“The Martian”: a fantastic interstellar epic

rogerebert.com

Erin Bockenstedt, Staff Writer

Space is awesome. Even from far away, we can look up and see millions upon millions of stars, the moon and even certain planets. Great cinematic adventures have taken place in space, from the genre-shaking “Star Wars” to Stanley Kubrick’s visionary “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Space is a wonderful place to set a story because it has a fairy-tale allure to it. It is a place that is beyond our wildest dreams, yet is right above our heads.

“The Martian” from director Ridley Scott is an exuberant example of outer space being shown as something so close, yet millions of miles away. It is set in a close future in which NASA now sends teams to Mars every few years. Things that seemed like wondrous dreams in a time gone by are now a routine job. It is during one of these routine jobs that Mark Watney portrayed by Matt Damon is left stranded on Mars due to a dust storm, leaving his fellow crew mates lead by Commander Melissa Lewis played by Jessica Chastain, to believe him dead.

Watney tells a video journal (that he continues to use throughout the film, mainly for the sake of explaining things to the audience, although it is handled well) that he plans to wait for someone to come and get him, in the form of another upcoming Mars mission. So Watney must keep himself alive on Mars until then.

Watney, a botanist, plans to grow his own food using potatoes meant for the crew’s Thanksgiving dinner (although he keeps himself fed in the meantime by using extra leftover food, but it won’t last long). Showing the whole process by the way of the ship’s security cameras means that the audience is never confused by how Watney does things. The movie is extremely clever in these aspects, explaining things in ways that aren’t convoluted and dumb, and it doesn’t use heavy-handed exposition (a personal pet-peeve). The movie is rather subtle, letting you pick up on relationships and quirks of the characters simply through gestures.

If the movie had cast an non-charismatic actor as Mark Watney, the movie is destined to fail. However, they cast Matt Damon. Damon is a delight in “The Martian”, being extremely funny and relaxed without it ever feeling forced, and you effortlessly root for him. He has to carry this whole movie on his shoulders, and he pulls it off. This is award-caliber work from an already acclaimed actor.

The other actors are wonderful as well. The HERMES team, the people that accidentally left Damon, lead by the aforementioned (and great) Chastain, each get their own admirable moment as they head back to Earth on their ship. Others to note are Chiwetel Ejofor in a typically good role as NASA representative Vincent Kapoor, and Kristen Wiig, playing against genre as another NASA employee (although she has very funny lines). There are other actors I would mention but there’s just too many good ones. No character feels like a stock character, with the exception of Jeff Daniels’ Director of NASA Teddy Sanders, playing the “stuffy jerk businessman” role a little to straight (his performance is a low point and I was whispering expletives at him throughout his scenes).

The film is also a feat in its visuals. Mars feels like a very real place, thanks to the amazing effects. The scenes in space as we follow the HERMES are gorgeous, and the contrasting colors of blue and orange throughout the film are very pleasing to the eye, making for a comfortable visual experience even if you get nothing else out of the film (which I doubt).

If I had one problem with the film, it would be that the Mars scenes become a bit repetitive after a while. We see a lot of Watney’s daily routine but that was just it, it was routine. While Damon’s performance keeps things everything interesting, I was kind of begging for someone to just get him off the dang planet already.

“The Martian” is a funny, smart story of human survival. It is also a wonderful lesson of how humans can come together for something great even if they are far away from each other. Even when the film becomes slow, the ultimate payoff is worth the wait. It is a display of excellent performances, amazing special effects, and a really fantastic screenplay. Go watch this film, you will be better for it.

Final verdict: 9.5 out of 10

“The Martian”

Rated PG-13 for violence, language, and brief nudity

Directed by: Ridley Scott

Starring: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kristen Wiig, Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, Mackenzie Davis, Aksel Hennie, Sean Bean, Donald Glover, Benedict Wong.