new mission: survive.

The movie is far from a one-man show. Scott put together one hell of a cast with Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels, Kristen Wiig, Michael Peña, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Mackenzie Davis and more. They all play a role in Watney’s survival. The film, based on Andy Weir’s novel of the same name, is about the effort to save one man’s life. It’s about more than that, but first and foremost, it’s an inspiring story about the brighter side of humanity. “The Martian” is refreshingly optimistic, without any hint of naiveté, about the boundaries humans are capable of pushing and the effort we’d hopefully go to for one life. None of this comes off as phony or insincere, either.

Daniels plays the head of NASA, Teddy Sanders, and he has reservations about saving Mark. What could’ve been played as a smarmy, solely PR-minded character is humanized; he considers the recourses and risks involved. Most of the time, Sanders speaks the truth, which isn’t always great to hear. In other instances, he just doesn’t have the same optimism as someone like Mark Watney.

Damon is fantastic as the astronaut. Drew Goddard’s (“The Cabin in the Woods”) script is hilarious, and the actor nails every comedic bit. He makes Mark incredibly likable, and not only because he’s an inspiring figure. The botanist has hope that he’ll survive, but every so often, he has to come to terms with the fact he might die. These emotional scenes are powerful because of how likable Mark is, and how funny the film is as well.

There’s only one comedic bit that falls flat, and it’s only worth mentioning because it’s the sole misstep that “The Martian” makes. Donald Glover plays a pivotal role in the movie, but he’s acting in a different film. Goddard’s script is sharp and witty, but Glover’s performance is too broad, and it’s more suited for a Roland Emmerich disaster movie than this story.

Everything else, though, is top-notch. The images that Scott and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski created are dazzling – intimate and grand, yet subtle. They depict Mars as a beautiful landscape, showing the audience why Mark loves what he does, and if it comes down to it, will die doing what he loves. It’s zero surprise that the film is dazzling on a technical level. Scott always knows how to tell a story visually, but this time he packs his images with real emotion. Although “The Martian” is 141 minutes long, almost every minute is thrilling to watch.