“The Martian” Movie Review

     “The Martian” is one of those rare films that feels complete in every way.  As if no stone went unturned and no detail left unattended.  It plays like the master work of a filmmaker who has found a way to successfully cull the experience of both his greatest triumphs and hisworst failures which results in something that feels unique, yet familiar at the same time.  Working from a screenplay by Drew Goddard (“World War Z”), adapted from Andy Weir’s novel, director Ridley Scott has created what is, perhaps, one of the most visionary science fiction films to grace the silver screen since his own films “Alien” (1979) and “Blade Runner” (1982) became cherished classics over three decades ago.  He has combined his flair for stunning imagery with a very easy to digest storytelling style in a film that is exactly the kind of feel good drama Oscar voters love.  Could “The Martian” be the film that finally pays Scott his due after being passed over in the Best Director category three times (“Thelma & Louise”, “Gladiator”, “Black Hawk Down”)? It may be a good bet.

     “The Martian” features an all-star ensemble cast that flourishes within the narrative style Scott employs in order to tell the story effectively.  What this means is even some of the most notable names go an hour of screen time between appearances, but their scenes hold such significance that they still have a memorable quality about them.  Matt Damon plays astronaut Mark Watney,  a crew member and resident botanist of the Ares 3 manned mission to Mars.  His commander, Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) is immediately faced with a difficult decision when they are warned by NASA of a deadly storm system heading their direction.  With the majority of the crew collecting surface samples, they are forced to abandon their mission early and leave the planet before the storm destroys their space craft.  Scott borrows from himself in this early sequence as the storm arrives and the crew attempts to walk their way back to their ship.  The glass dome like space helmets lit from the inside along with the visible rocks and dust swirling violently in the air will remind you of the difficult trek the members of the Nostromo crew made on their way to check out the location of the distress signal they received.  If this was meant to be a call back to his classic film, the remainder of “The Martian” serves as a sort of departure from the old and feels completely new and original from that point on.

     When the violent winds grab Watney and toss him into oblivion, the crew believes he is dead and escapes the storm by blasting their way into Mars orbit in order to hook up their home ship, the Hermes, and start their journey home.  Problem is, Watney isn’t dead and now finds himself alone on a planet with very little resources to ensure his survival and no way to contact NASA.  Damon is consistently brilliant in the role and rather than play each scene wearing the seriousness of his plight on his sleeve, he instead injects a noticeable comedic aspect into his character which results in someone who we want to cheer and root for.  This is important since there are numerous scenes in which Damon is featured on screen alone and it’s his ability to think and apply his training that creates someone we deem immediately likable.  The odds he faces seem insurmountable, but with each failure, he offers a solution.  He knows in order to be rescued he must survive for four years, yet he calculates having just one year worth of food.  In one of several ingenious plot devices, Watney turns his living quarters into a farm and using dirt from the outside, as well as rehydrating his own waste for fertilizer, he is able to construct both an irrigation system and an environment that allows him to grow his own potatoes.  And in a “MacGyver” meets “Apollo 13” sort of way, it all makes complete sense!

     When Watney eventually finds a way to contact NASA, revealing to everyone’s surprise he is still alive, the drama shifts to those in charge of determining the most expedient way of getting him home.  Of course the decision making process involves everything from politics to money with people in the room who represent the interests of both the government, NASA, and the Hermes crew.  Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) is NASA’s director and he must weigh various options presented by his upper level staff, comprised of Annie Montrose (Kristen Wiig) and Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), as well as the Hermes crew liaison, Mitch Henderson (Sean Bean).  They’re tasked with coming with a way to sustain Watney’s life on Mars until the next Ares mission arrives by sending a supply probe, but hoping nothing goes wrong with his other life supportingsystems during the year it will take the probe to get there.  While the ultimate solution is the one that should’ve seemed the most obvious from the beginning, it is nonetheless engrossing to watch unfold, as the final thirty minutes are as thrilling as they are gut wrenching, and yet Goddard’s screenplay still finds a way to keep the proceedings human with small doses of lightheartedness. 

     The two films which “The Martian” is destined to be compared to by most is Alfonso Cuaron’s Academy Award winning film “Gravity” (2013) and Chris Nolan’s futuristic space epic “Interstellar” (2014) if for no other reason due to the subject matter and recency of both.  While neither of the three share any resemblance in story and plot, they do display many of the go to visual tendencies for a reality based science fiction film in that the space craft, the equipment, and the overall set design depicts technology which at face value could be achieved today.  But that’s where the similarities end, as these films stand on their own merits when it comes to the power and thrust of their respective stories they are telling.  If anything, “The Martian” exceeds both by demonstrating a cohesive way to juggle so many personalities with the frame of Watney’s struggle to survive.  The characters aboard the Hermes are a dedicated bunch, displaying a team first attitude essential for a successful mission.  Astronauts Rick Martinez (Michael Pena), Beth Johanssen (Kate Mara), Chris Beck (Sebastian Stan), Alex Vogel (Aksel Hennie), and the aforementioned Melissa (Chastain) have a major impact in the film even as they head home unknowing that their fellow team member is still alive on the planet they desperately had to escape.  In fact, all of the ingredients are here when we speak of what can make a film truly great.  Scott has continually influenced countless filmmakers during his career with a long list of classic films, but sometimes the teacher needs to conduct a master’s class and that is essentially what he has done with “The Martian”, a thoroughly entertaining exercise in filmmaking craftsmanship and a group of actors performing at their peak during just the right moments.  GRADE: A