Derelict spaceships. Chest-bursting monsters. Brutal mutations. In his past two trips to space, Ridley Scott’s (“Alien, Prometheus”) main aesthetic has been darkness, doom and fear of the unknown. However, in his newest film “The Martian”, Scott chooses to tell a triumphant tale of survival, courage and strength of the human condition.
“The Martian” follows a stranded astronaut on Mars, Mark Watney (Matt Damon), and his attempts at survival on the barren Red Planet. With four years until the next manned mission and a shortage of supplies, Watney must rely on his resourcefulness to make it off the planet alive.
The film wastes no time grabbing the audience’s attention with a heart-stopping cold open, in which Watney’s crew must evacuate the planet during a massive Martian storm. The second the storm begins to roll in, the scene intensifies each passing minute. Implementing incredible visual effects, beautiful cinematography and effective 3D, the opening scene is a contender for one of 2015’s best.
Screenwriter Drew Goddard does a fantastic job at maintaining narrative cohesion, following 12-14 different characters throughout the film while (mostly) avoiding a cluttered story. The first act is spent solely on Mars, following Watney’s immediate reaction to abandonment and attempts at survival. By dedicating a large portion of screen time solely to the protagonist, audiences are provided adequate time to connect with Damon’s character and understand the futile state he’s in.
When NASA becomes a character later in the tale, Goddard switches viewpoints for an extended period of time, devoting a large segment to their braintrust on Earth. Instead of attempting to intertwine the dual narratives, Goddard smartly splits the two stories into their own perspectives, allowing each story to breathe while building tension about what is happening on the other side.
Goddard’s writing also puts complete trust in the audience’s intelligence, providing hard science towards every step of survival Watney takes, opposed to glossing them over in a quick montage. This commitment to in-depth explanation during the first half gains the viewer’s trust, helping suspend disbelief when the on-screen science becomes more far-fetched in the latter half.
Due to the massive cast involved, most of “The Martian”’s characters are one-dimensional and only there to service the narrative. Thankfully, Scott fills these caricatures with all-star performers that include (but far limited from) Jeff Daniels, Jessica Chastain and Kristen Wiig. The actors provide the perfect amount of charisma and personality to their roles, effectively distracting from the fact that most of them have no real arc.
Relative newcomer Mackenzie Davis is a standout, portraying a Mission Control employee with a sense of normalcy that is absent from her castmates, who seemingly fight over their scene-chewing abilities. Davis’ performance provides audiences with a human presence that average filmgoers will resonate with far more than outrageous caricatures such as Daniels’ NASA Director.
Damon’s performance is undoubtedly impressive, carrying his narrative with monologues given through personal video recordings. Humor, such as one-liners, is used heavily during the logs, only about half of which work. When the jokes fail, they feel out of place for the character and his hopeless situation. However, when they land, the humor actually serves as a window into Watney’s damaged psyche. One good example is during a meal when he realizes he’s run out of ketchup, telling his camera, “I’m going to dip this potato in crushed Vicodin, and no one can stop me.”
Damon really gets his chance to shine in the second act, when stakes begin to rise and he must cope with the struggles of survival. He perfectly expresses Watney’s despair with minimal dialogue, expressing himself with tortured facial expressions and furious screams that come off as completely realistic to his character’s situation.
“I’m going to dip this potato in crushed Vicodin, and no one can stop me.”
The third act is the film’s biggest weakness, as it begins to intertwine the perspectives of NASA, Watney and his original crew. As the film nears its conclusion, Watney’s perspective is cut down and expedited to allow more space for his co-stars. As a result, his arc on Mars feels lacking of an emotional conclusion, barely showing the journey he’s been prepping for the entire time. The film tries to sprint to the finish line without properly sending-off the characters that are followed throughout the entire picture.
Dariusz Wolski’s cinematography is nothing short of gorgeous, displaying the barren Red Planet with a sense of beauty and terror at the same time. Standout shots are the birds-eye views of the Martian landscape, showcasing the mountains and terrain in crisp detail, helping portray the planet as a real environment to the audience rather than a digital creation. One awe-inspiring example is a shot following Watney’s rover driving down a canyon, with four massive tornadoes looming in the background.
Having used 3D in previous films, Scott seems to have really perfected the tool in “The Martian”, implementing it to provide emotional weight to his shots opposed to gimmicky approaches. During the opening evacuation, an overhead shot in the escape shuttle displays astronauts climbing a ladder while being bombarded by black debris. This is one of the most striking shots in the film, as the added dimension heightens the sense of extreme urgency among the characters.
Director Ridley Scott weighs an impressive skill at conveying tone through the soundtrack. The first half is almost entirely comprised of Harry Gregson-Williams’ original score, an epic and brooding presence that feels spacious and isolating. As Watney begins to reconnect with the outside world, Scott implements classic 70’s music to create an atmosphere of hope.
In its representation of space travel, “The Martian” is one-of-a-kind among recent space films. “Gravity” and “Interstellar” portray their space-travel programs as failing and/or flawed, while “The Martian” tries to inspire viewers with hope toward our future in the cosmos. NASA is portrayed as a constant force of hope and persistence, never giving up on their attempts to save Watney no matter how hopeless things become. This approach is a welcome change of pace compared to the popular trend of dystopian sci-fi.
Ridley Scott’s “The Martian” is an impressive, emotionally powerful film that outshines its flaws with an all-star cast, beautiful visuals and unique tone.