Some of the very best films are those that are immersive experiences. You immediately know after leaving the theater that you have witnessed something special, and for anyone to even suggest otherwise just seems inarguably wrong. The Martian is one of the few films that I have seen this year that has left such an impact. It is at once a thoughtful, witty, intelligent, tense, and emotional experience, as beautiful in presentation as it is delightful in spirit.
The Survival Story
In the (potentially) not-too-distant future, mankind has extended their reach to Mars. A crew of astronauts is on the surface conducting experiments, when suddenly they are swept up in a windstorm, forcing them to evacuate the planet. Along the way, though, Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is hit by debris and is presumed dead. As a result, the remaining astronauts, led by Commander Lewis (Jessica Chastain), reluctantly leave him behind. As we soon discover, though, Watney survived the impact and is now stranded on the planet, with little supplies, a limited source of food, and no readily accessible means of contacting NASA or his departed crew.
The survival story is a common theme to many films. Whereas they used to take place mostly on Earth, though, within the past couple of years we have seen such stories extend even into space, such as in 2013’s very successful Gravity. And now, with The Martian, it seems we have gone even a step further. The strength of the human spirit is such that not even being isolated on another planet is enough to make someone give up hope, as long as they have the knowledge and the determination necessary to survive.
Whereas a film like Gravity was often stressful and dizzying, though, The Martian is just pure entertainment. The humor and lightness of it is such that it could be accessible to any audience. That’s not to say that it doesn’t have its gritty moments, such as when Mark operates on a wound or when a sudden incident occurs on the planet’s base. But even in those moments, the film never becomes too heavy to handle.
Alone, But Not Lonely
For much of The Martian, Mark narrates his story to cameras located around the Mars base, often making a witty remark about his situation rather than dwelling on the desperateness of it. An example is when he calls himself a “space pirate” due to his traveling to uncharted areas of Mars, or when he declares that he has officially colonized the planet and shouts out: “in your face, Neil Armstrong.” The humor of the character often reminded me of Aron Ralston from the film 127 Hours, who also narrated his story to a camera and shouted out funny quips in order to keep his spirits high.
Being the only character for much of the film, Matt Damon basically has to carry The Martian with his performance. His portrayal of Mark is perfectly aligned with the tone of the film, often switching abruptly from professional astronaut to sarcastic, even inappropriate one-liners. In one scene, he MacGyver’s up an old communication device, while in the next he conveys his disapproval of one of NASA’s decisions in some very colorful language, despite the fact that the entire world is being shown what he is saying. The character as written is one full of depth and charisma, and Damon admirably delivers.
Another aspect that distinguishes The Martian is that you get to see what is happening back at home. Once NASA learns of Mark’s survival, they do everything in their power to help him survive. Led by NASA director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels), and with the guidance of Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), among many others, it seems that the rescue of Mark has become their chief and only concern. It did, at times, seem excessive to see so much effort go towards saving one life, but such a quality is just part of what made the film so inspiring. We are able to see the whole world come together under a united purpose, which is a rare thing under any occasion.
An Intellectual Film For the Masses
The screenplay for The Martian is written by Drew Goddard, and is based on the book by Andy Weir. As I mentioned earlier, though the story itself may share some elements of other survival films (Cast Away or All is Lost come to mind), it is also more of an impactful experience due to its grander scope. Weir was even able to involve NASA directly with the film’s production, and though I probably couldn’t explain much of the film’s hard science myself, almost everything that occurs at least appears to be scientifically accurate. How fitting, also, that they were able to get Ridley Scott to direct the film, a director widely known for his groundbreaking visions in the sci-fi world (Alien and Blade Runner being just two prime examples). The Martian, despite its still fictional premise, is perhaps his most grounded and realistic film in the genre. There are no aliens or androids here, just a man on Mars trying to survive and make it home.
There are some lines that Mark states during his narrations that are wonderfully insightful. He makes remarks about how, while driving on his rover, he is the first person to ever travel to many of these places on the planet. He is literally the only living occupant of an entire world. Though it may appear to be a deserted wasteland, it is not seen that way through his eyes, and not as presented by cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, who portrays the red planet as barren yet starkly beautiful. Our own planet, with all of its hustle and noise, just seems excessive in comparison.
The Martian is a film that reminded me just why I go to the movies. I love films not only as an escape, but for the entire experience that they present. When done right, the experience can linger and stay with you even after you have left the theater. The Martian is everything that it set out to be: an insightful, inspiring, funny, gorgeous work, with superb direction and a very talented cast. Rarely does such an ideal balance occur, and rarely is it as entertaining as in Ridley Scott‘s latest film.
(top image source: 20th Century Fox)