‘The Martian’ review: ‘Cast Away’ meets ‘Apollo 13’ on Mars, to great effect

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October 2, 2015 by Hope W.

I haven’t updated in ages, and I have lots of draft posts waiting for the day I have time to edit them. But I just saw The Martian last night and I desperately want people to watch it, so I’m posting a quick review of the film first.

You’ll want to eat potatoes (baked, with ketchup, salt and pepper) after watching it.

Matt Damon is stranded and alone on Mars in The Martian.

Matt Damon is stranded and alone on Mars in The Martian.

I’m kidding, that’s not what the movie is about. (Though my urge to eat potatoes after it was very real.) What it is is an against-the-odds-survival-tale-cum-human-drama-cum-rescue-mission, where, like the rest of the world watching in the film, you can’t help but root for astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) to do the impossible — survive on Mars by “scienc[ing] the shit out of it”, and come home safely at the end.

Matt Damon has such a down-to-earth “everyman” look about him that he fits the role of Watney perfectly. (In contrast, Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway looked like movie stars playing astronauts in Interstellar. Ditto with George Clooney and Sandra Bullock in Gravity.) At first, he thinks he’s going to die, when his crew accidentally strands him alone on Mars, believing he was killed in the sandstorm they evacuated the planet for. However, after two days, he decides he won’t resign himself to his fate, and so he catalogues all his problems methodically and goes about solving them one by one with science. (Some of his failed experiments are wince-inducing, though funny in the “at least he didn’t die!” way.) He sets up a running commentary by vlogging his daily exploits and retains his sense of humour in the face of his difficulties — and that is what makes him especially likable. How can you not, when a man, whom despite facing insurmountable obstacles, finds smart ways around them instead of wallowing in the depths of despair?

Matt Damon in The Martian

Matt Damon as Mark Watney in The Martian

The ensemble cast make up the human-drama-cum-rescue mission rest of the film as they work together to find ways and means to bring Watney home. While a little one-note (because they all play variations of focused, “we-want-this-to-work” task-solvers), the distinguished actors, which include Jeff Daniels as the Director of NASA, Chiwetel Ejiofor as the Director of Mars Missions, Kristen Wiig as the Director of Media Relations and Sean Bean as the Hermes Flight Director (the space shuttle that the rest of Watney’s crew evacuated to and are on their way home on) make even these characters enjoyable to watch.

(Also, there is a sly reference to The Lord of the Rings inserted in a scene that Sean Bean is in. I wanted to squeal with joy in that moment.)

Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Sebastian Stan, Kate Mara and Aksel Hennie are the crew of the Ares 3 in The Martian

Matt Damon (Mark Watney), Jessica Chastain (Commander Lewis), Sebastian Stan (Chris Beck), Kate Mara (Beth Johansson), Aksel Hennie (Alex Vogel) and Michael Peña (Rick Martinez, not pictured) are the crew of the Ares 3 mission in The Martian.

The final rescue, when it takes place, is full of intense thrills too. There is a nod to Iron Man and floating scenes in space that remind me of Gravity (with a happy ending). When the rescue successfully concluded, I’m pretty sure I heard someone clapping in the theatre, though it ended quickly, as though the person suddenly remembered he wasn’t watching it for real.

The Martian shares similarities with human drama news stories which gain worldwide media attention, like the Chilean mine collapse and the miners trapped underground (also coming to cinemas soon in a movie called The 33), which is why it resonates deeper than most other action blockbusters. Most people have sympathy towards fellow humans in danger and want to see them out of it. The movie portrays its ideal of this goodwill towards other people’s well-being by having China’s and the US’ space agencies cooperate with each other to bring Mark Watney home, even though China would lose an important development in their space programme. (Whether this will happen in real life is a different question, but anything can happen in the movies.)

And that’s what this movie is celebrating: the tenacity, inventiveness and compassion of the human race. It’s so optimistic, uplifting and surprisingly humorous, especially for a premise that could have been very dark, that it’s no wonder critics are raving about it. Definitely Ridley Scott’s best film of the past decade.

Ridley Scott directing Matt Damon on the set of The Martian in Jordan.

Ridley Scott directing Matt Damon on the set of The Martian in Jordan.

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