It’s been a while since two really unique and exciting things happened at once: A movie came along that actually used realistic properties and functions of science to explain its problems, and a great Ridley Scott film was made. Actually, this is probably the first time these two things happened alongside each other, and in the wake of Scott’s newest film, “The Martian,” neither could be more exciting to see take place. Although the past three years have seen the release of somewhat realistic space films, including 2013’s “Gravity” and 2014’s “Interstellar,” “The Martian” takes viewers through certain tropes with a new, heavily realistic spin.
Mark Watney is a botanist on a manned mission to Mars that goes awry. A storm hits his crew, and they’re forced to evacuate the planet as Watney is struck by a radio antenna and left behind, presumably to die. However, he makes it and vows to make it back to Earth alive, with or without NASA’s help. This is the basis for “The Martian,” director Ridley Scott’s adaptation of the New York Times-bestselling book of the same name. The movie runs on this simple premise: a sort-of “Cast Away” on Mars, albeit a little more dire since our hero is millions, not thousands, miles away. Watney is a cocksure character who has a ton of heart, and Matt Damon plays him perfectly. We never really think he’s too cute to be stranded, because there’s always a calmness to his actions – never a “look at me!” tone that bleeds through his dialogue. The balance of acerbic one-liners and emotional gait Damon gives the role, along with the eerily upbeat and electronic score by Harry Gregson-Williams, really makes each complicated explanation of how Watney is surviving easier to swallow.
Watney eventually gets help from his friends at NASA, played by a particularly varied cast. Actors and actresses such as Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Donald Glover, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Sean Bean fill out the NASA employees who act as the Earthly counterpart in the lengthy and thrilling journey of “The Martian.” They act as a suitable buffer against the “Survivorman” aspect of Watney’s scenes on Mars. Although the characters are played by well-known stars, those portraying them never get the proper chance to shine through with their own moments. Wiig is just there playing jittery once again, and Sean Bean doesn’t get much air to breath as most of his dialogue guides other characters to make choices that serve the plot. This extends to the crew that leaves Watney behind, including such names as Jessica Chastain, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan and Michael Pena, who get their moments to shine but are just there to say they’re there.
However, what really makes the movie enjoyable isn’t its star power but its blatant gushing love for science and engineering. When Watney uses real, completely valid science as a solution for how to grow crops, you can’t help but think it’s pretty darn awesome. The movie takes all these explanations and little discoveries in many doses, as most of the problems Watney and even the bigwigs at NASA encounter are solved through good old-fashioned skills and personified education. If you even have the slightest interest in science or engineering, “The Martian” is very much your cup of tea. It’s the thinking man’s space adventure movie, but not one devoid of thrills.
The film’s 3-D really takes the action-packed moments throughout to some cool places. While it’s not revolutionizing 3-D technology, the movie uses it in many smart ways, such as materializing the water Watney creates for his crops as tiny droplets it looks as if the audience can touch. Another sequence makes a startling explosion that much more terrifying and urgent by throwing debris at the audience’s faces. It’s the dichotomy between the hard-pressed logical thinking of the movie’s quieter problem-solving scenes and its few but very memorable and tense set pieces that make it a visual and intellectual treat.
Then comes the outer touch of the movie. Ridley Scott hasn’t made a movie like this in a long time: a really inspiring and roiling romp that combines two elements and great performances and makes it all work exceptionally well. Deep down, Scott still knows how to treat space-based movies right. “Alien” and “Blade Runner” are surely more atmospheric and moody offerings, but I think “The Martian” is a great version of a simple vision. Scott could have made another ghostly dystopian masterpiece, but he made a winning and intrinsically familiar formula into something that has so much of its own personality it’s hard not to give in and revel in its merriment.
Whether it inspires future careers in engineering or botany is one thing, but “The Martian” is a great time on so many levels. I feel that its release date is indicative of how it should be taken as a movie. It just missed the summer popcorn movie window, but it instills the same ideas on the outside while being insulated with a hardy and rational nature. What it does right, it really does right; whatever it tries that’s new, it conquers that as well, with a full heart and a level head.