The Martian Review: Innovative, Exciting and Damn Entertaining

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The Martian Review: Innovative, Exciting and Damn Entertaining

For those unfamiliar with the synopsis of The Martian, it’s a simple one to sum up. On a manned mission to Mars, the Ares crew are struck by a much larger than expected storm. During their attempt to leave the planet, astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is struck by debris and knocked into the darkness. His comms dead, and their one chance of leaving the planet about to tip, the captain makes the tough decision to leave him behind. Unbeknownst to the world, Mark is still alive. And now alone. On Mars. As he puts it, he has to figure how to “science the shit” out of his situation and stay alive long enough for a rescue mission.
The film, based off a novel written by Andy Weir, wastes no time in setting the events in place. Precious few minutes are spent with the crew going about their work before disaster strikes. There’s an old adage in film, “Don’t tell me, show me”. That can be applied two ways to this movie: For one thing, the crew all have great chemistry, but no time is wasted on explaining who is who and how long they’ve been together. We feel that and we see that, but we are respected enough not to have to be told that. From the moment Mark is alone on Mars, however, the reverse kicks into gear. It’s a credit to Damon that he remains so engaging despite the vast majority of his dialogue being explanatory about his actions. The book consists largely of Watney’s diary, which the movie cleverly substitutes for a video log for a more cinematic approach. It’s an example of a great adaptation from page to screen. Less successful are scenes where the actors are typing emails and reading them out aloud as they type. It half makes sense when the message is being sent on behalf of a group, but makes no sense at all when it’s just Watney on his own.
Back home on Earth, the boffins at NASA soon enough realise that Watney is alive, and set about trying to establish communications and figure out just how in hell they are going to rescue him. These scenes work the human spirit angle, aiming for the inspiration of just how smart humans can be. What they lack a little in is tension. While reading the book, the reader was often in the dark as to how Watney was going back on Mars during these moments, while in the movie we never really leave him long enough to be in doubt. It also leads to the most “movie” moment where a character literally says the words, “As long as nothing else goes wrong” before cutting back to Watney at a moment where you absolutely know something is about to go wrong. It robbed the movie of what should have been a shocking moment to the audience.
What is undeniably brilliant from start to finish is the cinematography. Never before has a lifeless planet looked so beautiful. Ridley Scott’s camerawork languishes over sweeping vistas of rock, dust and storms, allowing us to feel as isolated as our hero. As you would expect from the director of Gladiator, when it comes time to show the ugly side of survival, Ridley doesn’t flinch. An early self-surgery isn’t for the squeamish viewer, and the film is all the better for it. We see Watney’s teeth get dirty, we see his dramatic weight loss, we see his bruises, and we feel his pain.
None of this would matter if we didn’t get a great performance from our lead, and in this case Damon knocks it out of the park. He shows the full range of emotion one might expect when isolated on a lonely planet. This is a character who is cocky, a genius, but also facing the greatest challenge any one man might have faced. Damon changes gear brilliantly in a layered performance that can be talked about in the same terms of his best performances. It’s certainly one of the most wide-ranged of his recent years.
The Martian is essentially an old-school film with modern equipment. It’s a survivor story mixed in with sci-fi, with a heavy focus on the “sci”. It also manages to be incredibly entertaining while being harrowing. It’s a lengthy movie clocking in at a little over two hours, but it breezes with a forward momentum that makes the time fly by. It’s not a perfect movie by any means, but it’s not too far away from being great, either. If it makes one mistake, it shows things to work for Mark a little too easily. A 45-day drive in a rover passes by as if it were a five minute drive to the shops, but knowing Ridley Scott, I would think a director’s cut with an extra 20 minutes wouldn’t be out of the question. All that said, I can’t think of many demographics who wouldn’t enjoy this film. It’s movie-making at its most basic. Innovative, exciting, and damn entertaining.
Written by Mitch Grinter
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