‘The Martian’ Review: Houston, No Problem We Got This

'The Martian'

Movie Rating:

4

Not many Ridley Scott movies can be described with words like “light” or “fluffy,” but ‘The Martian’ comfortably fits those terms in the best possible way. Undoubtedly, screenwriter Drew Goddard (‘Cabin in the Woods’) and the source novel by Andy Weir helped, but it’s still a little surreal to see the 77-year-old knighted director helming a movie filled with quips and even poop jokes.

Oddly, it suits him well as this is one of the most purely enjoyable films of his career. Plus, Scott being Scott, you know the glossy sci-fi visuals are second to none.

Things kick off on Mars (see title) where a crew led by Commander Lewis (Jessica Chastain) are forced into an emergency evacuation when a violent storm kicks up a fuss. Everybody climbs aboard the launch pod, with the exception of team botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon), who gets left behind and is presumed dead. However, the plucky astronaut survives and has no intention of dying alone on another planet. He plants a harvest of potatoes using the crew’s departed bio-waste (draw your own conclusions) to stretch out his supplies, and for the benefit of the audience starts recording an elaborate video diary chronicling his survival. He also digs up an old probe to contact Earth and soon has all of NASA working to get him back.

The first 40 minutes or so of the movie essentially sticks with Damon as a one-man show and works really damn well. Damon hasn’t been allowed to be this goofy on screen in quite a few years. It’s nice to see him get a chance to work his underused comedy chops in a survival setting. Scott and the visual effects team deliver a quite stunning vision of the red planet as well, mixing and matching techniques to create a vivid world that is both serenely beautiful and eerily threatening. Science lessons come along with delightfully quippy and fouled-mouthed dialogue to keep things bouncing along, and Scott’s handsomely mounted blockbuster style helps lend a deadpan tone to the proceedings that makes all the humor go down smoothly. It’s fun stuff and a fairly fresh spin on an old genre.

Once Watney finally makes contact with Earth, the canvas of the film expands considerably. NASA turns out to be run by a sarcastic Jeff Daniels, who feels like he walked across the street from the set of ‘The Newsroom’ (mostly in good ways) and seems to be about as concerned with maintaining NASA PR as he is in saving a lost astronaut. Chiwetel Ejiofor gets to represent the idealist perspective for NASA. Along with a team of eccentric scientists (played by Donald Glover, Mackenzie Davis and others), they get to work on a solution immediately.

The crew who accidentally left Watney behind also defy orders to help with his rescue, but even though they’re played by some big names like Chastain, Michael Pena and Kate Mara, they don’t get much screen time to develop satisfying characters. That’s the trouble with a movie that needs this many characters to function and spends the first half trapped with a single protagonist. Everyone else is going to feel a little underdeveloped. Goddard ups the quirks and quips to give them fun presences, and Scott has filled the cast with major talents who can at least provide the illusion of depth when they don’t have enough material for the real thing. So, it’s not as if all the faces on screen aren’t amusing. There’s just a point when the movie becomes a plot, visual effects and thrills delivery system. That’s all fine. This is a popcorn movie, after all. It’s just a bit of a shame that only Damon gets a fully formed character to play, but at least he plays the shit out of it.

The film has some other nagging issues too, such as a perhaps overly optimistic finale to force fuzzies on viewers and a subplot that feels like a Michael Bay-ian attempt to pander to the booming Chinese theatrical audience, but thankfully nothing comes close to being a movie killer. The bottom line is that ‘The Martian’ is a hell of a lot of fun.

Despite the deceptive prestige fall movie release slot, this is a straight-up popcorn-selling, crowd-pleasing blockbuster. The premise is simple, executed with style and welcome humor. The visual effects are stunning (often even giving ‘Gravity’ a run for its money) and the set-pieces can be bone-rattlingly intense (though ‘Gravity’ still reigns supreme there). The cast are all enjoyably quirky, no matter how underwritten the roles. The science lessons are unapologetically nerdy, yet easy to swallow. (There’s a big missed ‘Star Trek’ joke to be made about the final rescue operation and it’s a shock that Goddard didn’t see it.) The whole thing delivers big smiles and a sense of wonder about space exploration in a way that’s completely earned.

‘The Martian’ isn’t quite a new sci-fi masterpiece. It’s a bit too pulpy for that. However, it is one of the most purely enjoyable entries in the genre to come along in quite some time. It does so much so right that you might even think it hits masterpiece status before adding all the pieces up in your head on the ride home. The film is definitely worth seeing for its pure popcorn glee, just don’t expect too much more than that.

20 comments

      • Chris B

        Well, Josh has made it no secret that he thinks every movie Scott has made since Blade Runner has been garbage, maybe this one could change his mind?

        • I find the early reviews encouraging and would like to believe that this could finally be Ridley Scott’s return to form.

          That said, yeah, I have some skepticism. Several things about the trailers bug me. Admittedly, these mostly have to do with the fact that I read the book (or, to be honest, listened to the audiobook).

          1) What’s with the repeated playing of “All Along the Watchtower”? Is that actually in the movie, or just something for the trailers? In the book, there’s a running joke that the character gets stuck with no music to listen to except one of his crewmate’s disco collection, which he loathes. Is that in the movie, or did they change it to Jimi Hendrix? If they changed it, why? That song’s not even thematically appropriate to the material. It just seems like a complete non-sequitur to have that song play over the trailers.

          2) Aside from Matt Damon, who’s a perfect fit for the lead character in the book, I find Ridley Scott’s casting for the movie perplexing. Kristen Wiig and Donald Glover, really? And, if he’s going to put Kristen Wiig in it, he doesn’t have her play the weird and nervous satellite geographer, which would be right in her wheelhouse? Chiwetel Ejiofor as the Indian guy? The book has a young, sexy astronaut named Johanssen, which couldn’t possibly be a clearer note from the author on who he wanted for the part. Yet Ridley Scott casts Kate Mara?

          I don’t know. Maybe all of this works fine in the movie. I don’t want to be the guy who says, “WTF, they change a sentence from the book! How dare they? How dare they???” Still, it just seems odd to me.

          Also, although I enjoyed the book, mostly for its attempt to be a hard science kind of sci-fi, the story isn’t terribly rich or complex. It’s Apollo 13 meets Cast Away. When you hear that description, the story is 100% exactly what you think it will be.

          So, yeah, I guess I hate everything and I’m being a grump again. Whatever…

          • Chris B

            The first line of All along the watchtower is “there must be some kinda way outta here”. Given that Damon is stuck on Mars and trying to get home I guess they felt it was pertinent.

            I’ve never read the book so I’m going in cold but like you said all the positive reviews are encouraging and make me think this might be the end of Scotts losing skid (whether one thinks its only his last 3 movies or the last 30 years ;))

          • Phil Brown

            Hahaha. I look forward to hearing your hate, Josh. On the plus side, I can confirm that “All Along The Watchtower” is absent from the film. It’s an all disco all the time kinda soundtrack,

    • Phil Brown

      I did. The 3D is nice, but I wouldn’t say it’s shot in such a way that the movie could only work in 3D. So, go for it if you have the choice, but don’t feel like you’re missing out if a 2D screening is easier to get to.

      • Timcharger

        Saw it in a larger, premium screen (Regal’s RPX) in 3D with Atmos.

        Go big on this one. 3D is a nice bonus, but bigger is better. If the
        screens about equal, go 3D. Otherwise, choose the giant screen.

  1. cardpetree

    Ugh, was gonna go see this last night in our new Dolby Atmos theater but the wife derailed my plans with the whole “the baby’s not feeling good” excuse.

  2. Shannon Nutt

    Just chiming in with my own two-cents’ worth.

    This is my FAVORITE film (so far at least) of 2015, and the best movie Ridley Scott has made in DECADES.

    It’s super-entertaining, super-smart, and a huge crowd-pleaser…everything you want in a big budget epic. But more importantly, the problems in the film are solved with real science, something that we haven’t really seen since Apollo 13 (which this movie compares favorably to). There’s no bad guy here, no mustache-twirling villain back on Earth trying to ruin everything for everyone…this is about everyone putting their heads together to try and save this guy, and how can you not love a film like that?

    As for Philip’s gripes about the movie pandering to Chinese audiences, the China plot was part of the novel, so any complaints should be directed toward the book writer.

  3. Shannon Nutt

    Not having read the novel (my girlfriend has and relayed the info), that’s my understanding – yes. Although in the novel, I guess the Chinese were a little more reluctant about working with the Americans than the movie shows (the movie gets things settled in one short conversation).

    • I haven’t seen the movie yet. In the book, the Chinese scientists want to help the Americans as soon as they realize they can, but they have to convince their government about why that would also be a smart move politically. (It’s great PR to have China come to the rescue of the helpless Americans, and the U.S. would have to agree to include a Chinese astronaut on the next Mars mission.)

      I wouldn’t say this was a big part of the book. Maybe one chapter. Afterwards, the lead Chinese scientist laments that he had to sacrifice the mission that their rocket was originally scheduled for, which he fought for years to get off the ground and would have had much more scientific value than anything the 7th or 8th mission to Mars could find.

  4. Timcharger

    Phil: “It’s just a bit of a shame that only Damon gets a fully formed character to play, but at least he plays the shit out of it.”

    Nice. Well done. i can almost hear the disco music
    playing the background as you wrote your review.

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