It’s nice when a movie you hear good things about actually turns out to be good when you see it for yourself. That doesn’t always happen for me–possibly because I’m a contrarian at heart–so I’m glad that I liked The Martian.
By now you’ve heard of the plot: Matt Damon plays Mark Watney, an astronaut who was accidentally left behind on a Martian expedition and must now survive against the elements until another expedition reaches the planet. For this reason, Damon is carrying a lot of the film on his own two shoulders. He talks to a video log frequently as a means of communicating his thoughts and feelings about his situation, and as a way of working out how he is going to solve the various problems that come his way. These little soliloquies are pretty entertaining and funny; they are creative way of keeping us up to date on the plot; and they help make the picture a little less bleak than it might otherwise have seemed.
It only just occurred to me that Damon played a character in a similar situation in last year’s Interstellar. In that movie, he was also an astronaut trapped on an isolated planet, struggling to survive. (Spoiler alert) His arc in the film ended with him losing all hope, becoming sort of evil in the process, eventually turning on his rescuers, and getting his comeuppance when an airlock malfunctions.
Thankfully, Damon is way more likable here. His character is much more hopeful and proactive this time around. Whenever he’s confronted with a challenge, be it how to grow food or how to communicate with NASA, he tightens his belt and starts working things out. He never throws in the towel, so to speak. I like that. I also like the character’s sense of humor here, it’s sardonic but endearing. That’s not to say he never breaks down, we do see him get worried and frustrated and angry, but he never let’s that get to him or interfere with his goal of survival. This is an example of a kind of movie where the central character doesn’t have to go through any kind of emotional change or arc; rather he is an affirmation of an ideal (in this case, hope in the face of hopelessness), and the fun is in seeing him succeed against the odds. We really are rooting for him, and every victory he achieves, then, is quite satisfying to watch.
Of course, there are other characters in the movie. There is the crew of his spaceship on their return flight from Mars, and people back at NASA, who are all working to try and figure out a way to get him home. Such recognizable actors as Jeff Daniels, Kate Mara (already redeeming herself after Fantastic Four), Sean Bean (who manages to not die in this movie), Kristin Wiig, and even Donald Glover (yes, the Childish Gambino) have supporting roles in this movie; and all I can say is that every character here is smart and generally likable, and there’s no contrived cowards or villains on display. There’s a maturity going on with the characterization that is really appealing.
Between Watney’s logs and conversations with people at NASA, there is a lot of science discussion on display in this film; but the screenwriters do a good job of employing “show, don’t tell” in order to make it comprehensible for the non-science crowd. Again, it’s pretty easy to understand the general problems being worked out on screen, even if the underlying principles are a little dense. Like Interstellar, The Martian is a movie that tries to be very pro-science at a time of much philosophical discussion over what science can or can’t do and debate about what scientific ventures (including NASA) should be funded. I think the message here is more affective, though, than the one in Interstellar. It doesn’t beat you over the head with the abstract idea of science as much as last year’s film did, and it’s somehow more rewarding and motivating to see science get used here to solve problems that are more plausible (like getting an astronaut back from Mars) than ones of near fantasy like in Interstellar (I know that black holes and time bending and all that stuff is scientifically grounded, but by the time Matthew McConaughey is bouncing around in a fifth-dimensional tesseract, I feel like at least some scientific theories have been abused).
Sorry that I keep comparing The Martian to Interstellar, by the way, but given the subject matter and the time-of-year of release and that they both feature Matt Damon, it’s hard not to. I would make a similar comparison to 2013’s Gravity, but I have yet to see it. As a side note, I’m not sure why we’re getting all of these science-space pictures in the fall of every year, now, but I kind of like it; and as long as the films can continue to be sufficiently distinguishable, I’d like to see it continue for the foreseeable future.
If there’s one criticism I have about this movie, it’s that the ending is a little stretched out, in my opinion. One final problem manifests itself that has to be solved before everything can be okay, and, frankly, I would have been fine with it just having been removed from the film entirely.
With the optimism of the film’s characters and its feel-good message about science, it’s weird to think that this movie was made by Ridley Scott. His other science fiction films– Alien, Blade Runner, and Prometheus— were nowhere near this optimistic or comparatively lighthearted in tone; and those films raised a lot of questions about the abuses of science. Don’t get me wrong, he did a good job here, it’s just odd to think that he would make a movie like this. The message, I guess, is to never underestimate or pigeon-hole directors.
Oh, and the soundtrack for this movie, with a heavy emphasis on 70s music, is pretty good too. It’s always great to have an excuse to listen to all of David Bowie’s “Starman.”
Anyways, The Martian is a good movie. Go see it.