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[Note: This review contains mild spoilers, but nothing that will interfere with your enjoyment of the movie] 

THE MARTIAN

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It’s about damn time.

Time for what? Well, for the longest while science-fiction Cinema has been preoccupied with depicting mankind and the future in the most morbid, pessimistic way possible. If it isn’t aliens or machines out to destroy us, it’s us humans screwing ourselves over. Mind you, I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that, as the best sci-fi out there today also happens to be the bleakest (“Ex Machina”, the new “Planet Of The Apes” films). But wouldn’t it be nice to get something optimistic for a change? “The Martian” replies with a resounding YES. Here’s a film that celebrates the best of mankind, a film that says maybe we’re not so bad as a species after all. That our knowledge in science & technology is the reason for our success and salvation, rather than our downfall.

Speaking of overdue, I’m so happy to see Ridley Scott finally back in top form. I mean, this is a director who made one of last year’s worst films in “Exodus: Gods & Kings”, and whose form in the last decade has been inconsistent at best (perfectly exemplified in the highly divisive “Prometheus”). I’m convinced that the Ridley Scott of today needs very strong material to shine. In his early days, he was able to take so-so or troublesome material and elevate it to the level of greatness. “Blade Runner” and “Alien” are prime examples, and funnily enough these films are also masterclasses in pessimistic sci-fi. So when he came across Andy Weir’s best-selling novel, he knew right away he had to make it. His instincts have proven right on the money.


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The premise is simple yet catchy. NASA astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) and the crew of the Ares III are on Mars when a dust storm forces everyone to evacuate, minus Watney who is presumed dead and left behind. Now he has to figure out a way to survive for four long years on supplies that are only meant to last a month, while awaiting rescue. Think of it as “Castaway” meets “Apollo 13”.

The book, adapted with impressive faithfulness by Drew Goddard (more on that later), has provided the veteran filmmaker a rock-solid platform to showcase his considerable gifts as a visualist and master of the tight edit. A Ridley Scott film is always going to look absolutely gorgeous. But this time there is purpose to the beauty as well. The Mars environment, the sets, the space suits, and the vehicles may be a bit more Hollywood-ised than NASA’s purely utilitarian (read: ugly) designs would have them, but they all add up to visually tell Weir’s story even better than Weir could on the page.


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I’ve read the book, and while it is gloriously, unapologetically geeky and funny as hell, it’s not particularly cinematic. Scott’s incredible eye for detail plus his talent for world-building transports us directly to the surface of the Red Planet and keeps us deeply immersed in Watney’s fight for survival. You rarely find a science-fiction milieu as believable and tangible as this. It’s almost like a glimpse of what might actually come to pass in the future. In fact, there’s an alarming number of people who think that the film is based on a true story. I’m not kidding, look it up here.

Of course, a lot of that realism comes from the book’s extensively researched, real-world science. An even bigger pleasure lies in how the hero applies his knowledge of science to grow food, fix stuff, communicate with Earth, and generally not die. But here’s also where a written medium has the advantage over a visual medium. On paper, there’s ample room to explain exactly how Watney solves problems and in the process you get to appreciate the full extent of his intelligence and resourcefulness. On screen, you have to be sparing with exposition. The thing is, Scott and Godard tend to be a bit too sparing and err on the side of oversimplification, leaving some things unsaid or insufficiently fleshed out. Judging the movie version of Mark Watney purely on its on terms, he still comes off as a space-age MacGyver even if you don’t fully understand what he’s doing sometimes.


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By and large however, Goddard has done a fantastic job adapting the source material. He’s managed to preserve (most of) the brainy stuff while streamlining a lot of the narrative to make it more focused, more involving. That, combined with Scott’s disciplined editing — the man’s known to be ruthless in paring down his films into the shortest, most compact form possible — and you have a film that just flies by at a brisk pace. While we’re never in doubt as to the final fate of the hero, especially when the 3rd act basically reduces his challenges down to a really long road trip, Ridley plays it in such a way as to keep us constantly invested in everything that’s happening. No mean feat considering many scenes involve a bunch of tech people spewing technical jargon.

The other outstanding quality of Weir’s novel is the humour, and it’s made it into the film pretty much intact, barring a few priceless jokes that I wish they’d included. The book’s funnier, but the movie is hilarious enough on its own. It features one of the most awesome in-jokes of all time, thanks to a perfect casting choice coupled with a reference to “The Lord Of The Rings”. Trust me, you’ll know it when you see it, and you’ll probably bust your gut laughing as hard as I did.


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It’s a shame Matt Damon doesn’t take on more comedic roles, because he’s got terrific comic timing. More than that, Damon is the heart and soul of the film. He sells the admirable intellect of his character in a casually can-do manner, while conveying warmth and endearing vulnerability. The supporting cast don’t get as many opportunities to stand out, though they all deliver solid performances. Chiwetel Ejiofor and Jeff Daniels have a couple of strong moments playing off each other as NASA administrators butting heads over how to save Watney. I also like the Ares III crew, who somehow manage to feel like distinct individuals despite minimal character development. Jessica Chastain and Michael Pena are the most memorable of the bunch.

The movie’s good-natured vibe (further enhanced by the use of disco songs) is quite unlike anything we’ve seen from Scott before, and I have to say it’s quite refreshing. There are no villains here, mankind is shown working together to care for one of their own regardless of nationality or politics, people in positions of power are depicted as being good at their jobs (hey, this IS a work of fiction), and it’s a sci-fi film where [spoiler] no one dies! Considering it has Sean Bean in it, that’s saying a lot.


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And it’s certainly about damn time someone made a really good movie about Mars — and one that’s not a bomb (its opening weekend came close to breaking Box Office records). It stops just short of being great due to the script’s occasional reluctance to let the science shine through, and Ridley Scott’s penchant for applying a tad too much restraint in both storytelling and characterisation. Still, “The Martian” is a light, fun adventure that pleases the eye, engages the head, and warms the heart. More like this, please.

 

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Rating: 4.0/5 (2 votes cast)

10 comments

  1. Jake 9E

    9th October 2015 @ 1:38 pm

    Awesome movie! Good astronaut Matt Damon is better than Bad astronaut Matt Damon (Intersteller). Like this review too

  2. Matt Da Man

    9th October 2015 @ 7:41 pm

    MATTDAMON!!! MATTDAMON!!! MATTDAMONNNN!!!!!

  3. Ellis Steers

    10th October 2015 @ 3:27 am

    Quite honestly best book to film adaptation I think I’ve ever seen. Smart, uplifting and just all-out enjoyable. Matt Damon was excellent. Review is right about the book being funnier and having some killer lines – why did they not include the Aquaman joke? That killed me when I read it. Definitely go check this movie out people.

  4. Damn You Salazar

    11th October 2015 @ 2:28 pm

    I think you nailed it when you said Ridley needs good material to be good. He isn’t the most cerebral filmmaker, he is more of an artist who can paint beautiful pictures on the big screen. When you give him a strong script like Gladiator, Thelma & Louise or American Gangster he excels. Otherwise his movies are mostly just exercises in style over substance. Ridley lucked out big time with The Martian and he knows it.
    I love how the book went out of its way to make everything as true to existing science as possible but still knew when to take liberties for the sake of drama. Too bad it came before the discovery of liquid water on Mars. Would’ve been cool to see how they addressed that. Some of the movie’s humor sorta fell flat for me, and the middle portion dragged. The cast esp Damon created a lot of goodwill that kept the movie going for me. Nice review btw.

  5. Wai

    14th October 2015 @ 9:34 am

    Jake 9E: Damon was asked in interviews about the similarities between his “Interstellar” role and this one. He revealed that he’d been a little hesitant, but Ridley Scott said who cares, just do it. 🙂

    Matt Da Man: “Team America” fan, I see.

    Ellis Steers: The Aquaman joke actually made it into the film’s viral marketing video.

    Damn You Salazar: Joey Tribbiani, is that you? Thanks for the compliments. Like many science geeks, I was very excited by the confirmation of water on Mars. I think if it’d been known when Weir wrote the book, he might’ve used it as a fuel source, much like how he had Watney reverse-engineer water from Hydrazine and oxygen. Thanks for writing, everyone!

  6. Julian Dellamorte

    20th October 2015 @ 5:30 pm

    Yeah I know I was supposed to tell you my thoughts on The Martian earlier, having seen it weeks ago. But I got blindsided by work. I’ve seen it twice in fact and it’s one of my favorite movies of the year. Good observation about the rare dip into optimistic sci-fi, somehow the genre is prone to darkness and decay (of the human condition). I thought the cast was strong, though I’ve seen stronger performances out of them elsewhere. I’m not sure Ridley Scott is so much an actor’s director, and Harrison Ford will probably agree. You’re right about the book being funnier, a key reason why it was so popular. The main gripe I have would be that there didn’t seem to be any serious peril for Watney and even when he was facing possible death it was lightly glossed over and before you knew it he’d overcome it. But I liked him so much I was fine just following him regardless. The Earth stuff was a little more dry but I think they’re just less interesting than Watney so anytime it cut to them I was less engaged. Small nitpick anyhow. Loved the movie, enjoyed your piece.

  7. casca

    21st October 2015 @ 3:57 pm

    y’know, i like your review more than i like the movie. ridley did fine, just nothing too mind-blowing. and seems comedy could’ve been handled better, no surprise considering that’s not ridley’s strong suit. someone like jon favreau would’ve aced it. damon’s still great tho.

  8. Wai

    26th October 2015 @ 2:08 pm

    casca: Thanks. I think the comedy was handled quite well, even if the best gags from the book weren’t in it.

    Julian: Nice take on the film. But not entirely sure I agree with your view of Scott not being an actor’s director. I think he has his moments, and certain casts bring out the best in him and vice versa. He’s gotten some terrific performances out of his “Thelma & Louise” leads, and from Russell Crowe in “Gladiator”. He even got a solid showing from Nic Cage in “Matchstick Men”.

    gwen10: I think the film gave us a Watney whose smarts and wit were a little bit more dialled down than the book’s.

    e-Lena: Let us know what you think of the movie once you’ve seen it!

  9. gwen10

    22nd October 2015 @ 12:13 pm

    Thought this film was loads of fun. My only wish was that it showed off a lot more of the science. Watney was more than just the funny guy. he was the SMART funny guy. We didn’t see so much of the smart stuff. But still, a great movie.

  10. e-Lena

    24th October 2015 @ 9:27 pm

    Can’t wait to watch it next Thursday! (Yes… I haven’t watched it and its about time I do. )

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